Journalists generally tend to avoid becoming stories themselves, and their personal issues seldom make media headlines. The murder of Gauri Lankesh, Kannada scholar, Editor-Activist, is a grim reminder of bitter social reality that violence is smothering free speech in India. The cold-blooded murder only perpetuates the violent message of intellectual pettiness postulated earlier in the killings of Kannada scholar and rationalist, Dr. Kalburgi and the likes.
While only weak resorts to this kind of cowardice, the worrisome factor is this is not an isolated incident, and must be viewed as a pattern of hard-hitting evidences of how a section of the society is getting increasingly intolerant to dissent. According to International News Safety Institute, between 1996 and 2014, over 2100 media personnel have died, more than half of them have been murdered.
The killing reminds of the fate of Perumal Murugan, the famous Tamil writer, who in 2015, decided to give up writing forever after wrathful protests against his novel “Madhorubhagan” by local caste-based groups. “Author Perumal Murugan died”, the writer himself posted this on his Facebook page then. This time a thinker has actually been killed.
Is India not a safe place for journalists? Is it difficult to “report” properly in India without being called anti-national and seditious? Or is it that women journalists have it harder in India? Where is freedom without dissent? All she did was “writing”, but appears that the perpetrators lacked logical defence, hence resorted to savagery. Equally disturbing is the fact that the crimes in most cases of journalist killings remain unsolved, the end result reflecting a vicious cycle of impunity.
Killing, the ultimate act of censorship
Once bloodshed takes hold as a feasible means of muzzling dissent, we may become another “North Korea” or “Afghanistan” where freedom of speech is gagged with knives and bullets. The public is robbed of information, as killing of the scribe is eliminating beyond the individual. Journalists are frequently targeted for reporting uncomfortable news. A group of 114 military veterans recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that “Dissent is not treason; in fact, it is the essence of democracy.”
Who is a journalist?
Today, a “journalist” has to be redefined, as there are an increasing number of indigenous media workers, camera-men, and translators who are engaged in media activities. Media organisations also rely on freelancers and “citizen reporters”, and this segment is particularly exposed to the risks of working alone in conflict zones, but do not have the same level of security as staff journalists do. While there are many examples of well-known writers paying the ultimate price in the discharge of their assignments, the list of less well-known local reporters killed can be far bigger.
Also, today the risks are global due to the digital public space, while politics remains largely national.
While the Right to Information Act (2005) has established the right of Indian citizens to file freedom of information requests, over the past years, many RTI investigators and whistle-blowers have reportedly been troubled precisely because they bid to unearth scams and scandals.
Throughout our history, various groups and individuals have questioned, debated and censured authority – be it the state, religious or political traditions. Democracy is the acceptable form of governance only because a citizen has a right to dissent, without fear of reprisal. By contrast, dissent in authoritarian, dictatorial or colonial regimes could lead to severest punishments – loss of life – as happened in colonial India, Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s USSR. And, where are we positioned today?
(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)