Endangered soldiers of conscience
Speak up; this little time is enough,
Speak; before this body and tongue pass away.
Speak up, for truth is still alive,
Speak and say whatever you want to say.
– Faiz Ahmad Faiz in
“Bol ki lab azad hain tere”
When the going is good, there is little need to read Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-84) or Gajanan Muktibodh (1917-64), poets of distinction who wrote about the human condition with empathy and energy in Bengali, Urdu and Khadi Boli, respectively. Perhaps that is why they are more talked about and quoted than actually read or understood. But when tides turn, their lines become to secularists what hymns and bhajans are to the devout.
Faiz beseeched his fellow citizens to speak at a time when silence had been elevated to the highest level of virtue in a country veering dangerously towards an institutionalised culture of violence. With insight that somehow only poets and artistes seem to be endowed with, he foresaw that the vicious cycle of silence, acquiescence, tyranny, fear and hush would ultimately suck the society into the dark hole of anarchy, barbarism, cruelty, deprivation and inhumanity. But who responds to the calls of bards when bandits are hovering in the background? Clearly some do – if not next door, then in the neighbourhood; if not now, then decades later. That is the curse and reward of those who speak to eternity.
Echoing Faiz, Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader in Colombo, wrote in a posthumously published editorial, “But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot.” He fell to assassin’s bullets for refusing to stop responding to that incessant call of duty of his war-torn nation. At the other corner of Southasia, Uma Singh – reporter, news editor and news reader all rolled into one at the Radio Today radio station in the mid-eastern plains of Nepal – was hacked to death in her one-room rented home. She was one who could not resist the urge to speak out, even when faced with the repeated threat of dire consequences in the most lawless corner of Nepal today.
For all his daring, Lasantha was a professional elite, who was on first-name terms with the president of his country, and he could caution and counsel all three sectors of the state on behalf of the Fourth Estate. He had apparently become a threat to powerful interests and had to be eliminated. As he himself wrote, in countries at war, journalism and soldiery are the only professions in which their practitioners have to lay their lives on the line for their work. Expecting sudden death, Lasantha wrote his own requiem in the form of an editorial to be published posthumously. In it, he mentioned in no uncertain terms, “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”
In stark contrast to Lasantha’s web of powerful friends and acquaintances in high places, Uma lived and worked in a conflict-afflicted town – Janakpur – at the periphery of national politics. She was killed just when she had begun planning a move to the capital city, in order to escape from a situation where a journalist was not valued and death seemed just round the corner. And yet, she was attacked and murdered. When the entire society is complicit in the conspiracy of silence, speaking up becomes a crime worthy of a death sentence. Whether the executioner is the government, a militia or a group of criminals, the rulers of the contemporary world do not like the temerity of a child who dares say that the emperor is naked. And the neighbours hide behind shuttered doors when a journalist is attacked and murdered in the next room.
Death is the ultimate penalty. But even in general, intolerance of criticism seems to have increased almost in proportion to the proliferation of the media. Compared to the ‘view-porters’ of television, pen-pushers in print have become even more vulnerable since the days when they aimed ‘paper bullets’ at power with a certain degree of immunity. The impunity now belongs to groups – in government or outside – who show ‘zero tolerance’ towards critical journalists.
Say, don’t show
A villain looks glamorous on a television screen, even when nasty things are being said about him. That could be why powerful people agree relatively easily to talk to view-porters but avoid meeting reporters of the print media. The old notions of the five W’s and H (who, what, when, where, how and why) and ‘show don’t tell’ are so ingrained in the psyche of media suppliers and consumers alike that the lack of a point of view in the visual media hardly bothers anybody. Newsmakers know it and use it to their advantage.
In print, and even in radio to a certain extent, the whole point is to have a point of view; and apparently that is much more dangerous than mere facts. Facts, after all, consist of data and their interpretation by experts. That can easily be manufactured with the help of some of the best brains available for hire: think of Arthur Andersen and Enron, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Satyam, or the CIA’s pre-war assessments of Iraq’s WMDs. But all their reports have little meaning for the good journalist in print, trained not take any ‘fact’ at face value. Perhaps this is what infuriates those who are accustomed to being accosted by cameras wherever they go.
Market forces too have pushed print journalists into the danger zone. The revenue model for print, radio, television and even web portals is the same: they all rely on paid advertisements for their sustenance. When it comes to the marketing of lifestyle products, words (written and spoken) and still photos are no matches for the moving images on the small screen. Faced with dwindling revenue, some newspapers did try to capitalise on their Page Three connections for sponsorships and corporate advertisements. But this approach is by its very nature exclusivist: not everyone can become a Times of India or India Today, two publications that have turned into a fine art the embedding of journalism with high commerce and the government of the day.
The pressure on non-embedded journalists, meanwhile, is to become more like one of the hacks at market leaders in the print business. Non-conformists get to be branded as mavericks overnight. From there, the road forks either towards oblivion or the position of a marked person, where one has to practice the profession with the draft of a posthumous editorial ready in the editorial drawers. Lasantha did just that; Uma shared her fears with ones near and dear. Their well-wishers probably told both of them, “Why can’t you be like other better-known and more comfortably placed journalists?”
In the end, the only thing that can keep a journalist on track is what Lasantha put very succinctly, “But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.” It is not an easy thing to respond to such a call. In the end, very few of us are willing to speak out for what we stand for, and prefer instead to lapse into silence at the slightest inconvenience. That is what makes the loss of Lasantha and Uma so disorienting: the media in Southasia is suffering from what can only be called the ‘curse of abundance’ – but where are the journalists? They seem to be turning into another endangered species, teetering on the verge of extinction, some of them even willingly.