Inconvenient truths: Targeting the messenger is up

Columnist  | Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

Opinion, Oped

The correlation between journalistic killing and journalistic freedom is unmistakable, but it is not as obvious as it may seem.

Shujaat Bukhari

The annual report on journalists killed indicates that 2018 has recorded a 15 per cent increase over the previous year in the murders. At least 63 journalists were killed on the job, and at least another 17 more if we include citizen journalists and other media workers. The correlation between journalistic killing and journalistic freedom is unmistakable, but it is not as obvious as it may seem.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the Paris-based NGO founded in 1985 that brings out the report, ranks Norway on top on its World Press Freedom Index. Jamaica is at sixth, Uruguay 20th, the UK 40th, the United States at 45th. (The US makes its entry into the “top five countries” where the most journalists were killed.) India, at 138th, dropped two notches from its 2017 rank, but that is still an improved rank from its 2013 and 2014 ranking of 140. Since we must compulsively seek gratification by comparing ourselves with our neighbour, Pakistan is at 139th (three killed), staying where it was last year.

India and the US contributed six apiece. All of them were professional working journalists. In India, the list is: Shujaat Bukhari of Rising Kashmir newspaper, Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh of Dainik Bhaskar newspaper, Chandan Tiwari of Aaj newspaper, Sandeep Sharma of News World, and Achyutananda Sahu of the publicly-owned Doordarshan network. After the report was released, a seventh, independent journalist Amit Topno, was killed in Jharkhand.

A killed journalist is also a form of vicarious killing, which hopes to kill the idea of critical media.

Is hatred the real cause? While, predictably, strife-torn Afghanistan takes the top dishonours (14 killed), the ripples of shock that India routinely figures so low, and that the US made its entry into the “top five”, is because they are vibrant democracies, and they are not conflict zones: Not officially, anyway. Let us also not for a moment discount the observation that while mediapersons are independently counted, police personnel, officials, and political workers in India are routinely murdered as well for doing their jobs.

RWB’s director-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement: “The hatred of journalists that is voiced ... by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders and businessmen has tragic consequences on the ground, and has been reflected in this disturbing increase in violations against journalists.” How true is this statement in the specific case of India?

Let us go with the usual way we understand hatred — as an emotion. Whether it was hatred that did our journalists in is debatable. I still remember the day of horror in 2015 we received the news that our young colleague Akshay Singh died under mysterious circumstances after consuming tea in a house in Bhopal, where he was preparing to interview the family of a victim who was allegedly involved in the infamous Vyapam scandal.

Hatred does not ring right here. Hate-mongering in our country is as true as day. Yet if the actions of the sand mafia, builder mafia, examination scam mafia, or even the lynch mob were to be dismissed simply as hate crimes, we would not be treating it right.

Further down that chain, perhaps as a branch of it, is an implied licence to kill, ostensibly justified by the end. When a journalist is arrested for criticising the Hindu nationalist agenda, the government sets an example. He was just inconvenient, as another reporter would be for the mafia. Similarly, lynch mob anger is a consequence of the social inconvenience.

The illusion of balance: Yet those emotions are not directly responsible for the killings. The emotion is often a camouflage. As party poopers go, journalists are trained to be ruthless (or focused, if you prefer a less value-laden term) in the pursuit of what they believe is socially important. A journalist’s murder aims at eliminating inconvenience in the way of a perceived larger good. In observed practice, the increasingly ultra-right world we live in fundamentally deters critique. There is dissonance between the critical media’s list of concurred values and a neo-movement that aims to change the basic values, and those seeking that change can be ruthless in their own way to silence what they see as impropriety and unbalanced criticism.  

Nosy journalists, like good officers, are inconvenient pests. They won’t go away. They won’t let businesses go on “as usual”. They are disruptors by profession, and that is a problem. As fashionable as it is today to discredit their clan for exposing inconvenient truths, let us admit that some journalists cannot deny the jingoism they have either taught or learnt as the most effective “eyeballs strategy”. But mediapersons are more rampantly abused for having an agenda, being corrupt, and therefore not raising the right questions. If you read some of those vicious and threatening posts (some of us have painfully learned the fine and imperfect art of distinguishing trolls from non-trolls), it surprises me that more journalists are not killed in our country. Imagine the pressure on our media.

The difference between physical and vicarious killing is also reflected in RWB’s observation of “self-censorship”, which, it says, is growing in the Indian mainstream media. That may in part be a factor of the fear of unbalanced stories. The anxious journalistic struggle to “balance” each story is specious. On prime-time panel debates between rival political party representatives, the moderator asks customary, sometimes rhetorical, questions. The debate itself is rather redundant. The gesture of balance is all-important. They have the camouflage of a questioning attitude, but in reality, they may merely be exercising self-preservation. The compulsion of balance only ends up showcasing a perception of balance. And thus, the media is giving in to the mob in an anxiety to protect something they are given to fear is eroding—public credibility.

Thankfully, the illusion of moderation is not lost on our media. An understanding of the life of a reporter embedded in India’s feudal interiors alone can exemplify the fact that it takes defiance to continue to swim against the tide in extracting truths. Those who toe the line protect the convenience.

The writer is a media educator and observer, who has edited magazines and newspapers in both India and the United States. He is now doing a study of how the Indian and US news industries are reshaping themselves in the 21st century.