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Gauri Lankesh murder: Coverage shows complete disregard for journalistic principles as 'outrage' replaces objectivity

There are some disturbing takeaways from the outrage over the murder of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh. This cold-blooded killing of a fiercely anti-establishment voice ought to lead us to question the claim that India is a liberal democracy. It should compel the media to ask searching questions on why India remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. The killing ought to redirect the light on obscure pockets in rural hinterlands where away from the light and glitter of studios, journalists speak the truth at great personal risk. Relentless pressure should be built on the authorities to find the assailants and ensure justice for Lankesh.

But in going about their job, journalists also have a primary duty to remain objective and interpret available data with neutrality. Subject everything to verification. During moments of great emotion (as Lankesh's killing certainly was) this could be difficult. But in the absence of fairness, objectivity, and balance, there is little to differentiate journalism from propaganda.

 Gauri Lankesh murder: Coverage shows complete disregard for journalistic principles as outrage replaces objectivity

People take part in a candle light vigil at India Gate in New Delhi on Wednesday against killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh. PTI

It was achingly sad to see senior journalists — some of the most seasoned voices who have wealth of experience behind them — dump all pretense of objectivity and hurtle down the slippery slope of loaded insinuations, misinformation, and empty virtue-signaling.

Before the authorities could even announce the launching of a probe, some public intellectuals, and influential media figures had solved the crime. They were convinced that Lankesh was killed by "fascist forces" and the murder was linked to a certain ideology. Long before the cops could get to work, media had assumed the role of judge, jury, and executioner. The Karnataka government eventually announced a SIT probe led by an Inspector General-level officer, but for all purposes, this was unnecessary. The case was solved and an elaborate narrative constructed that is sure to have a life of its own.

Whither facts, data, objectivity, or balance? It was as if these are no longer important to journalism; sticking to a fact-free narrative is. Journalists are required to have a scientific temper, an inbuilt cynicism towards narratives.

In 1919, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz wrote about the lack of objectivity in journalism while critiquing New York Times's coverage of the Russian Revolution. The writers accused the NYT of presenting "the news about Russia as a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see". They stressed that "it does not matter that the news is not susceptible to mathematical statement. In fact, just because news is complex and slippery, good reporting requires the exercise of the highest scientific virtues.”

Journalists should be at the vanguards of the fight against propaganda. What we witnessed after Lankesh's death, however, was a curious reversal of the principles of journalism. The killing was instantly blamed on a certain ideology, and from that point onwards it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Murder is the foulest of crimes. It is the gravest violation of human rights. Any charges related to it, therefore, must also be made in all seriousness and with the weight of facts behind it. These charges cannot arise out of emotion, however tempting the provocation may be. All that the narrative-peddlers had was a piece of logical fallacy that "she was a critic of Right-wing forces, and therefore, she must have been killed by them". A pattern was readily discovered that it conforms to the killing of other rationalists, and this was held as a "clinching proof" that the RSS or other Hindutva forces were behind it.

It could well be that the cops may eventually prove this assumption correct and Right-wing forces are found responsible. But was this fact proven within a few hours of her death? No.

Are we to assume that from now on, murder cases will be solved on the basis of assumption, not facts? There could have been so many known, unknown motives behind the murder. There could be so many angles that we are unaware of, and so many players whom we have little knowledge about. There are so many perspectives to explore.

The media's job is not to pick the angle that suits its narrative, but to do the onerous task of letting the cops do their job, hold the authorities accountable till the job is done. They should theorise the reasons behind her death only after the culprits are identified. This linear progression was inverted in one swoosh of journalistic impetuousness. One hopes that the Pat Moynihan dictum about everyone being entitled to their opinion but not a fact hasn't gone entirely out of coinage.

As police investigate the case, some new angles have emerged. Lankesh's brother Indrajit has revealed to NDTV that Gauri, the editor of a Kannada tabloid, had received hate mails and death threats from Naxalites. Lankesh was trying to bring the ultra-Left into the mainstream. Cops are reportedly exploring this angle.

It has also come to light that the departed journalist, a fiercely nonconformist voice, "was reportedly contemplating a series of exposes on corrupt industrialists and politicians in Karnataka" that could have put some powerful figures into trouble. Quoting friends close to the journalist, Shantanu Guha Ray writes in Firstpost that she was "aware of possible dangers she could face if she went ahead with those investigative pieces, which she planned to coincide with the forthcoming Karnataka state elections."

Citing "preliminary analysis", a report in The Indian Express says that the pistol that was used to kill Lankesh was of the same make that was used to kill the rationalists, while also pointing out that the gun is "commonly available".

However, Deccan Chronicle in its report claims that the "weapon was (a) Naxal-preferred country pistol". The newspaper claims to have "sources with access to the forensics report" and reports that "after a two-hour post-mortem conducted on the slain journalist at the city's Victoria Hospital, the autopsy showed three bullet injuries to her body."

"The injuries do not match with injuries inflicted by a conventional or branded firearm... This raises the possibility that the killers may not be from the same group as those who eliminated MM Kalburgi, who was shot dead with a 7.65mm caliber pistol," reports the newspaper, quoting "an official source".

These instances are not meant to spring alternative theories on Lankesh's death. But it is to point out that it is not incumbent on journalists to become sleuths — more so without any evidence. And in any case, as these instances show, there is enough space for doubt to conclusively peddle any narrative over the murder.

Contrary to that, much of the early reportage and opinions around Lankesh's death were based on presuppositions that the Right-wing was behind her murder even before any arrests were made or FIR was filed in the case.

In keeping with the narrative, the protest marches in different parts of the country took a political hue. Some journalists who took part were discomfited by it.

In the end, the movement — triggered by Lankesh's murder — in favour of press freedom and freedom of speech and expression, ran the risk of becoming a politically charged rallying pointed against the ruling party at the Centre.

The fight didn't seem to be aimed at preserving the universal right to dissent, but to preserve only one kind of dissent. Can journalists turn crusaders? Or is taking a political stand the new normal in journalism?

The other disturbing aspect is how selective the outrage is against the attack on scribes. Citing data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Huffington Post points out that of the 40 Indian journalists killed in targeted assassinations or in violence while on the job between 1992 and 2017, "none of them who were killed in targeted assassinations worked for English publications".

As author and columnist Anand Ranganathan pointed out on Twitter, among the 22 Indian Journalists murdered since 2013, Gauri Lankesh was the only one who also wrote in English or appeared in the English media.

Our outrage against the killing of journalists seems to be also selective and hopelessly one-sided, suggesting a strong bias in the favour of English language media. This hierarchical order isn’t surprising, but deeply unfortunate. It once again shows a lack of balance and inability to rise above one-sided perspectives.

The core of journalistic freedom is impartiality. Objectivity springs from that fount and leads to greater credibility in work. Lankesh's death should compel us, among other things, to re-engage with these values.

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Updated Date: Sep 07, 2017 18:34:10 IST