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Message in a Bullet

The assassination of Gauri Lankesh sends out an ominous message to the media.

The assassin’s bullets that killed the feisty Bengaluru-based journalist Gauri Lankesh on 5 September as she entered her home did more than kill her. They sent out a message to other journalists and critics not half as courageous as her who believe, as she did, that they have a right to question and criticise those in power, to dissent from dominant views, to investigate social evils, and to expose violations of human rights and corruption in high places—basically to do what journalists are required to do in a free country.

Lankesh was an outspoken critic of what to her were regressive and obscurantist forces working against the rights of Dalits and minorities. In her Kannada publication Gauri Lankesh Patrike, which she founded and built up after the death of her father P Lankesh (who had pioneered strong, critical tabloid journalism in Lankesh Patrike), Gauri Lankesh minced no words in criticising the powerful. She was a trenchant critic of the Narendra Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but was equally critical of the Congress government in the state. She had antagonised strong regional groups and supported individuals who challenged the government and the ruling party. From what we know, she had not received any direct death threats unlike the late Kannada writer and historian, M M Kalburgi who was also murdered, like Gauri Lankesh, by assassins who walked up to his house and shot him in 2015. He began receiving threats from Hindu militants as far back as 1989.

Gauri Lankesh’s killing has shaken journalists, activists and dissenters, and drawn many of them to protests across India. She was a prominent journalist having worked in English media before she launched her Kannada publication. She lived in a metro city, in an established residential area and not in a small town or an isolated suburb. She travelled widely around the state and participated in a range of activism even as she produced a weekly tabloid of which she was owner, publisher and editor. Over the years, she faced numerous criminal defamation cases of which she was convicted in two last year, filed by the BJP Member of Parliament from Dharwad, Prahlad Joshi and Umesh Dushi also of the BJP. She was planning to appeal the conviction in the sessions court. Yet, her visibility did not shield her from the gunman. It brings home the confidence and audacity of those who want to eliminate critics, not merely stall them in other ways.

Is there a message from the killers of Gauri Lankesh to the media in India? Until the face of the assassins is revealed, perhaps it is inappropriate to jump to conclusions. In any case, the Indian media is not overpopulated with brave individuals like Lankesh who are prepared to face the consequences of being troublemakers by raising uncomfortable questions and associating with unpopular causes. In fact, it would be fair to say that mainstream media in India is largely pliant and unquestioning, although there are a handful of honourable exceptions. Given the prevailing ownership patterns, it is virtually impossible for individual journalists to investigate or expose the powerful unless the owners agree. And considering the non-existent line separating corporate and political power, such an eventuality is highly unlikely. Hence, we see today an echoing of the dominant narrative on everything ranging from the economy to foreign affairs to internal conflict. Rare is the publication that sings a different tune. This is why publications like Gauri Lankesh Patrike stand out, because they are small and independent but clearly not insignificant. These small voices ring the loudest when the powerful want to bribe or bludgeon the media and critics into conformity. Yet, because such journals have no other backing, they are vulnerable not only to the might of the state, but also to non-state actors whom they might have antagonised.

While a bullet was used to permanently silence the voice of Gauri Lankesh, a far more common strategy used is that of criminal defamation. The cases against Lankesh did not dampen her passion but it is a tool that the powerful, both in business and in politics, continue to use against journalists and journals. It is time to revive the debate on this antiquated and intimidatory law. The Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the law in Subramanian Swamy v Union of India in May 2016. In his critique of the ruling, senior Supreme Court advocate Rajeev Dhavan wrote in the Wire: “The world is not flat but unequal with the powerful using litigation to silence and chill people. This is the true pathology of litigation, which V R Krishna Iyer so brilliantly encapsulated in his judgments.” Such a law that is used to silence critics should find no place in a democratic structure. We must remember that in 1988, when the Rajiv Gandhi government tried to push through the Defamation Bill, it was forced to withdraw because the media were united in their opposition to it. Perhaps one tribute to a brave journalist like Gauri Lankesh is for the media to once again unite and fight to abolish the law of criminal defamation. Her brutal death ought to be a wake-up call for all journalists. It is not just their lives that are at stake, it is the future of free and fearless journalism that is in danger of being eliminated.


Social Media Image Courtesy: Facebook/Gauri Lankesh

Updated On : 11th Sep, 2017


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