Ranjona Banerji: Free fall of freedom

08 Sep,2017

​By Ranjona Banerji

 

India slipped three places on the Press Freedom Index to number 136 in the 2017 list compiled by Reporters Without Borders which came out earlier this year. In this column we have written consistently about threats to journalists, especially in the hinterland and in small towns. In almost instances, they have been killed or harassed because they were working on some nexus between local politicians, businesspeople and the police. On Thursday, Pankaj Mishra, a journalist working for Rashtriya Sahara in Arwal, Bihar was shot by men on a motorcycle. His condition is still critical.The murder of Gauri Lankesh is one of the rare instances where a well-known journalist was assassinated in a big city. It underlines the threat to all who dare to question the ruling dispensation and its ideology. It tries to serve as a warning that voices of disagreement will not be tolerated.
That India has fallen down the list emphasises that this threat is real. Those who bow down to the diktats of political pressure are in fact the worst of our profession. They make life dangerous for everyone else.
If nothing else, this murder should make us take a good, hard long look at our profession and how far it has fallen.

**

The murder of Gauri Lankesh has also revealed to us all sort of journalists, all sorts of journalistic practices and all sorts of theories. The evening after her murder, news channels “discovered” her brother, Indrajit Lankesh. He informed them that his sister had been getting death threats from Naxals and maybe they were behind her murder. The brother was an interesting choice.
Through the day after the murder, articles posted on social media had informed us that Gauri Lankesh and her brother were estranged. That in 2005, they had parted ways after a bitter fight over ideology and that she had started her own newspaper Gauri Lankesh Patrike after her brother took control of their father’s original journal, Lankesh Patrike. The fight incidentally was over an article on Naxals, which Indrajit removed without editor Gauri’s permission.
Indrajit filed a case against Gauri saying she had stolen computers and printers from the office. Gauri filed a case against Indrajit saying he had threatened her with a gun. The brother Indrajit has been flirting with the BJP and Gauri spent almost all her journalistic effort fighting Hindutva forces. All this is in the public domain. On what basis did anyone think that an estranged brother was the best source of information for the murdered journalist?
The explanations are not pretty. The first is obvious: shoddy journalistic practices because absolutely no research was done. Everyone presumably was overjoyed that a “brother” had agreed to speak to them. The second inference is as bad. Immediately after her murder, the finger of suspicion pointed to the Hindutva forces she had been fighting. So how can a news channels deflect attention from the ruling dispensation? Easy: Find a pro-BJP person “close” to the victim and change the narrative.
Unfortunately for these puppets of the government, the brother soon changed his tune: He had no information about Naxal threats; he really did not know about any threats; he just saw something on some local language news channel and wondered. And after these flips and flops, on Thursday, he sat silently next to his sister Kavita – who was close to the victim – as she categorically stated that Gauri had received no threats from Naxals and all the threats she received were from Hindutva agencies.
Journalists never consider that they ever really get egg on their faces. They shrug it off and move on. But sometimes the rest of us can see the yoke of loyalty to a political master all over their visages.

**

An interesting fight is brewing on Twitter. JNU student-activist Shehla Rashid asked a reporter from Republic TV to leave a protest meeting over Gauri Lankesh’s murder, claiming they were trying to cover up the assassination on the orders of the BJP.
This action creates an interesting paradox for journalists. In an ideal world, Republic TV must be defended at all and any cost. The reporter was just doing his job after all and as a journalist, he had the right to cover any event.
However, given the complete lack of journalism evident in Republic TV, while one may feel bad for the humiliated reporter, it is hard to find any sympathy for the channel as a whole. Those who are fighting Republic TV are going after a lost cause which in fact deflects attention from the main issue of Lankesh’s murder.
Of course, it is unlikely that Republic TV will care. It claims to be the most-watched news channel in India. Not perhaps for its journalism?

 

​Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and columnist. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal.​

 

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