Angiography

Gauri Lankesh embodied the spirit of fearless journalism. She was killed for it

Her last tweets reflected the concerns on social media shadow-bans of activists, free speech and the plight of the Rohingyas.

 |  Angiography  |  12-minute read |   06-09-2017
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Cities are erupting in protest today all over the country as the chilling murder of Gauri Lankesh, senior journalist and editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, last evening, on Spetember 5, 2017, brought Indian media sphere to a boil. Delhi, Bangalore – her hometown where she was killed at her own doorstep, Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, Dharwad and in many other cities, journalists are holding up placards and asking for justice today. They are holding out the pictures of four faces together – Narendra Dhabolkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.

Obituaries are pouring in on media outlets. Lankesh’s death is the front-page news everywhere. Round the clock coverage of protests by journalists can be seen on TV channels today. Once again, one of us, one of the very best among us, has been felled at the altar of extremism, ideological violence has translated into violence on the body of a defenceless woman, who always held the pen to be mightier than the sword.

Throughout her journalistic life, Lankesh remained committed to asking the tough questions, while making no bones about the fact that “Hindutva walas and Modi bhakts want [her] in jail”. In several pieces written about journalists, especially non-English language editors, reporters, targeted and on the watch-list of Hindutva fanatics, or goons hired by sand, mining mafia in the southern states such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, etc, Lankesh’s no-nonsense views had been sought and quoted. In fact, she was herself on the list.

gauri_090617031232.jpgPhoto: DailyO

In a September 2015 piece by Geeta Seshu for the media watchdog, The Hoot, Lankesh has been quoted saying: “We’ve made a list based on how many times the Hindutva groups spew venom on us and how strongly”. She was talking in reference to the 2012 murder of journalist Linganna Satyampet, as well as the murders of Dhabolkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, whose killings have been linked to “Hindutva forces”, and in Dhabolkar’s case, the Sanatan Sanstha. Lankesh, who died with seven bullets in her body, including one in the forehead, joins the free speech and rationalism heroes she made a mission to make everyone of us remember, in her brutal death.

That was two years back. Last year, in November, Lankesh was convicted in a defamation case against a BJP MP Prahlad Joshi by a judicial magistrate. This conviction, which was highly questionable in the first place and which the fearless journalist was ready to take to higher courts because she was simply indomitable, was however, used by the BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya to say “other journalists take note”.

In fact, the tweet by Malviya still is intact and is being quoted since yesterday as an example of how hardly-subtle intimidation tactics are used as a systemic strategy by the ruling regime’s online hydra, from the head to the anonymous trolls.

It has been often noted how the online abetment of violence, particularly against women and vocally secular journalists, is intimately connected to the violence on the streets, violence on the bodies of citizens, particularly those intervening in debates and questioning the ruling regime’s narrow, partisan views on religion, caste, and welfare policies. Lankesh was a vocal critic of the digital strategy of the BJP and its affiliated Hindutva trolls, many of whom spew noxious venom online and (are rewarded) are followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. This is something journalist Swati Chaturvedi exposed at length in her book, I Am A Troll.

 Lankesh was, however, not the one to be cowed down by even the terrifying conviction in the criminal defamation case, a law so archaic and undemocratic that its very presence makes it a dangerous symbol for these ominous times. Nevertheless, she decided to laugh off the fact that she was “trending” on social media the day she became the victim of the sickening defamation law.

One of the most moving obituaries in the memory of Gauri Lankesh has come from her old friend and former colleague VVP Sharma, who wrote she “would have looked the bullet in the eye”. Sharma reminisces how Lankesh had opened up her Defence Colony flat to host a party for the Sharma newlyweds in 1987, and had reunited with him during her stint at Headlines Today (now India Today TV).  

It’s a beautiful, personal piece of camaraderie across ages, across cities and decades. Sharma writes:

“We’d talk politics, sociology, economics. I’d talk of breaking news and she’d raise her eyebrows. What the hell’s that? Oh, nothing really but it is any information that we think only our channel has, I’d tell her. Why should the anchors have so much make-up, she’d wonder. What has that got to do with news? Wonder why all anchors happen to be fair, with dark hair and long eyelashes? Her wonderment never ceased as she digested surprise after surprise in a Delhi TV newsroom. She was politically sound. Politically correct. Intuitive. Law was something else she understood. That’d give her some mental strength a few years later when two members of Parliament would drag her to court. Gauri liked kids on the block. Straight for the slaughter, she’d amuse herself as the editor or whoever gave a tongue-lashing to the interns. She’d spend time with them. Explain the rudiments of journalism. Try re-write their copy or point out the errors in visual sequencing. She knew a lot about TV production.”

Senior journalist Pallavi Ghosh too remembers Lankesh as a great mentor. Ghosh writes:

“Gauri has been one of my life’s biggest teachings. Drop a story but never compromise on your credibility, she would keep on repeating. It has stayed with me all these years. She’d also joke around on how we should not trust sources. “Always cross check,” she’d say.Whatever I know of journalism has, to a great degree, come from her. I can never match up to her skills or her courage. But, I can proudly say that we bonded over our mutual love for gardening. When she wouldn’t be guiding me on my next story, we’d be discussing the next plant to nurture (and) other gardening tips.She was everything you could hope for in a journalist. And for a rookie like me back then, I looked up to her. I still do.”

