Outcry in India as journalist who exposed powerful land broker is brutally murdered the next day

Speaking to Sravasti Dasgupta, Shashikant Warishe’s editor pays tribute to a ‘fearless’ reporter: ‘He was not scared of anything’

Thursday 09 February 2023 18:42 GMT
Shashikant Washire, an Indian journalist, was allegedly mowed down by a powerful land baron in Maharashtra state
Shashikant Washire, an Indian journalist, was allegedly mowed down by a powerful land baron in Maharashtra state (Supplied)

The murder of an Indian journalist who was reporting on the affairs of a powerful land broker has sparked widespread outrage and concern for the safety of independent media workers in the country.

Shashikant Warishe, 48, had written a story about a controversial refinery project in the state of Maharashtra and the real estate broker, Pandharinath Amberkar, who was allegedly involved in acquiring villagers’ land to make way for the development.

Hours after the article was published, Warishe was refuelling his motorbike at a petrol pump in Rajapur when he was run over and killed by an SUV. Police arrested Mr Amberkar, 42, on suspicion of driving the vehicle and he has belatedly been charged with murder.

Warishe was the sole earner in his family and is survived by his mother, his wife and their 18-year-old son.

Sadashiv Kerkar, the editor of Warishe’s local Marathi-language daily newspaper Mahanagari Times, told The Independent he was a “fearless journalist” well known for his work covering the refinery project, but that no one had ever imagined he would be killed like this.

He added: “His work has consistently been focused on local issues, politics and he had done stories highlighting the plight of the villagers who are affected by the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical project. The villagers used to give him stories and inform him about developments in the area. He was fearless and not scared of anything.”

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Warishe had previously received death threats for his work. Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, called the reporter’s murder “shocking” and “absolutely intolerable”, and called for his killer to be brought to justice.

Mr Kerkar said Warishe had called him on Sunday with the story that is alleged to have cost him his life the next day. “I asked him if he had the evidence to prove it and he said yes, so we ran it,” Mr Kerkar said. That report carried photos that Mr Amberkar had shared of himself alongside prime minister Narendra Modi, state chief minister Eknath Shinde, and deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

The report asked questions about why a man who is known to be a supporter of the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical project was publicising photos of himself with the political leaders. The project, named after the Ratnagiri district in coastal Konkan, has been fiercely opposed by locals who risk having their land acquired. It was scrapped in 2019 but India’s federal government hinted at reviving the project last year.

In his report, Warishe named Pandharinath Amberkar and alleged that he had a history of criminal activity. It also alleged that he had a police complaint lodged against him for threatening locals opposed to the refinery project. Mr Amberkar was arrested after Warishe’s death on Tuesday and initially charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

Dhananjay Kulkarni, the superintendent of police of Ratnagiri, told The Indian Express that the motive behind the killing had yet to be established. “We have got [him in] custody and we will interrogate him to ascertain the motive as well as his profession,” he said.

On Wednesday, amid a growing public outrage among journalists and civil society groups, police said they have added a charge of murder against Mr Amberkar, who has been remanded in police custody by a local court till 13 February.

The non-profit People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was among those that condemned Warishe’s death and called for an immediate stop to land acquisition for the refinery project.

“PUCL [Maharashtra] believes that the killing of the journalist is designed to silence and intimidate all those who dare to speak up and to uncover the intimidation and land-grab that has been going on in the name of acquisition of land for the project,” it said.

The Mumbai Press Club on Wednesday also called for “severe and immediate action against the killers of journalist Shashikant Warishe”.

It also called for a wide-ranging probe to investigate “a possible conspiracy, which may involve corporate elements, to strangle the local opposition to the refinery”.

Paris-based RSF hailed police action in the case but highlighted the Maharashtra government’s failure to protect journalists. “Maharashtra is regarded as a pioneer in the fight to protect journalists as it adopted a law to this effect in 2017. Unfortunately, its implementation has proved largely ineffective. The murder of Warishe, who had received death threats, has underlined its failure to prevent violence against media personnel,” it said in a statement on Thursday.

The journalist’s killing has also been condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Asia.

Ratnagiri MP Vinayak Raut, from the opposition Shiv Sena party, has promised to raise the issue in parliament.

“The death is not accidental but a clear foul play and an attack by the land broker. I will write a letter to the prime minister and demand a discussion on the refinery,” he was quoted as saying.

Press freedom has seen a steady erosion in recent years in India. The World Press Freedom Index released in May last year saw India’s ranking dropping to 150 from the previous year’s 142, among 180 nations.

According to RSF, an average of three or four media workers are killed in connection with their work every year in India, making it one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a journalist.

Mr Kerkar said that Warishe had been with the Mahanagari Times for more than a decade and worked as a freelance journalist previously. “He [Warishe] never wrote anything without concrete evidence,” he said. “Neither me nor him could ever imagine even in our dreams that something like this could happen to him.”

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