Gauri Lankesh’s killers: What motivated them?

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Was it her journalism or her activism they couldn’t accept?

The death of Gauri Lankesh, a journalist in India, who was opposed to Hindutva or Hindu extremism shows how widespread and deep fanaticism is in general.  Even two decades back India was basking in the reputation of being an open and liberal society in Asia compared to others.

But today, nobody would say so as India shows the trend of going the other way.  India is doing better than Bangladesh in terms of keeping the freedom flag flying. However, while it hasn’t been uprooted and laid down on the floor the flag is not swirling proudly in the wind.

Having said that, let’s remember that it’s doing so much better than most if not all South Asian states. They have to deal with every possible kind of force and censorship that is increasingly becoming systemic. It means the way freedom is practiced is beginning to be accepted as norms rather than exception.

Was Gauri Lankesh more an activist or a journalist?

The case around her killing has a long history. She belonged to a group of journalists who were also activists and close to the Left and some were linked to the Extreme Left as well. She took a principled stand and spoke out. She was not alone and was part of a crowd that was vocal in media and so made enemies. These enemies were people who belonged not just to the so called opposite camp but violent people who considered killing part of a strategy to further their cause. In other words, these were terrorists.

As media reports, the killer group spent 5 years planning to kill her. They didn’t know her personally but hated her work so intensely that they considered it as an organizational activity to kill her. It was not personal enmity but an ideological one.  Gauri was an enemy because of what she believed and wrote and the crime against her was part of the price she had to pay for her commitment to the cause. By that equation, she was more of an activist than a journalist.

But the two markers didn’t make difference to her because both meant the same to her. She was a person of great courage and nobility and her killing is a stain on India state of law and media. It’s also an indicator of the state of the mind of the newly emerged fanatics that seem to be quite active in India in the last few years. Her death is also a badge signifying the depth of her commitment. But the question that also needs to be asked is, if what she was doing was activism or journalism? How do we differentiate between the two and if we need to or we must?

Are bloggers journalists?

Journalists deal with social issues all the time, living near the people as they do. They are more aware of the pulse of the people, feel more intensely many of what they consider injustices, and react accordingly.

That is fine and one should ask these questions very robustly but keeping the Indian example aside, do journalists in Bangladesh cross the boundaries and border line also? And if so what should we think about them?

The most commonly cited cause is that of the bloggers who were killed by the Jongis. However, any perusal of what they wrote shows that these would be more like committed anti-religious comments which could also be read as provocation rather than analysis. It is of course true that they had the right to say what they did. The reaction of the Jongis to them was however criminal in nature and the actions taken by the law enforcers were met with general public approval.

But are bloggers journalists or activists? My sense would be that they were activists more than journalists. Activists yes and with every right to be what they did subject to law. But journalism is a profession that must be regulated by its own industry’s ethical code which should be applicable to all workers in media. It’s about fair reporting and balanced opinions aimed at a general constituency.

This means a distinction has to be made between journalism and activism. It’s not connected at all to the violence of the Extremists but more about the space in which both are active. It’s noticed that in Bangladesh, the code of ethical journalism is routinely broken in political journalism and many of the players are more activists than journalist. They are also routinely rewarded or occasionally punished but they are political activists in the professional media space.

It may be argued that the crowd likes this and many hate them. This is indeed true that the partisan crowd plays to them happily but the fact is the crowd has a right to be partisan but not the journalist. When a journalist does, he breaks the code of ethics. That is the big difference.

Let those who wish to be activists be so in their own space knowing the risks and rewards but it would serve everyone well if one remembered the gap between professional task and personal activism. If so, everyone would gain.

In the end, congrats to the Indian government for bringing the killers of Gauri to book.

  • Gauri Lankesh’s killers: What motivated them?
  • Issue 21
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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