A requiem for fine journalism

Published April 12, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

RONALD L. Haeberle was a combat photographer with the US army whose pictures exposed the horrors of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1969. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, at peril to his life, leaked the papers revealing the cover-up of US perfidies in Vietnam. Mordechai Vanunu was an Israeli scientist who shared his country’s nuclear secrets with a British newspaper. Israel kidnapped him and put him in jail. US soldier Chelsea Manning handed over 750,000 secret military documents to WikiLeaks and was court martialled for it. She went to prison.

There’s no end to ill-informed media chatter about Vladimir Putin’s KGB past. But it took KGB master spy Vasili Mitrokhin to hand over a treasure trove of Kremlin’s secrets to the Western media. Likewise with Edward Snowden, living in exile in Moscow after exposing the US government’s illegal surveillance of its own citizens.

If there were no journalists, it seems, the truth would somehow still come out. That is one’s best bet for Ukraine. Somebody will blow the whistle, almost inevitably, after pattern, as it were, and the world would know a little more than what the media wants us not to know.

It’s a strange war out there in which columns upon columns of enemy tanks were lined up for days without stirring from their highly visible location a short distance from the capital city, and no one took a pot shot at the sitting ducks. Is there something one is missing? It’s a strange war in which the besieged capital of the invaded country should be running low on critical daily resources but its citizens are able to keep their mobile phones charged and these work very efficiently.

The even-handed school of journalism with cautionary words like ‘alleged’ and ‘claimed’ is becoming sadly extinct.

An Israeli analyst says the Russians are allowing the phones to work to be able to listen in. It’s tempting to believe that. But then, why couldn’t the Israeli wizard advise his friends in New Delhi to keep the mobile phones running in besieged Kashmir. Not for days or weeks, but for months, till the courts intervened, did Kashmir have no internet. It’s nice to have an Israeli expert talk about phone tapping.

It’s a strange war also, in which leaders and politicians from friendly countries wade into the heart of supposedly besieged cities to cheer on the fighters they are arming to the teeth and return home unscathed. In football matches, the team managers shout out orders from outside the arena. Here you have them walking to the goalkeeper to plan which way to dive to stop the curving ball.

The Ukraine war looks set to reset the world order. It has in the bargain already exposed the overstated claim of objective journalism the West had credited itself with. The claim lay in tatters, of course, for the most part since the US invasion of Iraq. Many in the media covering Ukraine had purveyed brazen lies that provided the fig leaf for the destruction of a robustly secular country like Iraq.

The overwhelming impression being created is that the Russians are being chased out of Ukraine if they are not being drawn into a trap. Frustrated by their failure, the retreating troops are committing war crimes. It would be difficult to regard any army, Western or Eastern, as a saviour of human rights. It could be a great point to start a discussion. Who is going to try whom for the massacres? The US refuses to be a member of the International Criminal Court that is reported to have initiated its probe into the Bucha killings. And neither is Russia looking interested in blessing the court with acceptance. The worried world and the ICC can only persuade but not prosecute a non-member.

The basic question many are keen to ask is this: is the West on top of the situation in Ukraine, or is Russia winning the war, as non-Russian, non-journalist analysts are beginning to assert. Any journalist should be interested in both parts of the question, but asking the latter would be deemed tantamount to betrayal. Or are we heading towards a long-drawn stalemate dipped in even more innocent blood? The even-handed, old-fashioned school of journalism with cautionary words like ‘alleged’ and ‘claimed’ and ‘could not be independently verified’ etc is becoming sadly extinct.

As a South Asian journalist, one grew up admiring the probity and diligence of Western journalists. There was a time when the BBC in all the South Asian languages would be way ahead of domestic news services in credibility and speed. Z.A. Bhutto’s execution and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, for example, were first announced on BBC and only later reported by the national media outfits. Mark Tully and Satish Jacob were household names during the Punjab turmoil. Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan told me that he respected Western journalists more because they were honest in describing the injustices of the Hindu caste system. Indian journalists, he said, were mealy-mouthed about caste inequities.

Tully’s dispatches from New Delhi were broadcast in Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Sinhalese etc. They found audiences in remote villages. One day, Mark Fineman of the Financial Times was travelling with me to a village near Mathura where a Jat girl and two Jatav boys were lynched by a kangaroo court in a typical love story that went tragically wrong. Fineman decided to flash his press card at the village octroi to get past the barrier speedily. The village boys took one look at him and said: “Oh! Mark Tully! You may go.” Incensed, Fineman promptly thrust a five-rupee note into the toll collector’s hand — more than twice the octroi fees and shouted: “No, I’m not Mark Tully. I can never be.”

Likewise, there cannot be another Robert Fisk who died in 2020. However, John Pilger and a few others of the old school are still around to give us a sliver of hope about an otherwise fatally stricken profession.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2022

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