Chhetria Patrakar has recently been seeing some blue in the southern reaches of the Subcontinent – not because of temperature-induced encroaching sea levels, but rather in terms of a temperament-depressing encroaching sea-of-sorrows. In another tally for the foes of media freedom, the journalist and general-secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Poddala Jayantha, was rudely interrupted recently as he was going to buy vegetables, when he was bundled away and beaten up by a group of men. He had briefly left the country due to threats on his life, returning on the hopeful misinformation that home would be homey again. No arrests have yet been made, except for the Lankanews website editors who exposed the incident. With Jayantha recovering in the National Hospital, however, CP is happy that he won’t add to the already grim statistics of murdered journalists in Sri Lanka.
And again, the press seems to have gotten in the way of ‘national security’ – although with the plumping-up of policing, CP wonders how to squeeze out a few words without being swallowed up by national security’s gluttonous gullet. Two days after al-Jazeera aired a story on the Taliban in Kunduz province, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) detained producers Qais Azimy and Hameedullah Shah for three days. In the report, a Taliban leader boasted of his hundreds of minions-in-waiting, including 12 suiAfide bombers purportedly ready to strike. According to President Hamid Karzai’s justification for the arrests, “promotion of terrorism in the name of the freedom of the press is a violation of the press and freedom of the press.” Of course, as the freedom of democratic elections presses on his campaign, President Karzai’s own freedom to press charges will soon be at stake. Evidently, the two had not been expressly informed of their internment, only evasively invited over to NDS headquarters for an ‘interview’.
Safety for the story-shopper rather than the scribe seems to be more the trend in media establishments – it is a commercial industry, after all. Yet CP is suspicious of the Maldivian telecommunications carrier Dhiraagu’s recent promises to restrict access to child pornography sites on mobile phone. The initiative will begin by blocking access to 100 to 500 sites, with new members added to the X-rated list of sites every two hours. Not that child porn isn’t deplorable, but such barriers-to-gaze don’t get to the real nuts and bolts of the problem, and may end up restricting the free flow of other goods and services – as observed in Dhiraagu’s Parental Control Services. Also, how many people are actually in possession of Internet-accessing phones? But with the positive publicity Dhiraagu has received from joiniAng the global initiative, CP suggests Wataniya Telecom stay true to its name and sign up as well.
Here is a story of editorial integrity. Prosecutor-General of the Maldives Ahmed Muiz has decided to file a criminal defamation case against Abdul Hameed Abdul Kareem for an article published in Manas magazine in 2007. Not author but editor at the time, charges against Hameed are for the article’s claims that former Chief Justice Sheikh Mohamed Rasheed had worshiped former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom as a god, and had appealed to the public to sacrifice “their body and spirit” to Gayoom. Obviously, the two-year delay in prosecuting is due to the fact that Gayoom had to first fall from grace before such idol-worship could be considered libel. Under the current penal and Sharia code, verbal vilification can cost one almost one’s tongue and one’s cheek, from banishment to house arrest or fines up to MVR 3000. While many free-media associations are protesting the case, the current Lord in Office, is cooperating in making defamation not a criminal but a civil offence. President Nasheed has already sent over an amendment bill to the Penal Code to Parliament, as well as two bonuses: a press-freedom bill and another on right to freedom of expression.
On the subject of legislation, how about a few other countries in the region taking the hint to shelve their antiquated laws? Despite archaic laws making it illegal, for instance, to be gay in India, there seem to be no restrictions on talking about being so. Setting the scene with unapologetic colours and bold statements is Bombay Dost, six years after it withdrew to the closet. And with the social scene having made liberal strides since the 1990s, when the original Dost was published, this time round India’s first LGBTQ magazine is making lots of high-flying friends, not only in Bombay. Previously brown-bagged from roadside vendor to the home, Bombay Dost is now being paraded around chic stores at an inaugural selling rate of two-thirds of initial print run (1000 of 1500 copies). Although not as raunchy as its foreign counterparts (for better or worse), it does offer notably broad-based content to go with a professional layout. Way to go, Dost!
In other trend-setting initiatives, a small local radio station in Pastapur, Andhra Pradesh, is making the news by making news out of practical tips so often interspersed among the vacuous and the venomous in traditional gup shuping. From new farming techniques to health and medicinal advice, community volunteers narrowcast a diurnal two-hour spiel to their niche audience of poor, primarily Dalit, women. Despite the historical stigma it has incurred by at times playing accomplice to the spread of venom and communal hatred, CP is pleased to see the real benefits of radio being put to use – giving voice and audition to the illiterate and underprivileged.
From the sounds of it, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service’s days of gophering around are over – no more BS for the BBS. With the inauguration of its three-storey television centre, this will be an era of believing (in the ‘live’ sign), of speed (at least with what concerns technology), and of freedom (for employees to move, not necessarily to speak). Previously, for residents living outside of Thimphu, the news lag-time would last proportionate to their distance from the capital (tapes would be physically run across the country). In 2006, satellites were installed to dish out the news, and now reporters can feed the dish with reportage straight through a network. Funding for the BTN 194 million centre was provided by none other than that generous godmother, India. And while television jaunts over to the flat-screen of its new office space, radio curses its lingering stepchild status, stranded in the building of old.
On the subject of old buildings, AAJ TV obviously succumbed to a local hoax on the discovery of a four-inch ‘alien’ in Lahore. An austere anchor reported on how labourers, while renovating a house, had found a creature resembling a human moving and jumping around. Scared by the sight, children began to attack the frolicking figure. Like a rare delicacy, the stoned-and-burned-to-death body of the ‘alien’ was aired amidst the flowers of a porcelain saucer (for tea, not the levitating kind that houses extraterrestrials). With the public demanding an autopsy of the doll, CP thinks a post-mortem analysis on the news story itself would be better placed.
In contrast to such redundant reporting, here is a story that never became a story, despite all the odds. There was a circulating rumour that David Rohde, New York Times reporter, had been abducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan last November. The Rohde family, the NYT and the main Western international news agencies decided to keep mum, perhaps fearing that publicity would endanger his life. And so for nine long months the silence was maintained, until in mid-June Rohde and his fellow abductee, Afghan journalist and fixer Tahir Ludin, scaled a wall and made good their escape with the help of a Pakistan Army scout. Given the history of killing of so many local and foreign reporters, including that of Daniel Pearl in 2002, it is a relief that a reporter like Rohde, who specialises in going behind the lines, be it in Srebrenica or deep Afghanistan, has freed himself. This even without having to pay the huge ransom demanded by their kidnappers. Interestingly, the local media in Afghanistan and Pakistan did not make much of the abduction. Were they also party to the conspiracy of silence, or were they so preoccupied with other matters that the fate of one American reporter and his Afghan colleague did not merit mention? Whatever the reason, CP wonders why the silence wasn’t extended for Asadullah Mangal, Rohde’s driver, who is apparently still being held hostage.