The Right to Dissent is Being Threatened, Says Gauri Lankesh

Senior journalist Gauri Lankesh was recently found guilty of defaming two BJP members and believes that her publication was targeted because of her politics.

Gauri Lankesh.

Gauri Lankesh.

Note: This interview was originally published on December 11, 2016. The Wire is republishing it in light of Gauri Lankesh’s murder.

New Delhi: On November 28, senior journalist Gauri Lankesh was held guilty of defamation by a judicial magistrate in Hubbali, Karnataka. Lankesh edits the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a magazine that has been described as an “anti-establishment” publication. In 2008, she ran a piece that Prahlad Joshi, a BJP MP from Dharwad, and Umesh Dushi, also of the BJP, found objectionable. They filed a case of criminal defamation against her.

While Lankesh was given a six-month sentence and fined by the court, she also received bail the same day. Lankesh intends to appeal to a sessions court.

Lankesh had earlier told the New Indian Express that “many people thought I would go to jail” but she had “disappointed” them.

Incidentally, in Dushi’s complaint to the court, Lankesh was named as the second accused, while the first accused was Devanand Jagapur, said to be the person who wrote the article. In Joshi’s case, she was the only accused.

Jagapur was acquitted by the court because there was no evidence to suggest that he had filed the article in 2008, but Lankesh was found guilty because her publication carried the story.

Speaking to The Wire, Lankesh said, “The magistrate of the lower court, in all his wisdom, has found me guilty of defamation,” and reiterated her decision to challenge the decision. She is not terribly perturbed by the judicial proceedings but did express surprise at how her case was being used by the BJP and its supporters.

“I didn’t realise it was such a big thing,” said Lankesh. “The idea that the IT cell of the BJP is using this episode as a tool to threaten other journalists is what is shocking.”

Lankesh is concerned about what her situation says about the state of freedom of expression in the country. The fact that people who contradict the ruling ideology are being targeted and made an example of is especially worrying, she feels.

Lankesh spoke of the patterns that have been developing, from the death of M.M. Kalburgi, after which a Bajrang Dal activist, Bhuvith Shetty had tweeted justifying Kalburgi’s murder, saying “Mock Hinduism and die a dog’s death”. Shetty was held for the murder of one Harish Poojary last year, apparently because he mistook Poojary to be a Muslim.

She also referred to B.V. Seetharam, who was arrested for defamation. Seetharam had told the Hindu that he feared for his life and “If I am moved to Mangalore jail, I may be harmed by Bajrang Dal elements within the jail”.

With regard to the case against her, Lankesh said that in her understanding, the person filing the case has to prove that he has been defamed and that “the court has no right to sit in judgment of the article.”

Joshi’s objection to the article, she believes, was unfounded because it was about a jeweller who had come to Joshi asking for justice because he had been swindled by party members. In the event that Joshi could not deliver, the jeweller had threatened to go to the police. Essentially, the story alleged that Joshi had covered up for his party workers. But in no way did the story harm Joshi, she said. The incident was, in fact, covered by several publications, but it was her publication that was targeted.

“How have I defamed him?” Lankesh asked, “He won the elections after that.”

As for Dushi, Lankesh says that there are several cases pending against him and so her publication, specifically, can do very little to his reputation, given that the damage is already done.

Given the ways in which speech is being stifled, Lankesh said dire days lie ahead.

The word ‘sedition’ has been thrown around too often for comfort this year, pointing to the gross misuse of law by supporters of the ruling dispensation to silence voices of dissent or even disagreement, she told The Wire.