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‘Who is next?’: Killing of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh sparks protests

Is free speech under attack in the world's largest democracy? (Video: The Washington Post)

The killing of a prominent journalist and government critic outside her home in Bangalore prompted protests in major Indian cities Wednesday and a national uproar about the shrinking space for free speech in the world's most populous democracy.

Gauri Lankesh, 55, was shot in the head and chest Tuesday on her doorstep by motorcycle-riding gunmen.

Although police have not yet identified suspects or possible motives, Lankesh’s death is widely being attributed to her work as a journalist and activist.

“They want us to be intimidated,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, former editor of the academic journal Economic and Political Weekly, speaking at the Press Club here. “I hope that a thousand Gauri Lankeshes will be born and will rise among us.”

Lankesh was a vocal critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the rising far-right Hindu nationalism associated with his party. Her death follows a string of recent killings that targeted leftist academics and scholars, activists said.

The activist was given a state funeral in Bangalore, where her body was displayed in a glass case adorned with marigolds.

Activists gathered at the Press Club and in cities across India holding signs that read, “#IamGauri” and “Who is next?” They shouted, “May Gauri Lankesh remain immortal.”

The killing was condemned by organizations such as Amnesty International. The U.S. Embassy in India said in a statement: “The U.S. Mission in India joins advocates of press freedom in India and worldwide in condemning the murder of respected journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore. We offer our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Ms. Lankesh.”

Her death has been compared to the killings of other writers and scholars in recent years. “I think there should be no doubt in our mind that she has been killed because of her work as a journalist,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of online news outlet the Wire. He said that police officers did not properly investigate the other deaths and that the failure encouraged those who killed Lankesh.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 27 journalists have been killed in India since 1992. According to the World Press Freedom Index, India fell three points in 2017, ranking 136 out of 180 countries.

Lankesh’s killing is the most high profile in recent years. She edited a popular regional tabloid called Gauri Lankesh Patrike, known for its irreverence toward politicians and its coverage of issues that affected the most marginalized sections of society.

“She was very respected and well-known,” said Ramesh Aroli, who teaches journalism at Kamala Nehru College at the University of Delhi and who is writing a doctoral thesis about Lankesh Patrike. “People used to call her office to complain about corrupt politicians.”

Lankesh Patrike was started by Lankesh’s father, P. Lankesh, a poet and literary giant in Karnataka. When it first came out in the 1980s, the publication significantly altered the regional media scene, poking fun at politicians and spotlighting issues that mattered to the rural and semi-urban populations of the state, rather than catering to city dwellers.

Gauri Lankesh inherited the paper in 2000 when her father died. But differences with her brother resulted in a split, and in 2005, Lankesh started her own publication. This week’s issue carried a cover story about a former chief minister of Karnataka who had previously been arrested for a corruption scandal, with a headline that read, “Once again, the fear of jail.”

Lankesh’s stories had prompted death threats and abuse on social media and on the phone, friends said. In November 2016, she was convicted of defamation, a criminal charge in India, after she ran a story alleging that local leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party were involved in a scam to cheat a jeweler.

“She was not an intellectual like her father, per se,” said Umapathy, a journalist and friend of Lankesh who goes by only one name. “But she was a firebrand activist, much more so than her father was.”

At the Press Club here, people paid tributes to Lankesh’s work on behalf of people historically underrepresented in India: women, those in low castes and the poor. A student activist recalled how Lankesh had donated her own money to help a struggling fellow student pay for his studies abroad.

Close friends of Lankesh expressed disbelief at the news of her death. “I wish it was a dream,” said Bharathi Gowda, who knew Lankesh for three decades. “Her family is in shock.”

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