Gauri Lankesh and the Non-Existent Pursuit of Justice for India’s Slain Journalists

There has been no improvement in India’s track record in prosecuting journalist murders, but the time for justice is long overdue.

Gauri Lankesh. Credit: Twitter

Gauri Lankesh should have been celebrating her 56th birthday today. Yet now, nearly five months after the murder of this prominent journalist, police have yet to make any arrests and the special investigative team (SIT) probing her murder continues to hit roadblocks.

That’s no surprise given India’s track record in prosecuting journalist murders — which virtually doesn’t exist. Indeed, so far prosecutors haven’t obtained and upheld a single conviction in any of the 30 journalist murders since 1992.

But something shifted with Gauri’s murder. And perhaps the outcry and international attention that followed has finally created an opening that may destroy India’s stubborn culture of impunity.

Gauri’s murder in September 2017 sent shockwaves throughout the media community. That such a prominent journalist could be shot gangland-style just outside her home was chilling, especially in a year where press freedom was increasingly under pressure.

Gauri was known for her left-wing activism, her courage, and speaking truth to power. She advocated against extremism and casteism and she championed these values in her weekly tabloid the Gauri Lankesh Patrike.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi portrayed an India that championed diversity and democracy in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“For a society with diverse religions, cultures, languages, attires, and cuisines, democracy is not just a political system but a way of living,” he said.

For many years, the Gauri Lankesh Patrike was part of that societal fabric, contributing to the diverse attitudes and opinions. But Gauri’s critical voice was killed off. As were the voices of Sudip Bhaumik’s, Shantanu Bhowmick’s, and Rajesh Mishra’s — three other journalists who were killed last year as a result of their journalism in India. The democracy Modi envisages cannot exist while the space for free speech and dissent narrows in the country, and as his administration continues to advance prosecution against critical journalists.

The government has provided few assurances, verbal or tangible, to persuade journalists that they are safe to report freely without fear of retribution. To be fair, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aren’t wholly to blame, given the history of impunity. But regardless of which political party has been in power, time and again the Indian government has failed to protect its journalists and their right to do their job.

This must change.

To date, four people have been arrested in connection with Sudip Bhaumik’s murder, but it is unclear when or whether prosecution will move forward. Meanwhile, a special investigation team was set up to probe Shantanu Bhowmick’s murder and has arrested five people, but the family has requested a CBI investigation to guarantee impartiality, which has thus far not been granted. Three people have been arrested in connection with Rajesh Mishra’s murder.

The arrests are a positive development, but authorities must ensure these investigations conclude with convictions against the murderers. The state and central governments must provide assurances and take basic measures of protections for journalists. The journalist community must continue to channel the same energy it had with #IAmGauri to press for prosecution not just for Gauri, but for every journalist who has been killed for their work.

The time for justice is long overdue.

Aliya Iftikhar is Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia Research Associate.