Who will speak for journalists?

Updated: May 16, 2020, 04:30 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

We live in a time when people speaking truth to power are an endangered species, and it doesn't seem to bother us

BMC conducts Coronavirus testing for journalists, photojournalists and video journaloists at Congress Bhavan in Fort. PIC/Atul Kamble
BMC conducts Coronavirus testing for journalists, photojournalists and video journaloists at Congress Bhavan in Fort. PIC/Atul Kamble

picNot long after I turned 20, I found myself working as a journalist for a national newspaper. My work usually involved covering the arts, but I was once assigned a story about the rise of chain snatching gangs on the Western Railway. It meant speaking to senior members of the railway police, and I remember hesitating before walking into their headquarters one rainy evening. Dealing with the police is never easy at the best of times, let alone when one has to confront them about why crimes are not being effectively dealt with. As a young man, I remember being terrified, but I did it anyway because that is what the job demanded.

That personal sense of dread has long gone away, now that I am no longer on the field and have nothing to do with the crime beat, but that feeling still comes to mind whenever I read about what reporters across India continue to do. They are the ones at the forefront of every calamity, riot, and crime, taking risks none of us wants to, and bringing back reports with life-altering consequences.

This is why 53 journalists in Bombay tested positive for COVID-19 a while ago, from a group of 171 including reporters, photographers, and video journalists who were tested. They were infected because they had wilfully placed themselves in the heart of the pandemic, speaking to survivors, healthcare workers and patients, trying to get answers in those murky days where none were forthcoming. That report also fuelled an anger that has been simmering inside me for a while, because of the abuse and scorn that journalists are routinely being subjected to by people who ought to know better.

We live in a time where the free press is more under attack than ever before. The 2020 World Press Freedom Index that was unveiled a few weeks ago showed how India had dropped to rank 142, two points below its rank for 2019. It is astonishing that this didn't upset us, given the role played by the press in any functioning democracy. We should have been asking why this was being allowed to happen, and what it meant for anyone in search of honesty in these difficult times. Instead, we were subjected to more debates about religion, because that is the only topic we have been urged and encouraged to discuss for over half a decade now.

What reporters, journalists, and editors do is make sure the people we elect to power do what they have promised to do. They ask difficult questions because answers to those questions determine the health of our democracy. Without them, we are at the mercy of propaganda, which is now amplified more easily than ever before by social media platforms.

To not have access to a free and fair press is to give up the right to information that affects us all, but we seem to have accepted that this is a right we can afford to live without. The annual press freedom list pointed out that India's journalists have been forced to deal with coordinated social media hate campaigns. They have been threatened by criminal prosecutions with an aim to gag anyone who dares to interrogate the government or its representatives. They are at the receiving end of violence at the hands of the police. And yet, none of this provoked outrage.

Much of the anger directed by so many people towards journalists the world over is being fed by politicians who are cowards. These leaders either shy away from press conferences or choose to bully and demean reporters because it is always easier to attack the defenceless and instigate riots than it is to govern with intelligence.

I have worked with journalists who were beaten and arrested. One of my colleagues was murdered, while another was beheaded by terrorists who recorded the act on video and shared it online. I think of those men and women with pride because they were braver than I can ever be. They were also the opposite of most news anchors in India today, who simply masquerade as journalists without understanding what it means to be one. They scream every evening, insulting the heroes who risk it all to shine a light in India's darkest places.

Journalists don't praise themselves or ask anyone for support, because that is not part of their job. As a columnist though, I have the luxury of being able to speak on their behalf, which is why I have.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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