It’s the Activist Journalist, who Gauri Lankesh Epitomised, that is Silenced

Written by Geeta Seshu | Published on: October 6, 2017
One Month Days After Gauri Lankesh’s Killing: Some Thoughts
 
Gauri Lankesh saw the connections between the large scale localized and national corruption, the patently unequal policies and programmes of the government and the ideological framework of Hindutva that sought to damage and alter the social and political fabric of the country.

Gauri lankesh

Over the last month, the diabolical killing of Gauri Lankesh has galvanized both civil society and journalists towards raising a collective voice against violence and the suppression of free speech. The importance of this unified protest cannot be sufficiently stressed but are we seeing the emergence of any real bond between the two? And, more to the point, what will it take to strengthen this bond?
 
As we came together to observe a month after the killing of Gauri Lankesh, a month when there seems little or no progress in the investigation into her death, these questions are important. Journalists have participated in the ‘From Gandhi to Gauri’ protests called by journalists press clubs and associations all over India on Oct 2. Some of them have also joined the ‘We are Gauri’ protests called primarily by civil society individuals and groups on Oct 5.
 
Gauri Lankesh, who was both a journalist as well as a social activist, would have been heartened at the unified protests against the killings, even if they were held on different days and in different venues across the country.
 
Of course, in some places, both journalists and civil society activists held joint protests. Perhaps the further journalists and civil society activists are from the political and business power centres of Delhi and Mumbai, the easier this is possible. The formal divide between the practicing journalist and the civil society activist is less sharp, the spillover of the life of the journalist and the civil society activist is more diffused, more fluid.
 
For civil society to protest the killing of a journalist is not unusual. After all, journalists are seen as messengers of information and opinion and also as a voice for civil society. The large amorphous mass that goes in the name of ‘civil society’ - activists from social movements, members of NGOs, trade unions, human rights groups, academia, literature, film and art - have been in the forefront of a range of struggles against the devastating impact of policies, laws and programs on the lives of people. They are conscious of the potentially chilling effect of both these policies as well as the violence that has increasingly been meeting its dissent.
 
But do journalists and journalists’ associations and press clubs and unions join the protests over the killing of a social activist? Do they join protests over other important events that shake up society? Or, do they distance themselves from these protests on grounds of objectivity and professionalism (while some prefer to stay away from the protests, preferring to let their work do the talking)? Will their grief and anger over the senseless killing of Gauri Lankesh even bridge the hitherto invisible chasm between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ media?
 
More questions, clearly.

 
The ‘activist’ journalist
 
When journalists are killed, as they have been with such alarming regularity over the last few years (31 since 2010 when the media watch site, The Hoot, began monitoring free speech attacks), several questions are raised about their identity – whether they were journalists at all and whether they were killed for their journalism. Often, it is the police – the first line of investigators – who raise these doubts. These are then picked up and amplified by the media reporting the killings.
 
In the immediate aftermath of the killing of Gauri Lankesh, there was such murmurs too. In the course of her work, Gauri Lankesh had opposed the rise of Hindutva terror. She had received multiple threats and it was clear she was targeted and silenced for her views as well as her work. But while doubts were raised over the motives for killing her, there was also considerablediscussion over the ‘activist’ nature of her journalism.  Those from the ‘mainstream’ media questioned whether she was a journalist at all, as if her journalism was not the ‘real’, non-partisan or objectivity based journalism of mainstream media. 
 
Gauri Lankesh belonged to what is referred to as ‘activist’ media. Writing in The Hoot, Prof B P Sanjaya traces her brand of journalism to her father P Lankesh, who was part of ‘a new brand of writers believing in “Bandaya” (revolt/resistance/protest) literature. Terms such as insurgent journalism and counter hegemonic journalism have been used to describe the journal and its practices.
 
What tends to get obfuscated in these semantics is the fact that her media was also an ‘alternative’ media. It positioned itself clearly on social and political issues and either as an alternative or in opposition to the views predominant in ‘mainstream’ media. While Gauri Lankesh brought out the ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’ in Kannada and, in the last few years, also wrote extensively in English for news websites. Gauri Lankesh Patrike was independent and free of sponsorship and advertising.
 
In this peculiar argument that seeks to privilege ‘mainstream’ media as more authentic, many structural flaws of the mainstream are blithely erased. Advertising drives mainstream media. But its also the business and political ownership that seek to maintain a stranglehold over the media’s spheres of influence in society. Media houses increasingly operate as professional corporate brands that lend theirmedia platforms to all manner of event-based advocacy – from literary festivals and cultural events, saving rivers to swacch bharat to aman across the borders to marathons and runs for womens’ safety and whatnot.
 
Ironically, while they enhance their brand values, they refuse to pay fair and legal wages to their employees. The mainstream media is united in faulty or non-implementation of wage board wages for permanent employees, arm-twisting them to take contractual employment. Layoffs and large-scale retrenchments have been the norm over the last few years.
 
For those of us who may shrug and say that’s just the way the news-business runs and is hardly pertinent to a discussion on the killing of Gauri Lankesh, let’s look at another issue: newsgathering. Journalists have rued the shrinking budget for newsgathering on the ground. How much do media houses that support rallies for rivers for instance, actually spend on legwork that reporters need to do to report on the state of our rivers or the real reasons for water pollution along rivers, the environmental degradation or the extensive sand mining that destroys river beds or even track the policies and programs of governments at the state and centre on such issues. Of course, while it would be instructive to look at the budgets for these and compare them with the amount spent for advocacy related events, it is important to examine the thrust of the advocacy itself (but that’s another ballgame).
 
Many of the journalists who were attacked or killed followed such stories. These freelancers and contractual employees were in a position of extreme vulnerability, compounded by the fact that the media houses that used their stories simply ‘played dead’ when these journalists were killed. They either denied they ever worked for them even in the face of evidence like press cards or emails giving them assignments barely a week before their deaths!
 
In only one instance – the killing of Mid-Day journalist J Dey in Mumbai in 2011, was an English language journalist felled. While in three other instances of journalists killed in 2017, journalistic motives are still to be established, in all other instances, journalists who were killed operated in regional media, were stringers or contracted by bigger non-english language media houses, or, like Jagendra Singh who died of immolation, had eschewed print media for digital media, publishing on social media networks like Facebook.
 
Unlike Gauri Lankesh, they operated as lone rangers, often operating on the fringes of or were part of mainstream media. They did not build media institutions. They may have participated in or even set up social organisations with others but their spheres of influence were much more localized and investigations into those who killed them, more often than not, pointed towards local businesspeople or corrupt politicians or mafias controlling illegal mining or smuggling.
 
Gauri Lankesh also wrote of all such nefarious activities in her publication ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’ but she was a social activist too.  And her opposition to hindutva politics and anathema towards the BJP, which her friends and supporters believe had led to her death, is well documented.
 
Gauri Lankesh saw the connections between the large scale localized and national corruption, the patently unequal policies and programmes of the government and the ideological framework of hindutva that sought to damage and alter the social and political fabric of the country. She used journalism to speak out and did not merely write about issues but stepped out of the confines of her medium to actively push for the change she wrote about. She ‘mainstreamed’ issues that needed to be spoken about and written about.
 
It is this kind of journalism which was sought to be silenced.