On 5 September 2017, Gauri Lankesh, one of the most prominent and outspoken journalists in modern India was shot and killed outside her home. Three men, who are yet to be identified, fled the scene on motorbikes. As a firm critic of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lankesh’s death poses worrying questions about the future of Indian journalism, and whether the country is about to enter an age of censorship.
Lankesh was a firebrand who had worked for various English-language papers in Delhi and edited Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a newspaper in Karnataka, at the time of her death. It is true that she was a critic of the BJP and extreme Hindu nationalists; but she was always determined to argue her case using hard evidence and facts to support her claims.
Indeed, before her death, Lankesh wrote a detailed argument as to why this approach was more necessary than ever at the current historical juncture. While she gathered support for her detailed and outspoken criticisms and opinion pieces, she also drew ire. Unlike some other newspapers, she did not succumb to pressure, and continued to provide informative and provocative pieces until the day of her death.
India’s ‘fast news’ diet
An argument can be made that in a high-tech age that prizes instant gratification, the desire to get a story published quickly has led to those who should be reporting evidence-based articles shelving the facts in favour of a quick fix.
While this is a worldwide phenomenon, it has become a particular concern in India. Hours after the news of Lankesh’s death broke, news outlets and papers were trying to figure out who was responsible. Though the police had not made any official statement on the matter, a huge amount of guesswork went into figuring out who might have wanted her gone.
Her well-known antagonism of the BJP was used as a means of trying to link her murder to the ruling government in Delhi. This comes at quite a stretch, but it is common within India for such speculation to run riot, such is the proliferation of fast news in order to generate advertising revenue for online news sites.
This addiction to ‘fast news’ is compounded by the politicisation of the media. A report published in 2013 showed that there was a growing suspicion that news outlets in India were moving toward the political affiliations of their owners. As is the case in many countries, coverage of riots and oppression often goes unreported if the media source in question is owned by companies associated with the ruling party. On the contrary, it will be reported and exaggerated if the news outlet is owned by those associated with the opposition.
Gauri Lankesh’s death and the ensuing frenzy has highlighted how divided India has become as a country. It has broadened the divide amongst journalists tasked with bringing news to the people. India has always been a risky place for journalists, but now it seems as though that risk has grown, and with it the standards of journalism are suffering.
What does the future hold?
It is increasingly difficult for journalists to pursue an active investigation into the stories they are covering. Following Lankesh’s death, a climate of fear now exists in the world of Indian journalism. Introspection seems to have become commonplace in journalistic circles.
Many thoughtful pieces have been written calling on reporters to consider the reliability of what they’re reporting on; and others question whether getting that big scoop is really worth their lives. These questions will only increase after the death of another journalist, Shantanu Bhowmick, on 21 September, who was beaten to death whilst covering a story in Tripura state in northeast India.
Whilst the BJP condemned Lankesh’s murder as a “dastardly killing”, it used the opportunity to point out that many of its own supporters have been the target of attacks. In addition to this equivocation, one can see the signs of Modi working to make journalists completely redundant through the use of social media.
India, whilst remaining a democracy and possessing a vibrant and competitive media landscape, recently fell to 136th position in the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders. The report noted that “with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media.” With the deaths of Lankesh and Bhowmick, the future of Indian journalism looks anything but vibrant.