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Gauri Lankesh murder: Crushing dissent weakens society and democracy

To be able to function without constraint is vital for journalists, but more so for a vibrant democracy

mumbai Updated: Sep 08, 2017 00:45 IST
Ayaz Memon
Demonstrators hold placards with the picture of Gauri Lankesh during a protest in New Delhi on Thursday.
Demonstrators hold placards with the picture of Gauri Lankesh during a protest in New Delhi on Thursday. (AFP)

A young lady introduced herself as a student of media studies during Tuesday’s candlelight vigil organized by the Mumbai Press Club to protest Gauri Lankesh’s assassination and asked whether “journalism was safe’’.

Considering the reason for the protest, it kind of begged the question. But she had a steely gaze that suggested spunkiness, so I gave a description that is frequently used for budding media professionals.

“It’s the best, most exciting and fulfilling profession in the world. It gives you a ringside view of life. Sometimes, of course, this vantage position comes with perils.’’

Risk in journalism is in-built. This also adds to the thrill of the job. Intrepidity is as important as objectivity, accuracy and speed of delivery of stories. Well-articulated opinion pieces, however prickly, get their own audiences. Even on an otherwise risk-free beat like sports or entertainment, belonging to a newsroom that chases investigative and controversial stories with vigour makes you feel chuffed.

Journalism was never — and is still not — a simple career option. In earlier days, even the money was poor so one had to be a little quirky, a little idealistic and a little non-conformist to choose this profession.

That it pays as much as other sectors these days has often raised the argument that journalists have become namby-pamby, easily swayed by bylines, personalized TV shows, instant fame and other such trappings.

But while there’s a decent livelihood to be had today it’s not money over everything. A lot of exciting, well-read, determined young talent has also entered and enriched journalism.

By its nature, journalism imposes pressure on its practitioners. Challenging the status quo, squaring up to the establishment and the powerful gives a high that few other vocations can offer. But threat lurks constantly too.

Reporters and editors in all newsrooms will vouch for coercive attempts to change or scuttle stories, often accompanied with warnings, mild and dire. The best make this their calling card to excellence and fame.

Not that there should be a halo around journalists. There are also charlatans, scamsters, sell-outs, idols with feet of clay. But the vast majority remains, I believe, committed to the task of giving readers/viewers a window to the world as best as they can.

To be able to function without constraint is vital in this: for journalists, but more so for a vibrant democracy. If dissenting voices are to be silenced, the loss is not of journalism alone, but also society and country.

The Gauri Lankesh case is still under investigation of course, but everything about the murder points towards a growing and sinister pattern of eliminating uncomfortable questions being raised.

Whether proponents of such diabolical act are from the left, right or centre of the political spectrum is academic. The fear of a differing point of view, a discourse that unsettles, can’t be taken to the point of taking a life.

But here’s the nub. While Gauri’s case has attracted national and international attention, it is not an isolated attack on journalists in India, though it could be among the first on ideological grounds.

Thursday’s edition of Mint carried a report citing the not-for-profit Committee to Protect Journalists that 27 journalists have been murdered in India since 1992, not including Gauri.

Some other sources suggest 22 murders have happened in the last five years. This could be because the media in India has grown exponentially in the past decade or so. More troubling is the fact that none of these cases have still been solved.

The fact that journalists are being attacked with impunity is not only poor law and order maintenance but worse: It is essentially aimed at sending out a signal to those outside of the media. If a citadel considered safe is in fact unsafe, how secure is anybody? This is what should worry all of us. The need to bring Gauri’s killers to book urgently is critical not just to quell the current outrage, but restore faith in us as a democracy.

This brings up a vital question — for political parties, society and one dare say the media too. What do we want future journalists to be? Scared, brought-to-heel public relations handlers of powerful people/institutions? Unctuous minions, pamphleteers and propagandists?

Or would we want them to be thinking, inquiring, confronting, robust professionals aimed at finding and telling us what we are as people, society and country honestly?