As Lankesh is being remembered for her frank and sharp analysis, her staunch opposition to communalism, “forces of Hindutva” – basically what took her life, it’s not going unnoticed how and what turned out to be her last moments, she was thinking of others. Be it Rohingya Muslims facing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and living in the fear of being deported by the central government of India that is basing its refugee policy on overt religious discriminations against Muslims, or the activists facing shadow-bans on social media, particularly the demonetisation buster James Wilson, Lankesh was solidarity incarnate.

Here are some of her last tweets and retweets:

lankesh-tweet_090617032830.jpgPhoto: Screengrab

Moreover, she was also mindful of the fact that increasingly, media-persons are busy infighting than sticking together to fight the “biggest enemy”, by which she perhaps meant the divisive forces shattering the fabric of a secular, inclusive, plural, tolerant India.

She was aware of the menace of “fake news”, and said that even though many of us have in fact fallen prey to its vicious and increasingly omnipresent stranglehold, it’s okay to learn from the errors and course-correct. Once again, she was of the opinion that journalists should gently warn each other, help and stick together, instead of scoring “political points”, exactly what some right-leaning bubble-wrapped editors tweeted out when they saw the spontaneous outrage at Lankesh’s murder.

But we need to ask ourselves what Lankesh died for, what was she killed for? She was gunned down for her fearless pursuit of the truth, for speaking out for the victims of systemic injustice, for calling out communal rabidity of the ruling regime and its affiliated thugs, murderers, for taking on the powerful, for doing journalism at its rawest, truest best – the original, interrogatory, adversarial version of it, not the cooked-in-faux neutrality, fence-sitting, spineless form that we see mushrooming in TV studios and newsrooms everywhere.

Lankesh’s fiery spirit can only be truly paid homage to if we walk the road paved by her blood. We must listen in, again and again, to what she gave her life trying to convey.

One, the forces that threaten to silence you, they are not faking it. The right to dissent is endangered and committed, local journalists in this country are a lot whose lives are truly imperiled now. The online threats can be translated into real, offline physical violence anytime, anywhere.

This is evident in the venom that has been spewed in the wake of Lankesh’s death. A piece by Alt News documents the filthy abuses hurled at Lankesh, justifying her death, coming even from a news anchor and reporters at major Hindi language TV channel. Others have welcomed the murder in so many words: “Hame chahiye azadi jihadiyose Jai Shree Ram, Jai Shree Ram”. It’s evident that the communal forces have tasted blood many, many times now.

Second, our laws mustn’t curtail freedom of speech, but expand it, in the pursuit of truth and justice. This is what Lankesh has been trying to tell us in several of her columns, particularly the one she wrote for The Wire only a month back.  

She wrote how “legislators have no business to sit in judgement of journalists and it is high time they are stripped of their special privileges.” She has said in one of her interviews that “criminal defamation law should be scrapped”, and indeed she was one of the loudest voices against it, long before she became a victim of its undemocratic and authoritarian fangs. Lankesh’s writings also pointed out how the local journalist, writing for smaller, regional, non-English papers, are far more vulnerable to targeted physical attacks and often murders, than the metropolis editor, or beat reporter hunting for bytes instead of a social (in)justice story.

Nilanjana Roy, noted writer and columnist, expands on this in her 2015 piece, when she writes:

“The murders of journalists in 2015 underscore the rising power of regional language media, especially local-language newspapers. And today, it is the regional press reporter who is far more likely to report on environmental conflicts or corruption in their own area, to cover beats that remain invisible or unimportant to English-language television's Delhi-centric studios. This ability to question and challenge everything from the state's officials to crooked development schemes has been both a strength and, as is becoming tragically clear, also a vulnerability. The deaths of these journalists have so far been under-reported, except by rights organisations that track either the media or free speech.”

Lankesh straddled both worlds, to the extent that she had mentored rookie journalists who are now big Delhi editors in prominent news channels, as well as brought out the weekly magazine Lankesh Patrike in Kannada, that has survived on a subscription-only, advertisement-free model for three and half decades, fighting excruciating change in the structure, technology and ethics of the press, which has now transmogrified into the strange but relatively supine, punch-less and obliging behemoth called the “media”.

Lankesh till her last breath fought for the freedom of the press, but the media, which is outraged today at her heinous murder, also failed her many times when it didn’t do its only job, which is to speak truth to power. As we assemble today at the Delhi Press Club and in many other cities, and seek justice for Gauri Lankesh, let’s remember what she fought for with her own blood, till her last breath.

Unrest in resistance, Gauri Lankesh. You’ll be our lodestar, guide and mentor always.

Also read - Press freedom at risk: Gauri Lankesh's murder may trigger new wave of self-censorship

Writer

Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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