The media is supposed to be a friend of the underdog and the voice of the voiceless. We are supposed to take up the cudgel for the oppressed and vulnerable and stand up for those who cannot do it themselves. Since when have we joined the side of the oppressor?
AIJAZ ZAKA SYED | Caravan Daily
I HAVE always been a news junkie of sorts. While everyone in my family has been a compulsive reader, I am not sure when I moved from children’s literature to newspapers and magazines.
When boys of my age were busy with cricket and other fun and games, I found myself spending a great deal of time in the neighborhood library. In the evenings, I would listen to the BBC World Service with my father as he strolled in our cylindrical courtyard.
I grew up reading Urdu fiction and poetry and studied English literature at university perhaps because my father happened to be an accomplished poet and author. However, I consciously chose journalism as my profession quitting a well-paid government job in the face of stiff opposition from my family.
Of course, there had been this rather innocent or naïve belief in using the power of media for social change. More than anything else, it had been my sheer fascination for the business of news that kept me going for long years in the trenches of journalism.
I loved what I did, for nearly 2 decades, often working late nights and even during the weekends and thoroughly enjoying it. Until of course I was shown the door by my newspaper in the Gulf, because of my big mouth or inconvenient writings. Speaking truth to power demands a price.
This forced exile from journalism has now extended into its sixth year although I continue to write, thank God, persisting with my weekly rants for what it is worth.
I still miss journalism though, hopelessly, even though I seldom work under pressure now, have more time at my disposal and spend nights at home. Because what I did back then had not been just my job, it was my life!
The Indian media, once known for its fierce independence of spirit and strong social commitment, has undergone a sea change since I left the country 15 years ago. Much of it now acts and speaks like the PR agency of the government, dutifully lapping up and dispensing the propaganda peddled by the government.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the growing clout and reach of the forces that rule my country now, newspapers in the region have become increasingly wary of any censure of the BJP rule and its communal, bigoted agenda since taking office in 2014.
The situation back home is even more depressing. The Indian media, once known for its fierce independence of spirit and strong social commitment, has undergone a sea change since I left the country 15 years ago. Much of it now acts and speaks like the PR agency of the government, dutifully lapping up and dispensing the propaganda peddled by the government.
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Commenting on the media’s surrender during Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency years, BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani had noted that when asked to bend, many journalists had chosen to crawl! Today, it is even worse. Except for some noble exceptions like my former feisty paper Indian Express, which defied Indira’s censors by choosing to leave editorial section blank, much of the media has quietly buried its professional ethics and integrity.
One wouldn’t mind it so much if it had been limited to a harmless parroting of official line and occasional groveling before the powers that be. What is really disturbing is the new low that the media has touched in its eagerness to embrace the jaundiced worldview and divisive narrative that have been the hallmark of the Parivar.
The media has not only failed in confronting the regime on the reign of terror that has been unleashed on the Muslims and other minorities in collusion with the various Hindutva outfits, it has launched its own war on the vulnerable community.
If it had been one rogue English news channel three years ago under the insufferable Arnab Goswami that went on night after night fighting Pakistan, Kashmiris and phantoms like the non-existent Indian Mujahideen, today it is just about everyone trying to be more xenophobic than others.
Except for NDTV, the first independent news channel pioneered by the soft-spoken Prannoy Roy, which has maintained its objectivity and tries to speak truth to power in the face of great adversity, nearly everyone has hopped on the Hindutva bandwagon.
As for the hundreds of Hindi and regional channels that have sprouted over the past few years, the less said the better. In the race for TRPs and eyeballs and in sync with the new dogma of reigning deities, they have been falling over each other to dish out heaps of hate and absurd conspiracy theories — facts and truth be damned.
Not surprisingly, many of these ‘special stories’ and ‘investigations’ target the voiceless and increasingly marginalized Indian Muslims, painting them as a community of terrorists, traitors, Pakistani spies, and serial polygamists.
They shout their heads off suggesting states like Kerala and Kashmir have been hijacked by ISIS terrorists, even as the government insists that Indian Muslims remain unaffected by extremism because of the glorious secularism and democracy. These days they have been going on and on about the “clear and present danger” posed by a harmless Muslim organization called the Popular Front of India (PFI), known in the South for its charitable activities and peace initiatives.
It has been accused of a million things — from working for ISIS to presiding over the so-called love jihad in Kerala by converting gullible Hindu women to Islam. Clearly, a case is being built against the PFI, a la SIMI (Students Islamic Organization of India) which has been banned with scores of its activists and sympathizers rotting in prison for years. Then there is the bogey of Bangladeshi “infiltrators” and now Rohingya refugees flooding India’s northeastern states, and worse, joining hands with Pakistan’s ISI and even IS.
If it is not the fake news stories of Indian Muslim terrorists, cow killing and ‘love jihad’, then it is the grave threat that the nation ostensibly faces in the Muslim Personal Law and triple talaq. And if they get tired of it all, they go back to the comforting familiarity of Pakistan bashing and its alleged harboring of unsavory characters like Dawood Ibrahim.
Tune into any Indian TV anytime and you are likely to plunge headlong into any or all of these mindboggling ‘debates’.
It is nerve-wracking stuff and hard to watch for more than 5 minutes even for a news fanatic like me. Which is perhaps why I have lately taken to watching wildlife channels!
All this has been going on when the country faces some real and serious challenges and threats – alarming surge in lynchings and violence in the name of cow, disappearing jobs and thousands of farmer suicides amidst the circus of demonetization and GST. Yet the media manages to find time and space for ‘pressing’ issues that do not even exist.
I joined journalism believing that it is the best possible way to strive for justice and a fairer world. The media is supposed to be a friend of the underdog and the voice of the voiceless. We are supposed to take up the cudgel for the oppressed and vulnerable and stand up for those who cannot do it themselves. Since when have we joined the side of the oppressor?
(Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published journalist and former opinion editor of Khaleej Times. Email: Aijaz.firstname.lastname@example.org)