Gauri Lankesh: The view from Pakistan


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Gauri Lankesh: The view from Pakistan

We must stand united and support each other’s voices to honour Gauri’s memory. Dissent is dangerous but it is also essential as it is the voice of our society’s conscience. Let it be heard because dissent speaks volumes

Journalists in Pakistan are no strangers to danger. Last year, Pakistan was declared the fourth most dangerous country in the world for journalists in a report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Yet it does not deter many a brave journalist from taking risks and reporting things that can definitely land them in hot water. Some in the Pakistani media still report on issues that many consider taboo or dangerous but only because we do not take our freedoms for granted; Pakistani journalists have fought tooth and nail for these freedoms.

We have all sorts of enemies – be it the state, religious extremists, terrorists and/or mafias, among many other faceless entities. But it’s not just the journalists who are at risk: our society has changed over the years; intolerance is now so widespread that sometimes one tends to become extremely cautious even in a private setting. I see something of the same sort happening in India…albeit at a slower pace but it is still happening.


Indian protesters hold candles and placards during a candle light vigil to protest the killing of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh in Hyderabad(AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

When Narendra Modi won the Indian elections in 2014, I wrote these lines for an Indian publication:

“For every progressive Indian, it should have been a day of reckoning when Modi was elected but it was disturbing to see that most of them were not even willing to admit that something did go wrong. The harsh reality is that both India and Pakistan can be equally exploitative, oppressive and bigoted societies.” (‘The Shining’, Mid-Day)

We don’t know who killed brave Gauri Lankesh. But we do know that with her death, several journalists will now think twice before taking a stand against the Hindutva brigade or who would now be extremely cautious what they say or how they say it. It is not about journalists only or about India. It’s human nature.

Take the case of Shaheed Salman Taseer and blasphemy laws. When a sitting governor was assassinated by a religious extremist merely for supporting an innocent Christian woman accused of alleged blasphemy, the debate on blasphemy laws died a slow death in Pakistan. When one brave voice is silenced, it sends out a message to others: do not take such a stand again or you, too, could be next. This is not to say that everyone is easily silenced. There are still some very brave people in my country who continue to talk about blasphemy laws, who continue to challenge religious fundamentalism, who still don’t shy away from calling a spade a spade.

India is a much larger country than Pakistan and is the world’s largest democracy with a secular constitution but if it cedes space to extremist forces and bigots today, it would not take long before there is so much intolerance and polarisation that it would start to suffocate society as a whole.

According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan ranks at 139 out of 180 countries; India ranks at 136. This ranking should have been a cause of worry for the Indian media. Things don’t change overnight. Intolerance creeps, slowly but surely, and leads to chaos. When dissent is silenced, whether through a bullet or a threatening phone call, it is alarming. When journalists are threatened, the media as a whole should stand up and call out those threatening the journalist in question.

It doesn’t happen though. Due to political ideologies, commercial interests and many other reasons, our media is divided. If a liberal journalist reports that he/she is being threatened, the right-wing media normally makes light of it and/or starts questioning the credibility of that journalist. When Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s best-known TV anchors on Geo News was attacked, most of our media started attacking the victim instead of calling out the perpetrators. For some media outlets, it was all about commercial interest – to capture Geo TV’s ratings/market, for others it was about pleasing those who were behind the heinous attack. This should have led to a debate about media ethics but all it did was create more divisions.

Television channels like Republic TV in India and BOL in Pakistan are examples of a vicious kind of journalism that should not even be called ‘journalism’. When we give airtime to anchors, analysts, guests who only spew venom against those they don’t agree with or lead hate campaigns on our television screens and no action is taken against them, it means that the state itself is complicit.

I sincerely hope that the Indian media will not let Gauri’s murder silence dissenting voices. We must stand united and support each other’s voices to honour Gauri’s memory. Dissent is dangerous but it is also essential as it is the voice of our society’s conscience. Let it be heard because dissent speaks volumes.

Mehmal Sarfraz is a Lahore-based journalist and tweets @Mehmal

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