Story Killers

Credit: Melody Da Fonseca/Forbidden Stories
Published: February 14, 2023

Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh was uncharacteristically relaxed the day she was murdered.

That morning, she had put the finishing touches on an editorial about the rise of disinformation for the weekly newspaper she ran, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Known for defending the poor and her biting takedowns of the right wing, Lankesh drew on her own experience as a high-profile target of digital hate campaigns as she wrote "In the Age of False News."

Lankesh described how India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used “lie-factories” — websites that traffic in rumors and half-truths — to spread disinformation online, from false reports to doctored photos aimed at discrediting the government’s critics. Internet users with a political agenda then spread these lies, she said, using “the fake news as their weapon.”

Lankesh never saw the editorial in print. As she walked up to the entryway of her house, the cracks of four gunshots echoed through the neighborhood: The first hit her in the back, while two more lodged in her abdomen. She died instantly.

Lankesh’s murder, in September 2017, sent shockwaves across India, which has become an increasingly dangerous country for journalists since the BJP came to power. Hundreds of mourners attended her state funeral, holding signs reading, “I am also Gauri.”

The BJP in Karnataka, the state where Lankesh was killed, did not reply to requests for comment.

Prosecutors believe Lankesh was murdered by religious fanatics associated with Hindu nationalists. Seventeen alleged members of an organized crime syndicate with roots in various hardline groups are now on trial in Bangalore, accused of plotting to murder Lankesh “at any cost” for fear she would bring Hinduism into disrepute.

Before her death, Lankesh had been the target of relentless online harassment, which reached a fever pitch after she was convicted of libel for “hurting religious sentiments" in late 2016. Trolls labeled her a “known Hindu hater” and “prestitute,” while others called for her death.

“They decided to target Gauri because of how she was perceived,” said a local journalist, who asked not to be named. The hatred, he said, “grew and grew and grew.”

Those who knew her say Lankesh saw combating fake news as part of a larger battle against the fracturing of society. Her final editorial ended with a call to action: “I want to salute all those who expose fake news. I wish there were more of them.”

Forbidden Stories, whose mission is to continue the work of threatened, imprisoned or assassinated journalists, has taken up that call. Bringing together over 100 journalists from 30 media organizations, the French nonprofit created the “Story Killers” project to investigate the global disinformation-for-hire industry.

Journalists from OCCRP joined the efforts in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to uncover the growing, unregulated market — ranging from small-time fake news peddlers to multinational conglomerates that sell disinformation campaigns aimed at subverting democracy.

Watch this space for more stories.

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        Project Credits

        Editing: Kira Zalan, Caroline Henshaw, Jared Ferrie, Peter Jones, Alex Dziadosz, Julia Wallace, James Wright

        Reporting: Jan Strozyk, Graham Stack, Alina Tsogoeva, Antonio Baquero, Lilia Saul Rodriguez, Paul May, Nathan Jaccard, Eduardo Goulard, Jonny Wrate, Khadija Sharife, Jurre van Bergen, Lorenzo Bagnoli (IRPI), Raffaele Angius (IRPI), Riccardo Coluccini (IRPI), Atanas Tchobanov (Bird)

        Project Coordination: Kira Zalan

        Data: Jan Strozyk

        Fact Checking: Olena LaFoy, Ivana Jeremic

        Photo Editing: Katie McCraw

        Graphics: James O'Brien

        Promotion: Charlie Turner, Sam Brooke, Maria Semendyaeva

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