Sunday, February 18, 2018

The real moral duty of journalists: Not to dance to the tune of the powerful

Appeared first on Scroll.in

An NIA statement about an arrested Kashmir photographer should prompt journalists to consider how far their profession has drifted from basic standards. 

Perhaps the Indian media deserves a lecture from the National Investigation Agency about our moral duty. Given how far much of mainstream media has drifted from any concept of morality, leave alone accuracy or simple journalistic principles, we should not be surprised that India’s anti-terror agency has taken upon itself to pronounce judgment on who is a real journalist.

The context is the plainly unjustified arrest of 23-year-old Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yusuf on September 5. His family was not informed as he was taken away. More than four months later, on January 18, he was charged with sedition, criminal conspiracy and attempting to wage war against India.

On February 15, in documents presented before the Additional Sessions Court in New Delhi, the National Investigation Agency attempted to make out a case that Yusuf is not a real journalist but is actually a stone-pelter, and therefore, an anti-national.

The words used by the central agency to describe who is a journalist are fascinating. They illustrate how the state would like all of us journalists to be quiet, obedient note-takers who cover important functions, like the inauguration of hospitals, and ignore anything deemed anti-national, such as young Kashmiris venting their anger and frustration at the state of affairs in their land.

Making out an argument on why it believes Yusuf is not a real journalist, here is what the National Investigation Agency said in its court document:
  “Had he been a real journalist/stringer by profession, he may had (sic) performed one of the moral duty of a journalist which is to cover activity and happening (good or bad) in his jurisdiction. He had never covered any developmental activity of any Government Department/Agency, any inauguration of Hospital, School Building, Road, Bridge, statement of any political party in power or any other social/developmental activity by the state Government or Govt. of India.”  
According to the anti-terror agency, a real journalist’s moral duty is to cover developmental activity of governmental departments, such as inaugurations of hospitals, schools, roads and bridges, and statements of political parties in power. Clearly, reporting statements by the Opposition does not count as real journalism.

The National Investigation Agency also states that Yusuf was not a professional as he had not taken any professional training in photography or videography. Taken together, this non-professional was only covering anti-national activists in order to “create mass awareness amongst the local people about such activities so that they can be motivated to support such activities”.

By these parameters laid out by the agency, thousands of journalists would be suspect. For one, most journalists do not cover the kind of development activity the agency has described. This task is usually given to the junior-most person in a media organisation, and the event merits publication or air space only if a very important person is involved.

Most professional journalists think of developmental activity as something entirely different. It means burning shoe-leather, travelling to places that are ostensibly being developed by the government or some private agency, and then reporting on the true state of affairs. Such stories cannot be done on the basis of press handouts, or briefings.

Real journalism produces stories that most often run counter to the dominant discourse broadcast by government-friendly or government-owned media. This is developmental journalism in its true sense, something that is a somewhat endangered form of journalism in today’s media scene in India. If journalists were really doing this, they would be fulfilling their moral duty, or at least their professional duty.

Real journalists

Then let us look at the charge that Yusuf had not attended a professional training institute. By that measure too, many journalists in India would stand disqualified, particularly people of my generation and an earlier one. When I began journalism, there were no journalism courses. We learned on the job, as did our seniors. Yet, that did not make us less professional. We were real journalists and continue to be so.

Of course, it is no point dissecting every word of the National Investigation Agency as its purpose in arresting Yusuf is entirely different: to send out a message to Kashmiri journalists who have, at considerable risk to their own lives, informed India and the world about the state of resistance and suppression in their state. These are journalists who have tried to understand and convey the anger of young Kashmiris who are prepared to die or be maimed for life to oppose what in their view is an unjust regime. These journalists are doing their moral duty. They are real journalists, not stenographers.

The journalism drift

Yet, the agency’s statement should also prompt Indian journalists to look at the state of journalism in India today, and how far it has drifted from professional and basic journalistic standards.

Take the case of the sacking of Angshukanta Chakraborty, who was until recently the political editor of the DailyO website, part of the India Today group. She was summarily dismissed last week for a tweet she released on her personal Twitter handle in which she criticised journalists who spread fake news, without identifying anyone. She did not need to. Everyone knows that some of the main proponents of fake news in mainstream media work within the same media organisation from which she was dismissed.

Take, for instance, Abhijit Majumder, editor of the Mail Today tabloid. He was called out in January for tweeting fake news about a Hindu man being killed during the communal flare-up in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh. The man was alive. Yet, by then Majumder’s tweet had travelled far. His bosses at the India Today group did not haul him up for spreading such dangerous and unsubstantiated information that exacerbated the communally-charged atmosphere in Kasganj.

On the contrary, far from being reprimanded, Majumder was recently recommended for an important position in public broadcaster Prasar Bharati. In a rare show of autonomy, the Prasar Bharati board on February 15 rejected the proposal that had come directly from the Union government.

Pliant media

This and several other pointers reiterate what is already well-known: that the state approves of those journalists who openly endorse the government’s or the ruling party’s line, and will reward them. Those who choose to do real journalism – to be sceptical, to ask difficult questions, to dig out the truth, to refuse to take things at face value, do so at their own risk.

What is pitiful is that unlike the actions taken against people like Yusuf, or several other journalists in places like Chhattisgarh, the media has quietly fallen in line without a hint of resistance. It bows to the government’s agenda, gives space and time to the issues that suit the powerful, and routinely overlooks what is going on in most parts of this country.

Worse still, this pliant media has contributed to the coarsening of public discourse on many issues, including politics. The space for a reasoned debate on any subject has virtually disappeared. Forcing every issue into antagonistic binaries only benefits those who want our society to be polarised. It is the anti-thesis of the role the media is supposed to play in a democracy – of a space that informs and engenders real debate and that speaks truth to power.

Bob Moser, former editor of Texas Observer, wrote in a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review: “For reporters, it’s surely as close to a Golden Rule as journalism affords: Fear nobody and nothing in your quest to unearth hard truths and afflict the powerful”.

Journalism in India is certainly not afflicting the powerful. It is dancing to their tune.

 

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