Friday, April 16, 2010

My fearless comrades

I fear three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets.

In Kashmir…the arena of an armed confrontation between separatist elements and state security forces, continued to pose serious challenges for journalism through the year.
~ Annual Press Freedom Report for South Asia

Journalists are a very strange tribe. We write and speak to inform and educate. As also entertain. We are paid to be creative -- to report, to observe, to get down to brass tacks. To dine with the who’s who. We often hobnob with the rich and travel with the poor.
We perform shack jobs for the powerful. We offend. We distort.
We bring out the truth. We are feted about and hunted down.

Reporting from a conflict zone – like Kashmir – can often prove to be tricky. The coverage of events has got to be non-partisan.
A journalist has to take care of loads of stuff: citing sources, double-checking facts, providing necessary contextual background and oft times, offering their own observations, perfigurations of interpretations without the urge to editorialize. That isn’t always easy.

The tinker of a slow duel -- of crisis and credibility -- is subliminally heard in a journalist’s mind always. Therefore the importance of information in a complex conflict situation is very critical. And journalists – being peddlers of such info – also become critical.
The nature of the job is such that there is no retreating from an impending danger, nor can you brazenly afford to antagonize the street view. You feel like a drunkard with a spadroon in hand.

Whenever I visit Kashmir, people regularly tell me that journalists here are either paid agents or spies or lackeys. Or all the three.
And by and large journalists have zero-ethics, they throw-in for good measure, tagging me along. The fear emanates from a real danger. The danger that media is rented by crooked leaders to underwrite national fears and hatreds. All things considered, most journalists resist this temptation. Those who give in, automatically, cease to be journalists and become propagandists.

A hack needs to tread warily, like a female model on a tottery ramp. That is because media can easily become a weapon of war. Lots of journalists are under a constant squeeze to promote fragmentation of human society. They have to strive to stay unfettered and free from such pressures. I think the important question of conscience comes into play here. And conscience is a very human trait.

Umberto Eco, the Italian medievalist, philosopher and intellectual said last fall – and I sat in rapt attention listening to him – that we must define the limits of tolerance and to do this we must first know what is intolerable. Sadly a society like Kashmir provides little leeway to understand the fine line between tolerance and intolerance. Top reason why journalists find themselves in the infamous list of the most disliked group, just beneath politicians.

In reality a code of ethics does exist for journalists. The code is simple: to seek after truth, to be independent and to minimize harm. Under any circumstances the sub-text is no simple detail. How can journalists be immune and avoid being exploited for political objectives? How can journalists differentiate between a planted and a genuine story? How can a conflict be reported objectively – with both sides of the picture – in intense friction?

I reckon journalists' ethics are largely a content issue, and governments should have no proper role in media content. Period. When men in media say they do 'nation-building journalism' it means they simply end up toeing the official line. Likewise when they highlight every silly syllable that the separatist bandwagon utters in Kashmir, they inadvertently eschew their responsibility as watchdogs of society.

The 19th century British cultural critic Mathew Arnold once famously said that journalism is literature in a hurry. In the 21st century Kashmir, journalism is fast becoming organized gossip, to paraphrase Egglestone.