The brazen killing of noted journalist Gauri Lankesh, by unidentified gunmen outside her house on Tuesday, has already drawn comparisons to the murder of scholar MM Kalburgi in a similar fashion two years prior. It has also inspired much speculation about who might be behind the murder of Lankesh, who famously spent much of her time writing against communalism and had even been convicted in a criminal defamation case filed by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders.
While it is now down to the police to examine both the similarity with the Kalburgi murder as well as the possible reasons for unidentified gunmen to shoot Lankesh, one straightforward conclusion can be drawn even at this stage: India continues to be deeply unsafe for journalists.
Of course, the police will have to probe if personal reasons were responsible for Lankesh’s murder or something else. Yet it is generally taken as an acceptable presumption where journalists are harmed – without any indication that this was meant to be an armed robbery or something else – that the aim is to scare them, or others, into silence. And as multiple international organisations have pointed out, individuals choosing to intimidate or even attack journalists often do so with impunity, unafraid of the legal consequences of their actions.
“Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” said Reporters Without Borders in its 2017 World Press Freedom ranking. The report put India at 136 in a list of 192, based on measuring the amount of freedom journalists in the country have.
This report is clear about from where it sees the danger emerging. “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” the report says.
Freedom House, which describes itself as an international watchdog dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy, also echoed these concerns. “Threats to freedom of expression – including intimidation of and attacks against journalists and users of online social media – continued. There is increasing concern about the harassment of bloggers and social-media users by Hindu nationalists,” its 2017 report said. It gave India only a “partly free” on press freedom, and elaborated further on this in the detailed note.
Journalists risk harassment and sometimes, physical violence. In 2016, at least two journalists were killed in connection with their work, and three others were killed under circumstances where the motive remained unclear, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Committee in fact has tried to map out and document the deaths of journalists, saying there have been 40 journalists killed in India since 1992. The Committee also claims that 27 of those journalists had been targeted for murder, and 26 of them were killed with impunity. Indeed, the Committee listed India as one of the countries on its ‘Impunity Index’, basing its rankings on a calculation of the “number of unsolved murders over a 10-year period as a percentage of each country’s population.”
The detailed report on India counts 13 journalists killed over the last decade with complete impunity and suggested that these were mostly rural and small-town reporters who covered local corruption, crime and politics, and they were likely to face violence from criminal and political groups and government officials.
“Illustrative case: Freelance journalist Jagendra Singh died from burns after a police raid at his home in 2015. He lived long enough to give video testimony that a police officer doused him in gasoline and set him on fire at the behest of a local government minister. No one has been prosecuted and investigations have stalled, according to CPJ research.”
Clear and persistent pattern
In May, non-profit media watchdog The Hoot released a report looking at India’s press freedom. It pointed out that between January 2016 and April 2017, there had been 54 reported attacks on journalists, three instances of television news channels being banned, 45 internet shutdowns, and 45 sedition cases against individuals and groups. It also pointed out that seven journalists had been killed in that period, with at least one of the deaths clearly attributable to the journalists’ work.
The report also makes specific references to journalists, like Lankesh, who have done specific investigative work. “The stories behind each of the attacks reveal a clear and persistent pattern,” it said. “Investigative reporting is becoming increasingly dangerous. Journalists who venture out into the field to investigate any story... are under attack.” And impunity is a key part of this story. In 2014, for example, the report said that only 32 people were arrested in 114 cases of attacks on journalists.
While it remains to be seen whether Lankesh’s murder was directly connected to her work as a journalist, the public death of an outspoken reporter does appear to send a message to anyone working in the field – a message that can only be countered with quick, effective policing.
Unfortunately, recent history on this matter from the Karnataka police does not inspire confidence.