I HAVE become an admirer of Pope Francis. In a world where Muslims are profiled and shunned as terrorists, he embraces them, and even washes the feet of one or two to send out a message. I am happier that he does that to all manner of underdogs, not just Muslims. These days, when even I can find myself looking over the shoulders at airports for a bearded troublemaker (as others must be looking at me!), I find it nothing short of exhilarating that someone can defy the mob the world has become.
And now Pope Francis has said that journalism based on gossip or rumours is a form of “terrorism”. He says the media that profiles communities or foments fear of migrants is acting destructively.
The pope made his comments in an address to leaders of Italy’s national journalists’ guild. His context was the refugees milling into Europe, facing abuse and calumny from motivated and neo-fascist hacks.
The pope said spreading rumours was an example of “terrorism, of how you can kill a person with your tongue …This is even more true for journalists because their voice can reach everyone and this is a very powerful weapon.”
The angst expressed by Pope Francis about loose talk and terrorism should apply to warmongers too, including journalists found in South Asia.
The angst expressed by Pope Francis about loose talk and terrorism should apply to warmongers too, including journalists found in South Asia. In India, we have seen both, the terrorising effect that wars have on ordinary people as also the profiling of members of specific communities that wars trigger.
In India and Pakistani the media comprise a mix of open-minded and peace-loving journalists on one hand and rabid warmongers on the other. More often than not, the ownership of the news media determines the policy, not so much the journalists though.
In India, journalists who oppose jingoism and its attendant right-wing prescriptions, gravitate to the alternative media on the internet. There are more privately owned TV channels in India, and more newspapers than in Pakistan. They multiply the voices of self-styled repositories of nationalism, unwitting allies of fascist consolidation under way.
Nation-loving journalists on both sides duly fanned the current military spike between India and Pakistan. They ride the myth that national interest requires everyone to become a flag carrier though there is little discussion of what constitutes the national interest. If it requires the thwarting of azadi, or social and political freedoms, as it seems to do today, there must be something very wrong with the national interest.
In wartime Britain, unabashed propaganda machinery was set up and it was called the ministry of information. For two years, between 1941 and 1943, novelist and essayist George Orwell worked for the information ministry as a BBC Talks Producer for the Eastern Service. His wrote propaganda for broadcast to India, where he was born and served in the police. His ominous novels about manufacturing consent may have been conceived in that experience. Graham Greene and J.B. Priestly were the other intellectuals working for British propaganda. That model of the information ministry has remained in harness in South Asia in peacetime.
Few have questioned how we can have a ministry of information in a free country unless we acknowledge that information should be regulated or handed out by the government, not demanded or even stolen from it to share with the people. When the outspoken scribe and politician Sherry Rehman became minister of information in Pakistan briefly, I asked her this question but don’t remember getting an answer.
War is supposed to be an expression of the national will, how can that terrorise any good citizen? But we have seen how war mutates into terror for many, the Japanese in America during the war, for example. In India, you should ask the erstwhile ethnic Chinese citizens of Kolkata how they were terrorised during that brief but landmark skirmish with China in 1962.
I remember the emotional appeal by Jawaharlal Nehru in his newspaper, the National Herald: “Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might.” The 1962 appeal was carried for months or perhaps years after the war above the masthead of the paper. My mother deposited whatever jewellery she had with the government for its war effort. But Indian Chinese were suspected and treated as traitors. Many left for Singapore and Taiwan after the war.
I count it as a blessing that in 1965 and 1971 we had no television leave alone any private channel. Company Quarter Master Havildar Abul Hameed became a household name when he apparently destroyed US-loaned Pakistani Patton tanks with hand grenades in the 1965 conflict. He was decorated posthumously with medals though his widow was years later reported to be living in penury.
It didn’t matter if the Hameed story was true, it assured communal harmony, overtly. Dr Asif Kidwai was paralysed from the waist below, but like any good journalist he would tune into Radio Pakistan to know the claim of the other side during the 1965 conflict. A kindly soul scuttled the idiotic move by the police to take him away in his cot. Asif Bhai’s humour was legendary in Lucknow so he could smile through the occasional communal crisis.
The Kargil conflict of 1999 catapulted the role of the media in war zones to dizzying heights. The love of the military grew exponentially under the guidance of mushrooming TV channels and their star anchors. Most chose not to see the link between jingoism and the rise of religious fascism. They ignored the slogan from the rubble of Babri Masjid that the next target was Lahore. The anchors seemed so lost in their patriotism the other day they didn’t see the prime minister turning away from war hysteria. And so they are keeping the drumbeats of war going. Terror. Terror. Remember the words of Marlon Brando, the insane warmonger of Apocalypse Now. God bless Pope Francis.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2016