It’s been twenty seven years since the world saw the first televised conflict in the form of US-led Operation Desert Storm against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
With that began the phase when governments utilised the power of the visual medium to ‘shock and awe’ the opposing side.
Terrorists too picked up on it. 9/11 remains its biggest example.
What was common however was the fact that media houses remained the gatekeepers. Whether to air or not, how much to air and what not to – these were decisions journalists made.
Today, the gatekeeper is nearly jobless.
When not owning media, governments own social media feed.
Terrorists too drop a message on a chat app or upload a video on a video-sharing site. The job’s done. Who needs journalists any longer!
Good news or bad news?
Good, if you ask me.
We are no longer required to run after the authorities for bites, data, images and the like. Unless you prefer walking with your eyes closed, there are bigger issues to tackle, inconvenient truth to uncover, propaganda to defeat, fake news to bust and that old school reportage is always there for those who seek.
Next question – are we seeing this form of journalism around us, in India? In a hall full of aspiring media professionals and veterans, not a single person said yes.
These are some of the inconvenient truths I gathered from editors I’ve had the chance to work with:
- Let us not take on/question our armed forces (it ostensibly lowers their morale)
- Do not cover/talk to Maoist insurgents – they are terrorists
- Stories of Maoist violence are not sexy enough there are massive casualties
- Celebrate surgical strikes but don’t question why are matters slipping away so rapidly
Let me tell you something about the Maoists of India who’ve managed to create an insurgency that predates our independence. To recruit they rely on issues like mining, displacement, denuding of forests, police atrocities – how often and in what manner do we report on them?
Did anyone in the audience remember seeing an Indian news television report on the subjects mentioned above? No one was sure.
My next question to them was whether they’d seen a tribal affairs correspondent in any of the major news channels? Or if they’d seen reporters based out of conflict-ridden areas of Odisha, Chhattisgarh or north eastern states? Hardly anyone offered a word.
Conflicts are spells – sometimes long sometimes short. But if journalists look at covering them as an aberration then credibility is the price.
Last year, World Press Freedom ranked India 136th among 180 nations. To put things in perspective, between 2016 and 2017, India slipped three positions and moved closer to Pakistan (139). Our neighbours, Bhutan (84) and Nepal (100) are miles ahead.
By the way, this World Press Freedom report was prepared before the pre-meditated murder of Bengaluru-based journalist and proprietor Gauri Lankesh.
India has progressed when it comes to ease of obstructing journalists.
Any talk about doing journalism in these times in this country, of course, cannot be complete without reminding the reader what India’s premier anti-terror investigation agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) holds as the definition of journalism – covering developmental activity of any government department or inauguration of a hospital or a school or statement of any political party in power – this and more found its way into a charge sheet NIA filed before a court a few weeks ago (http://indianexpress.com/article/india/moral-duty-of-a-real-journalist-is-to-cover-govt-development-activity-nia-kamran-yusuf-arrest-5065841/)
Lastly, what role does the media have when it comes to reporting on conflict and peace-building?
So what should drive our coverage? Truth and public interest, to my mind.
Governments, parties in power and several institutions talk of media as their force multiplier. Is that justified?
Take for instance the case of American security contractor Edward Snowden. Championed world over for taking on the secretive National Security Agency which was collecting data on millions of innocent individuals, he is an offender when it comes to the USA. Syed Saleem Shehzad who exposed the grip that jihadists held on institutions of Pakistan military was hailed as a daring, investigative journalist. However, the intelligence agencies in Pakistan did not think so. They are accused of in fact having a hand in his killing.
Media was seen as a force multiplier by those in the Bush administration who were trying to convince the American public about the merits of invading Iraq for Saddam’s connections with Al Qaida and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) – both of which remain unproven to this day. Many journalists who did their bidding are even today busy apologizing for that.
Of course over 2,88,000 individuals who died a violent death in Iraq since the American invasion never got the chance.
(Notes from a lecture I delivered at GD Goenka University, Gurugram in March 2018)