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Why Gauri Lives On

We need to act against the deliberate erosion of the legitimate role of a free press.

A month after editor and journalist Gauri Lankesh was assassinated on her doorstep in Bengaluru, she remains alive in public memory. This is evident from the continuing protests and vigils across the country in her name. On 2 October, Gandhi Jayanti, and again on 5 October, to mark one month since her death, journalists, artists, activists, students and many others joined street protests, demanding that her killers be found and decrying the “murder of democracy.” Why has the killing of one journalist amongst several led to such a mobilisation?

Lankesh is not the only journalist to be killed. In fact, on 20 September, another journalist, Shantanu Bhowmick was stabbed to death while covering a demonstration by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) in Agartala. This year alone, eight journalists have been killed, although not all the deaths can be linked to their work. Yet, the Lankesh assassination has become some kind of inflection point. It has brought together a range of civil society groups, including journalists who are disturbed at the frightening increase in the numbers of lynchings, violent attacks and murders in the last three years by groups that are encouraged by the current political atmosphere in the country.

The central issue after the Lankesh and Bhowmick murders is not just a threat to the lives of journalists, but also a threat to the very meaning of a free media in a democracy. During the Emergency, it was clear that Indira Gandhi saw no point in allowing the press to function freely when, in her view, “the nation” was under threat. So, she used existing laws to invoke the Emergency and impose press censorship. Today, people are talking about an “undeclared” emergency. There is no direct censorship. Yet, what NDTV India anchor Ravish Kumar has called “The National Project for Instilling Fear” is serving the same function. Since 5 September, Kumar and several other independent-minded journalists have received threatening messages saying they will meet the same fate as Lankesh. At least one of the individuals issuing the threats has been traced and identified as someone who follows and is followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media. The latter has neither reprimanded him, nor struck him off his list. Such deliberate inaction, and the dominant narrative established by this government that equates dissent and criticism as an attack on “the nation,” sends out a clear message: that attacking people like Kumar, or killing “anti-national” journalists is legitimate.

At the same time, even if some journalists have received death threats, should they demand a special law for their protection? In April this year, Maharashtra passed the Maharashtra Media Persons and Media Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2017. The demand for such a law raises several critical questions in the context of a free media. Should a media, often in conflict with the state, ask for this kind of special treatment? When activists, like those using the Right to Information Act (RTI), are being killed just because they expose the powerful, why should journalists tasked to do just this expect special protection? Surely, the best protection for journalists, and activists, is a society that recognises their legitimate role of speaking truth to power.

What we also need to discuss is the erosion in the legitimacy of the adversarial role of a free media. This is happening insidiously—not as blatantly as United States President Donald Trump’s ­almost daily diatribe against American mainstream media calling it “fake” media. It began in May 2014 when Modi came to power. He made it clear that he would not address the media directly. He has not held a single press conference, only given exclusive interviews to a couple of sympathetic media houses. Instead, he has conducted a monologue with the Indian public through exhortations at well-publicised meetings, his monthly broadcast “Mann ki Baat,” and a plethora of advertisements in newspapers eulogising him and his government. Why is it that major media houses have not questioned Modi’s decision to avoid facing the press? Why is this considered a favour when it is the duty of an elected official to answer questions, even those that are critical? By exposing yourself to such questioning, you are telling people that you are accountable to them. By avoiding it, you are stating that you do not care what they think. Such an attitude is the antithesis of democracy.

In addition to a government that denies media the right to ask it legitimate questions, media freedom has been eroded in other ways, through takeovers of inconvenient media houses by businesspersons close to the government and the reining in, or even dismissal, of editors considered too critical of the government. The spaces for critical expression within the media have shrunk noticeably. Additionally, cut-throat competition in a corporatised media has undercut the possibility of solidarity amongst journalists on larger issues. Today, there are few effective journalist unions, press clubs are largely beholden to governments and private corporations, and only a handful of independent organisations bring journalists together. Given this reality, it is significant that the Lankesh killing has stimulated journalists to come out and protest. But, these protests must go beyond demands for the safety of journalists. They must also resist the deliberate undercutting of the legitimate role of the media as the counterpoint to the state and the powerful.

Updated On : 10th Oct, 2017

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