The killing of an Indian journalist spurs protests for free speech

Angry and disappointed, activists protest for the protection of free speech after Gauri Lankesh, a journalist, was gunned down outside her home in the southern city of Bangalore. 

Bikas Das/AP
Activists of Socialist Unity Center of India-Communist march with a banner showing a portrait of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh at a protest demonstration against her killing in Kolkata, India on Sept. 6, 2017. The killing of Ms. Lankesh has provoked outrage and anguish across the country, with thousands protesting what they see as part of an ongoing campaign to silence critics of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party.

The killing of an Indian journalist provoked outrage and anguish across the country on Wednesday, with thousands protesting what they saw as an effort to silence a critic of India's ruling Hindu nationalist party.

Even as police promise to hunt down the assailants who gunned down Gauri Lankesh outside her Bangalore home Tuesday night, many said they feared the perpetrators of the attack – like so many others – would get away with impunity.

Spontaneous rallies erupted in cities and towns across India on Wednesday. Protesters demanded the government do more to protect free speech in the secular, South Asian democracy.

In the southern city of Bangalore, thousands gathered for a public vigil and viewing of Lankesh's body at Town Hall. Some carried placards that read "I am also Gauri."

Others held banners that said: "You can kill the person; but not her ideas," and "Voices of dissent cannot be stifled by the barrel of the gun."

Ms. Lankesh, 55, was the editor of the independent Kannada-language magazine "Lankesh Patrike." In November, she was found guilty of defaming lawmakers from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party in a 2008 story. She said the case was politically motivated and vowed to challenge her conviction in a higher court.

Her killing was the latest in a string of similar attacks in recent years targeting writers, artists, and scholars who faced a backlash for criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government or the BJP.

"The silencing of a journalist in this manner has dangerous portents for Indian democracy," said Shobhana Jain, the president of Indian Women's Press Corps.

In 2015, scholar Malleshappa M. Kalburgi was shot dead at his Bangalore home, following death threats from right-wing Hindu groups after he criticized idol worship and superstitious beliefs by Hindus.

Earlier that year, Indian writer and anti-superstition crusader Govind Pansare was shot dead while taking a walk with his wife near their home in western Maharashtra state. And in another daytime attack in 2013, two assailants shot anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar dead while he was out for a walk in the Maharashtra city of Pune.

On Wednesday, the Indian Writer's Forum called Lankesh's murder "a chilling continuation" of the killings of Mr. Dabholkar, Mr. Pansare, and Mr. Kalburgi and pledged to continue Lankesh's fight against the "haters of free speech."

Police have arrested a suspect in Pansare's murder who has been released on bail. Another suspect is in custody in the Dabholkar case. But no one has yet been prosecuted in any of the three cases.

"We will continue to speak on her behalf and ours. They cannot silence us all," the Forum said in a statement.

Some said they feared the killing was evidence that the space for democratic opinion was shrinking in India.

The message is, "if you do not fall in line, you will be executed," said Ananya Vajpeyi of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "Gauri Lankesh's murder last night was more than the killing of an individual; it was an assault on the freedom of the press, on the right to dissent, and on democratic citizenship."

The Committee to Protect Journalists has often rebuked India for its poor record in safeguarding journalists, particularly those covering small-town corruption.

Out of 27 cases of journalists who were killed for their work in India since 1992, none have led to any convictions, the group said.

"India needs to address the problem of impunity in journalist murders and ensure the press can work freely," said the group's Asia coordinator Steven Butler in Washington, D.C.

The recent growth of social media has made threats even more common, opening new arenas for people to verbally attack and threaten journalists with relative anonymity.

Writers who criticize the government have become the target of troll armies. Women journalists, in particular, are frequently threatened with rape and acid attacks.

Broadcast journalist Barkha Dutt said Lankesh's killing should be "a wake-up call."

"All of us have had experiences, especially as women, of receiving threats and abuse, from rape to murder," Ms. Dutt said. "I have personally gone in the past to the police, testified in court, and no one was ever able to find the people who threatened me."

The use of the denigrating term, "pressitutes," by a federal minister two years ago had also worked to undermine media credibility and encouraged trolling, journalists said.

Lankesh's brother, Indrajit, has demanded that her murder be investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation – India's equivalent of the FBI – without political interference.

"We have seen what happened with police investigations into the killing of Kalburgi" – a case that remains unsolved, he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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