Freedom of Expression

Backstory: The Many Shades of Journalistic Fearlessness

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Unlike other people’s definitions of who you are – something over which one can exercise little control – self-definitions are tricky little customers. They kind of stick to you like burrs and every now and then you will be forcibly reminded of their presence. To celebrate its second anniversary, The Wire could have chosen from a range of adjectives to define itself, but it has settled on two words: ‘Not Afraid’. There is a certain insouciance about this self-definition, an audacity ranging on the puckish in a day and age when journalists crowd around the prime minister to take selfies, begging to be included in the frames of power, even as those located in the circle of dissent invite retribution at the individual or organisational level. In its anniversary video, ‘What We Are and What We’re Not. The Wire @ 2’ (May 11), The Wire clearly put in effort to strike a chord that was distinct: There’s the Media/Then There’s The Wire….Not in Anyone’s Pocket/Not Going to Pakistan/Editorially and financially independent/Not taking Orders.

As the public editor of The Wire, I can only wish the young team that seeks to embody these ideas all the very best. While ‘Not Afraid’ is a great value to adopt for any journalistic enterprise, a few cautionary lines may not be out of place. Between the thought and the act lies a shadow: daring to be unafraid requires more courage than saying one is unafraid. Being unafraid has at least three dimensions: the moral, the normative and the physical. At its best, the journalism of fearlessness combines all three attributes. We are living in a period when the spaces for freedom of expression are shrinking rapidly because of the controlled aggression of various actors, state and non-state, wanting to put their stamp on public discourse. Simultaneous with this is the narrowing of thought, a process so rife that one often doesn’t even perceive that this shrinkage is going on even in our own heads.

There are many shades of journalistic fearlessness. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sent over 200 journalists to jail. Two faces from among them emerged in a piece by Kieran Etoria-King of the Index on Censorship – Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, who have already spent nine months under pre-trial detention. The former is an influential columnist who has edited several newspapers, the latter an academic. Both have been held for allegedly “spreading subliminal messages,” relating to Ahmet’s participation in a talk show the night before the July 15 coup attempt last year.

Jail terms for journalists in India are not rare; neither is their fearlessness. After a year-and-a-half in a Chhattisgarh jail, Santosh Yadav had this to tell his interlocutor, Geeta Seshu (‘Santosh Yadav: free again, and undeterred’, The Hoot, March 9, 2017) when he was granted bail. “But I said I don’t care, I’ll face whatever it is. The government will try to stop you but we can’t keep quiet.” Decades earlier, Kuldip Nayar was arrested after a midnight knock and had to spend three months in Indira Gandhi’s prison during the Emergency. He recalled being “stupefied” and isolated because a deep fear had gripped his peers and colleagues, with even the courage they displayed in signing a resolution against censorship on June 28, 1975, quickly deserting them.

Jail terms are of course the most extreme in the spectrum of media intimidation. More often fearlessness is tested in the telling of the story. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US military command did all it could to shut down every avenue of information on the effects of atomic radiation on the inhabitants of the two cities. Most of the journalists who had converged on Tokyo a few weeks later, and there were several hundreds of them, were happy to be discouraged from visiting ground zero. Wilfred Burchett, whose first dispatch appeared in the Daily Express in September 6, 1945, under the headline ‘THE ATOMIC PLAGUE I write this as a warning to the world’, reminisced later that while 600 of the Allied journalists in Japan at that point preferred to cover the Japanese surrender ceremony, only one – Burchett himself – went to Hiroshima.

Fearlessness is choosing to tell the story against the grain, in the face of vigilante violence as Malini Subramaniam, correspondent for Scroll.in, did, or in the face of public, institutional and political apathy as Raajkumar Keswani demonstrated in his series of dispatches in a local, Hindi language newspaper on Bhopal’s vulnerability to gas leaks two years before the world’s largest, most tragic, industrial disaster. When Keswani’s stories kept being overlooked, he – realising that his “voice was too meek to be heard by the higher-ups” – wrote a personal letter to then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh, requesting an inquiry. But to little avail. He remembered becoming the butt of jokes in media circles. Six months before the Bhopal leaks, he finally managed to get a front page report in the Jansatta. Of course, even that story could not prevent the horrors of the night of December 2/3, 1984, but it symbolises to this day the importance of fearless journalism.

These acts of fearlessness by individual journalists remain a talisman for the rest of us. But I would like to end with an instance of organisational fearlessness. When the government of India banned the Kashmir Reader without notice on October 2 (what a day to choose for such repression), it was the never-say-die stance of those who comprised the organisation that allowed it to emerge three months later, when that ban was lifted, with that same attitude intact. As the newspaper’s editor Hilal Mir told The Wire, “We have about 30 staffers and all of them stayed with us, (barring a sub-editor who quit for personal reasons) even though we were not able to pay them full salaries during the period” (‘‘‘Kashmir Reader’ Hits Stands Again After Three-Month Ban’, December 12, 2016). It seems there is nothing like good, old fashioned solidarity to protect the spirit of fearlessness.

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The Wire reader Tarun Gopalakrishnan had a few bones to pick with the coverage of the Uttar Pradesh election campaign earlier this year. Given that India will now be in election mode, off and on, from late 2017 right up to the general election of 2019, his response is important and Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, weighs in on the issues raised.

Tarun Gopalakrishnan: The Wire‘s reporting on the campaign was heavy on philosophical pieces exploring the merits of cow politics. It was light on the details of campaign tactics and especially how voters were responding to parties’ messaging. The welcome exceptions (which should be the norm) were Rajan Pandey’s reports.
As a broader point, there seems to be a general scarcity of primary information on voter/citizen preferences outside of actual election results. In that light, the strong (bordering on shrill) stance The Wire took against Dainik Jagran publishing exit polls was surprising. Even acknowledging that it was a cynical act which fell foul of the rules, there is a strong argument that changing the rules is better for campaign reporting in the long run.

I may be mixing issues, but the combination of the points above genuinely leaves me unsure whether The Wire sees its primary contribution to campaign coverage as bringing to light new facts or providing liberal commentary. As a regular reader, I would prefer the former.

Thank you for retaining your integrity in the face of this militant saffronisation of our politics. Please stay safe and free.

Siddharth Varadarajan: Dear Tarun, thanks for the mail which I am taking the liberty to respond to. Between Rajan Pandey and Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, we ran nearly 25-30 ground reports including video interviews with candidates.

https://thewire.in/author/ajoy-ashirwad-mahaprashasta/

https://thewire.in/author/rajan-pandey/

My colleague Titash wrote a very good piece too from Varanasi https://thewire.in/114919/women-up-elections/
and we had Neha Dixit with three pieces from Bundeklhand https://thewire.in/author/neha-dixit/

We also did a series of video discussions with voters on their preferences as part of our chunavi charcha series
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QxEPh8kGjM&list=PLzia1qLN9v2A3l5s2GKiHwdQs0UMH-mFF

The ‘philosophical’ or commentative pieces during the campaign were few and far between.

On Jagran, I must disagree. The survey was fraudulent and its publication was a direct violation of the law. Stridency was called for because both the EC and the police were, and are, going soft, for obvious reasons. Thanks again for the feedback.