Journalist Gauri Lankesh was very much aware that her days were numbered but she never named her killers. She knew her enemies did not belong to a particular group or party but to a mindset and ideology. Her brutal murder on September 5 in Bangalore has sounded an alarm bell for journalists all over the globe, that journalism is becoming a most dangerous profession — that too in the world’s largest democracy.
I never knew her personally. Some of my colleagues and friends asked me, ‘Who killed her?’ The question reminded me of the last editorial of the late Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge who was assassinated in Colombo in 2009. He was the editor of the ‘Sunday Leader ‘newspaper and a thorn in the flesh of then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse ,who was furious over his criticism of the human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan security forces against Tamil civilians in the war against the LTTE.
Lasantha was threatened many times but he refused to accept dictation from the powerful establishment. Some pro-establishment colleagues sometimes called him a “traitor”. That’s when he wrote the editorial which said that “when finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”.
This editorial was published after his murder. Eight years have passed. Mahinda Rajapakse is no more President of Sri Lanka but Wickrematunge’s family is still waiting for justice.
The same was the case of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. The Russians weren’t happy with her reporting from Chechnya. I met her in Chechnya in 2004 when I was detained by the Russian Army and she tried to help me. She was shot near her home in Moscow in 2006. She received four bullets. It was not a secret that Anna Politkovskaya was a prime target of the Russian establishment. President Vladimir Putin was hauled over the coals for some time over her death, but nothing happened to him. Three suspects were arrested but later acquitted by the courts.
I also named three people as my possible killers only a few days before an attempt was made on my life in Karachi in 2014. I received six bullets in my shoulder, stomach and legs. The seventh bullet grazed my lower back. Two bullets remain in my body. An Inquiry Commission was set up to investigate the assassination attempt. I was told not to appear before the commission but I decided to speak my mind. I believed it was my right to do so.
So I recorded my statement in front of three Supreme Court judges, not once but twice and produced the best available evidence. Instead of providing me justice the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif filed a treason reference against my TV channel, Geo News, because Geo pointed an accusatory finger towards powerful elements within Pakistani establishment, including the ISI.
Gauri Lankesh received three bullets in her body and died. I got seven bullets, but survived. I know I’m really lucky to be alive. Gauri’s terrible death made me search for other similarities — perhaps, I want her friends and family, my readers, anyone, someone, to know that I understand the pain and the grief and the anger, all twisted into one emotion, that follows when Death comes calling.
Gauri Lankesh’s father was a journalist. My father was a columnist and a teacher of journalism in Punjab University, Lahore. She was declared anti-establishment, by her establishment, and a traitor. I also faced the same allegations.
There is one big difference. I can’t claim that democracy and media is very strong in Pakistan but Gauri Lankesh lived and worked and was a citizen of the biggest democracy of the world. So what happened? How did “they” dare target her? Don’t “they” care what Gauri’s colleagues and friends in the world’s largest democracy will say? Aren’t “they” worried that “they” will be exposed? And what about the collective democratic conscience and pride of the Indian media? How do they deal with this direct challenge to their credibility?
It’s not difficult to determine that who is behind the assassination of Gauri Lankesh. Just read her article published in ‘The Wire’ in May 2017. She pointed out that “Karnataka has a long history of attacks on the freedom of press”. She criticized several Congress, BJP and Janata Dal MLAs who had joined hands to suppress media freedom.
She fought against the double standards of the powerful ruling elite. She never spared her own community. She wrote, “with the number of Kannada news channels increasing, things are becoming murkier…They are just as aggressive in shouting down participants with a different point of view, even more patriotic than self-proclaimed nationalist(s) and are prone to exaggeration while breaking news every minute of the day”.
According to noted Kannada writer K.Marulisdappa, who knew Gauri Lankesh from her childhood “she was taking a bold stand against the Sangh Parivar here”. He added that “the same people who killed Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi have now killed Gauri Lankesh.” It is also important to note that Gauri Lankesh was held guilty of defamation in 2016 for an article she wrote in 2008 about the alleged corruption of two BJP leaders.
Karnataka’s chief minister Siddaramaiah condemned Lankesh’s murder as “an assassination of democracy”, but continues to face a hatred campaign on social media even after losing her life. Some people tried to link her death with that of Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani. Ashish Singh, who is followed by prime minister Narendra Modi on Twitter, tweeted, “After Burhan Wani, Gauri Lankesh also killed, how sad”.
Gauri Lankesh’s brutal death is a sad day in the life of the Indian media as well as the media across South Asia. I, a Pakistani journalist, am deeply saddened and angry about the ultimate sacrifice that a fellow journalist from India has paid. She was fighting against religious extremism as we are. This ideology is a common enemy of journalists all over the world. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Pakistan and India are among the world’s ten most dangerous countries in which to work as a journalist.
This is a matter of shame for both countries. Impunity is becoming a dangerous way of unannounced censorship in South Asia. Impunity will generate more corruption in our countries. If we want to get rid of corruption and extremism we have to support all those journalists who raise their voices against these evils. That is why the killers of Gauri Lankesh need to be exposed. When they are, no establishment in any part of the world will dare kill journalists like Wickrematunge and Politkovskaya who named their killers when they were alive.
Gauri’s last writings and tweets tell us, “I know who is behind my death.” Whether or not her killers are convicted, it is our collective responsibility to find them and name and shame them.
Stop this culture of impunity against the media. Salute Gauri Lankesh.