Death of Gauri Lankesh brings focus on the risks of journalism

Gauri Lankesh, an editor in India who was killed in early September. (Photo via Twitter.)

“Is journalism worth dying for?” That’s a loaded question without an easy answer. However, Freedom of Press becomes a highly contested issue depending upon where one lives.

A gutsy and outspoken Indian editor, Gauri Lankesh, was shot dead by an unidentified gunman when she was out of her car to open the gate of her house last week at Bengaluru. She was killed on the spot, according to the police report.

Lankesh’s death is still under investigation, but investigators have been looking at her work as a possible motive. Lankesh was a loud critic of Hindu Extremism. Lankesh was not the first journalist to risk her life for what she wrote.

In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was was fatally shot in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. The 48-year-old Russian reporter’s final works were collected in a 480-page book, “Is Journalism worth Dying For? Final Dispatch.”  It was published after her death.

Politkovskaya had been investigating complaints of abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers in the war zones of Chechnya during 1990s. Her reports angered the Russian authorities.

In an article that was found in Politkovskaya’s computer after her death, she wrote: “I will not go into the joys of the path I have chosen: the poisoning, the arrests, the menacing by mail and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats. The main thing is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see. What Am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.”

My own former editor Alireza Rajaei, the editor of Jameh newspaper in Iran, was imprisoned for pursuing and telling the truth. Rajaei was arrested by Iranian authorities twice for vague charges including conducting measures against the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and propaganda against Iran’s Islamic establishments.

He served six months in prison, including 91 days in solitary confinement in 2001. The second time he was arrested in 2011, he was imprisoned for four years, including 58 days in solitary confinement. Rajaei was removed from the political section of notorious Evin Prison, and he was placed in a dangerous part of the prison that normally houses drug traffickers and murderers.

Political prisoners and prisoners of conscious are already subject to assault, beating, handcuff, blindfold, struck on their backs, heads and faces and the denial of access to medical treatments, according to Amnesty International. Rajaei suffered all of those above. Now, after two years out of prison, he suffers from cancer that had gone untreated in prison. As a result, he lost his eyes and a big portion of his jaw. 

With a total of 259 journalists imprisoned worldwide, according to Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran ranks 165, out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2017. Russia ranks 148, India 136, and U.S. number is 43.

But why? Why do people like Gauri Lankesh, Anna Politkovskaya, Alireza Rajaei and others, including jailed Iranian journalist Isa Saharkhiz, think that journalism is worth risking their lives — and perhaps dying — for?

In journalism, we reporters believe that if you ask the “why” question at least three times, you get closer to the truth for a particular story. The three “why” question here are:

  • why do journalists put their lives in danger to uncover a story?
  • why does telling the truth matter to them so much?
  • why do journalists often appear to act carelessly?

Every person’s response to tyranny is different. Some people take up arms to kill others, some people blow themselves to take a few lives, some people stab others. And some people, like Lankesh, Politkovkaya and Rajaei decide to use their words as their fatal weapons against lies. Maybe for them, journalism worth dying for.