Defamation cases, jail and murder threats, nothing deterred Gauri Lankesh
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Defamation cases, jail and murder threats, nothing deterred Gauri Lankesh

She would run apologies in her weekly because there were ‘bigger battles’ to be fought.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2017 17:43 IST
Gauri Lankesh,Gouri Lankesh,Gauri Lankesh wiki
Protesters take part in a rally condemning the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore on September 6. Activists, politicians and journalists demanded a full investigation on September 6 into the murder of Lankesh, a newspaper editor and critic of Hindutva.(Arijit Sen/ HT photo)

A well-known and vocal critic of hardline Hindutva and growing communalism in India, journalist Gauri Lankesh was no stranger to death threats: like many journalists, a quick scan of her social media accounts shows repeated threats from many trolls.

“Let me assure you, they are keen to somehow shut me up too,” Lankesh had said in an interview with Newslaundry soon after she was convicted in two defamation cases in November 2016 for a story she had published in her magazine (Gauri Lankesh Patrike) in 2008. One defamation case had been filed by Prahlad Joshi, a Dharwad member of Parliament and former president of the Karnataka state unit of the BJP, and the other by Umesh Dushi, also from the BJP. Lankesh had tried to get a stay order after the case was filed but her plea had been dismissed by the Karnataka High Court.

The judicial magistrate’s court in Hubballi, Karnataka, convicted and sentenced Lankesh to six months in jail, along with a fine of Rs 10,000. They stated that the piece was published without any basis, even though Lankesh maintained that she had the right not to reveal the names of her sources in the BJP. The court reportedly ruled that the duty of the law was to protect personal reputation, since “The person’s reputation is a property and if possible more valuable than other property.”

According to reports, the story called ‘Darodege Illida BJPgaru’ (roughly translating to ‘BJP men involved in criminal activities’), accused BJP’s Shivnath Bhat, Venkatesh Mestri, and Umesh Dushi (one of the complainants) of swindling Rs 1 lakh from a jeweller. It alleged that the jeweller had first approached Joshi to complain about the ministers, and that Joshi (whose photo was carried along with the article), subsequently covered up for his party members. While Lankesh was the first accused in Joshi’s complaint, she was the second accused in Dushi’s complaint. The latter reportedly named Devanand Jagapur, a reporter, as the first accused, claiming that Jagapur had written the article in question. Jagapur was acquitted after they failed to prove this, and Lankesh maintained that he was not associated with her publication.

Lankesh had told The Wire that she believed Joshi’s objection to her article was unfounded, because the piece had only referred to how Joshi seemed to have covered up for the party members the jeweller had blamed. “How have I defamed him? He won the elections after that,” Lankesh told The Wire and was reported as saying that there were several pending cases against Dushi, and her publication could do little to tarnish his reputation.

She was granted bail, and appealed against the verdict in a higher sessions court. The jeweller’s story had actually been covered by many local dailies, even though hers was the only publication that the politicians chose to attack, making it seem less about the story and more about Lankesh’s political opinions.

Unsurprisingly, Lankesh’s murder has reminded everybody of other similarly horrific murder cases, especially the murders of rationalist and author Narendra Dhabolkar in 2013, Communist Party of India leader Govind Pansare in 2015, and the 2015 shooting of MM Kalburgi, author and the former vice-chancellor of Hampi University. Kalburgi’s case remains unsolved two years later, but it has been reported in the media that the gun used to kill all these men was the same.

Even Karnataka home minister Ramalinga Reddy has drawn parallels between Lankesh’s murder and that of Dabholkar and Kalburgi. “Who is behind the incident, is it the Naxals or any other ideological fringe parties were behind the incident, will be known only after investigation,” he said.

Over the last few months, the Karnataka media has faced several blatant infringements on press freedom. On June 21, a committee formed by the Karnataka legislative assembly unanimously sentenced two journalists, Ravi Belagere of Hi Bangalore and Anil Raju of Yelahanka Voice, to a year’s jail sentence for allegedly publishing defamatory articles.

In an essay for The Wire in June this year, Lankesh traced Karnataka’s murky relationship with a free press because of the Assembly Privileges Committee — from her father P Lankesh’s time when Lankesh Patrike was constantly hauled up for ‘defaming’ legislators, to when Kiran Thakur of Tarun Bharat had been made to stand in a make-shift dock and apologize to the House, much like in neighboring Tamil Nadu.

In 2009, Lankesh herself had been forced to appear in front of a privileges committee and publish a front-page apology for a piece she had written. In an article published in the Hindustan Times following the Belagere and Raju cases, Lankesh said she had settled on running an apology inside her weekly (“however insincere,” she had said), since there were “bigger battles” to be fought. With Lankesh’s murder, the battles still remain.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media.)

First Published: Sep 06, 2017 16:15 IST