IT is a given that truly professional journalists can be a troublesome quantity for any recalcitrant state. Drum-beaters of the state are just that — drum-beaters, and on occasion, the cat’s paws for their minders with a nefarious intent. When it comes to the little explained but widely embraced idea of ‘national interest’ we register a spike in this genre of delinquency among journalists on both sides of the divide, usually.
The malaise is of course global. British journalists are or were considered a cut above the rest, but they were the ones who tamely fell for the ministry of information, a British innovation for thinly veiled censorship, intelligence gathering and propaganda. The ruse was the war with Hitler. The BBC was on the ministry’s payroll. The institution of information ministries continued through peacetime in post-colonial societies. India and Pakistan are prime examples where journalists are doled out privileges unrelated to their work, such as subsidised land for housing.
How were the American drum-beaters any different, who came up with an unabashedly cooked up testimony against Saddam Husain, laying fictitious grounds to justify his bizarre removal from power and eventual execution? Tenacious journalists, on the other hand, got Richard Nixon impeached and exposed Tony Blair as an artful liar. American and British journalists have unearthed the horrors of their governments’ foreign policies too, including their stories on the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib or about Israeli brutalities in occupied Palestine.
Both types exist in India and Pakistan in varying degrees. Pakistani newshounds who refuted their government’s spontaneous but senseless denial of Ajmal Kasab’s nationality were particularly good journalists. They stuck to the truth against the state’s might and marshalled evidence showing that the young terrorist was indeed an indoctrinated Pakistani and not a Martian. An Indian journalist abandoned his safe sanctuary of ‘national interest’ and reported the destruction of an alleged Pakistani dhow in the Arabian Sea by the Indian Navy. Reportedly the naval commander wanted to save on the cost of the food that the arrested crew would otherwise be given in jail. Naturally, the government slammed the report as a lie or some such thing.
Sadly such journalists come to us more often as an exception than as an inviolable rule. How does one figure out the truth between Indian and Pakistani claims of contested events of which there is already a surfeit? The drum-beaters have a field day on most occasions with their complete and exclusive access to state-controlled and state-backed instruments of news dissemination. The truth is very often not far to seek yet it remains elusive even if there’s nothing quite complex about a simple quest. For example, one may ask: was there an Indian military raid inside Azad Kashmir or was Prime Minister Modi making a mountain of a molehill, a routine outing that was not quite as dramatic as it was portrayed to be to increase his nationalist appeal. The Congress party contested the Modi claim, not the media. Who starts the spiral of cross-border firing and to what avail? There are good arguments on both sides, but arguments need not lead to the elusive truth. It is not Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where there are many sides to a story, including an occult explanation for a tragic event. Who can cross-check for us an Indian claim of Pakistan breaking the ceasefire and vice versa?
Consider a more current issue that lacks clarity, purposely, one suspects. Pakistan has issued a video of Kulbhushan Jadhav in which the man convicted as an Indian spy praises his captors for arranging an emotional meeting with his mother and wife recently. He also blackguards the Indian diplomat — who I know as a gentleman who discussed with me ideas about peace between India and Pakistan. The Indian diplomat apparently riled Jadhav with alleged shouting at the women after the meeting where he was present in a separate cubicle. Indians have not surprisingly dismissed the video as doctored and therefore unreliable. Has Jadhav become a pawn on the larger India-Pakistan chessboard? Or has he become a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome whereby prisoners become enamoured of their captors?
In most countries that practise free press, the wife and the mother would be the first destination of intrepid journalists who want to know and publish what transpired at the meeting. (I would add a caveat: do nothing that could physically harm or prejudice the prisoner’s chances of fair play.) In this pursuit, there could be a demand from Indian journalists (as distinct from drum-beaters) to be given access to Jadhav if he so wishes. This would help prevent reckless and harmful stories like the one published by The Quint, a web-based news portal that inexplicably retracted its report on the condemned prisoner. Let’s see which country blinks. We can quickly, without demur, arrange a team led by Rajmohan Gandhi from India and I.A. Rehman from Pakistan. Or both could nominate a journalist from their country or even from the other side. Let similarly credible joint teams have access to areas of concern to both countries (in the absence of the undermined UNMOGIP) along the Line of Control and also to Srinagar and Muzaffarabad if that helps. As things stand, the people on both sides are being forced to divine the truth with their eyes blindfolded, eardrums bursting with inane and shrill propaganda.
Nationalism can trip up the most seasoned exponents of journalism, however. I remember the first delegation from Pakistan, including senior journalists, coming to Delhi after the military standoff of 2002. At their meeting in Delhi, led by senior Indian journalists, the Pakistanis said they were embarrassed about the mistakes their country had made by seeking to harm and abuse India. The Indian interlocutor, a much respected journalist who is no more, smiled self-righteously, and said: “You are absolutely right.” Could the Jadhav affair change some of that attitude?