There is a story about Indian media baron Ramnath Goenka, the founder of the Indian Express. One day he fired one of his reporters because a chief minister of an Indian state told him, “The particular reporter of yours is doing well.”
Ramnath Goenka was one of the most admired and at the same time hated journalists of his time, who believed a good journalist cannot be admired by any political party, either in power or not. Being ruthlessly arm-twisted several times by the government, he remained a man of his words, resilient and vocal against all odds.
The Indira Gandhi government along with her son Sanjay Gandhi had tried their best to make Goenka kneel by penalizing and barring companies to advertise in the media outlet. No banks were further allowed to extend any loans to the newspaper. There are numerous examples of atrocities and adversaries of this kind against many media outlets for ages across the globe.
Journalism, to be precise, good journalism, has been shaped and reshaped over and over and has been attacked severely time and again. A journalist preaches dissent, questions the power and keeps the people informed about important incidents.
A good journalist is an agent of the people who represents the dissent for the betterment of the people and overall country. In an ideal democracy free press is one of the fundamental components.
Democracy requires debates and media bring the debates forward. As it is a documentation of incidents, the people, political party in the opposition or ruling power refer to newspaper clips as records of certain incidents.
Since the very beginning of news media, the journalists and the governments have never been on the same page, especially if the government is a totalitarian one seeking total domination or authoritarian. State sponsored attack on journalists is a burning issue all over the world now.
There is a wall between most of the governments and their people when it comes to keeping secrets. Media tries to reveal those secrets which are from all aspects supposed to be in front of the people. For instance, the Pentagon paper, which was published by the New York Times and later the Washington Post about how the US government continued to send troops to Vietnam despite knowing the situation was not in favour of the USA.
Time’s report published on 3 September 2019 about 10 most urgent cases of threats to press freedom shows the vicious picture of state sponsored attack on press and its journalists. The top in the list is Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The columnist for Washington Post, who was living in the USA in self-imposed exile, was apparently killed by state sponsored murderer who had to shush him for his progressive views. The name of Julian Assange may be mentioned here. The Wikileaks founder is serving time in British jail and awaiting the extradition hearing brought by the US government.
It is to be clarified here that there are either journalists or journalists-turned-paid-sold-embedded ones. What an oppressor government does not like about the journalists is, they ask questions, very unpleasant questions. We believe, if a journalist’s question does not make a ruler uncomfortable it is not a question at all.
Curbing media freedom and forcing self-censorship are the two major difficulties encountered by the media worldwide that leads to arrests and killings of the journalists eventually. The governments kill, arrest or put them in jail so that their lies are never revealed to the public. The legislature, administration and other government institutions assist the ruler to that end.
Two such Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar after they were convicted of breaking the Official Secrets Act, later walked free after imprisonment for nearly 500 days. The duo had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during an army clampdown in August 2017.
The pattern of allegations brought against journalists and media are almost the same all over the world. Publishing ‘untrue anti-government news’, breaching important secrets and being anti-national are common allegations made by the governments and ruling party men. The picture is no different whether it is the US president Donald Trump or in India, Myanmar, Mexico, Egypt or Turkey.
The purpose of such government is to warn media by arresting one journalist- “keep your mouth shut or get jailed or killed.”
Quality and profitability
Many social media enthusiasts slam media for incurring profit from advertisements and becoming a business organisation.
Journalism is obviously a passion but no charity. Journalists have their families, their dependents. If a banker works in a bank for his living and turns to journalism in the evening as a part-time outlet for his passion, we cannot expect quality news. A full time journalist needs to earn money to survive. A news outlet has to have income, regular revenue to pay its journalists. That is where profitability is required. Advertisement revenue pays the journalists’ salary.
However, a banker or an employee from any other profession works for 8 hours a day and 30 years of his life. A journalist is a journalist for 24 hours and his entire life. There is a Zulu proverb, a dog with a bone in its mouth cannot bark. But the dog cannot bark on an empty stomach either. Quality comes from profitability. If the bones come from the organisation it does not need to seek bones in any unfair means.
Often the ruling party and its supporters threaten to boycott media such as Donald Trump. Boycotting maybe is something for them to fear too. It is the media that takes the government’s achievements, works, policies and decisions to the people and international leaders. Besides providing information to the people, media is a platform for the government’s publicity too. If one day all the media forms an alliance and refuses to write about any event, programme, and policies of the government, what will they do? The government needs publicity. In most cases, it needs more publicity than any other institution or individual.
Again, if the current ruling party becomes the opposition someday, it is the media who will bring their stories in front of the people if they ever face any adversity.
Did you ever think why the governments shut or attack the media or the other means required to broadcast information in the first place when anything wrong happens? The answers lie in the questions. Oppressors are smart enough now. They do not shut the outlets, they harass the journalists instead to convey the message to others to keep quiet or suffer the same.
What is the use of journalism, or writing? We the ‘mighty’ people lower our voices in public when we say anything that may go against the ruling party or its activists. The journalist, even if a very few, boldly expose the bullies who mock the people and the country.
Good journalism is not a ‘5-minute craft’ that you will get results immediately. It is what you nurture and thus you are served. It speaks for us when we speak for it. Also, the media must remember their duty is to serve the governed not the governor. If not in the past, it is high time media outlets in any country pull together as one unit to keep up their own survival. An oppressor or bad journalist does not come from Mars, rather from inside our own society. Karma serves what we deserve.
Protecting journalists and civil responsibility
If the people of a country think the media will open the Pandora’s Box and release all the good fairies for the country, we must not buy that. The newspapers’ job is to inform the people and deliver the blueprint of dissent, and sometimes check and balance opinions. It is the very people who have to act and snatch the justice from a totalitarian government. Media is not the messiah rather the agent between the state and people, the letter bearer!
We saw how the media and the people acted together during the liberation war in 1971. If we sit in judgement that this particular media outlet did not speak when another outlet was attacked, the particular journalist was not courageous enough while reporting on a matter and such, the oppressors will use us to serve their own purpose.
A journalist will speak, if not killed like Jamal Khashoggi, either in a local media or global ones. But we cannot afford to lose the only few sympathisers who enlighten us and speak for us because of our own indifference. We fear to speak in public, in the social media and turn a blind eye to injustice and wrong doings and expect media or journalists to act for us. Isn’t that funny? We fear the government will be offended and put us in jail, attack us and our children or we may not get a visa to our dreamlands if we speak up against any domestic or international injustice.
We have to remember, it is not about whether the very journalist who is under siege of an authoritarian government deserves our support or about the background of what he had done for others of his likes in the past. It is about us, whether we are allowing those in the power seated by us to set an example and send a message to keep our voice shut.
I would like to quote a question from the movie ‘Shutter Island’ here, “Which would be worse - to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”
* Farjana Liakat works at Prothom Alo