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Journalists fear crackdown in India

By Christina Okello

Three weeks after the murder of outspoken Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, the press in India fears their industry may be under threat. The high profile editor was shot dead outside her home in the southern city of Bangalore on Tuesday 6 September. Her death has sparked calls for greater protection of female journalists.

Rarely has the death of a journalist sparked so much outcry in India.

Soon after news of Gauri Lankesh's murder emerged, demonstrations and artwork sprung up in Bangalore and other Indian cities to call for justice.

A fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right wing government, Lankesh was shot in broad daylight as she entered her home in Bangalore on Tuesday 6 September.

"This particular case has hit the headlines," explains Sabina Inderjit, Vice President of the Indian Journalists Union and an Executive Committee member of the International Federation of Journalists. "It is clearly seen as an attack on the freedom of expression."

Concerns about press freedom have intensified since the BJP government of Narendra Modi took office in 2014.

Lankesh herself had voiced concern about the threat posed to journalists who didn’t toe the Hindu-nationalist line.

Under threat

While no motive has yet been established for her death, the Press Club of India said in a statement it believed it was connected to Lankesh’s work.

"We have a situation where journalists are definitely, definitely feeling stifled," continues Inderjit. "Now I'm not saying it’s just the right wing government, but in today’s time there is a fear among us that if you speak out against the powers that be, you could be under threat.”

Her words are chilling, particularly in the light of the death of a second Indian journalist in less than a month.

Shantanu Bhowmick, a reporter covering political unrest, was beaten to death during violent clashes on Thursday 21 September.

No arrests have yet been made in connection with his death. Nor has there been significant breakthrough in the investigation into Lankesh's murder either.

"Out of 28 states, only one has passed a law to protect journalists," says Inderjit, commenting on India's poor record on journalists' safety.

"There should be a law to protect journalists," she says, hoping that Lankesh's murder will serve as a catalyst for change.

Calls for journalist protection

Lankesh's death and its ramifications for journalists' safety, particularly women, featured prominently at this year’s UN General Assembly in New York.

The Human Rights Council in fact adopted a mini resolution calling for the safety of women journalists.

"There is a better understanding from the international community of the question of the safety of journalists," explains Blaise Lempen, Secretary General of the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC), who was at the UN General Assembly.

According to Lempen, 3% of journalists killed last year were women, and this number has increased among the the death toll of casualties already registered this year, which includes the Swedish journalist Kim Wall, murdered in Denmark on August 10.

"We’ve seen all this year that governments are more sensitive to the issue and are more active in this field," he says.

With more women working in dangerous environments, critics will want to hope that this growing awareness will actually transform into concrete protection on the ground.

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