The irony of democracy is that the two important pillars of democracy — politics and media — are the most pilloried professions. While I leave the task of defending politics to political scientists, in this first column of the year I am going to not just defend but celebrate journalism as a tribute to journalists and media workers who were killed for doing their duty. According to the International Federation of Journalists, IFJ, 121 journalists and media staff were killed in targeted attacks, bomb attacks and other cross-fire incidents in 2012, up from 107 recorded in 2011. More than 1,500 journalists have lost their lives in the last two decades in one form of violence or the other.
The IFJ warned that these terrible numbers are the result of systematic failure by governments and the United Nations to fulfil their international obligations to protect and enforce journalists’ basic right to life. “The death toll for 2012 is another indictment of governments which pay lip service to the protection of journalists but have consistently failed to stop their slaughter,” said Jim Boumelha, IFJ president. “It is no wonder that these sky-high numbers of killed journalists have become a constant feature in the last decade during which the usual reaction from governments and the United Nations has been a few words of condemnation, a cursory inquiry and a shrug of indifference.”
Let me invoke Gabriel García Márquez to pay my tribute to these journalists who lost their lives working under extremely exacting conditions. His autobiography “Living to Tell the Tale” read along with his biography “Gabriel García Márquez: A Life” by Gerald Martin gives us a fascinating insight into this exciting profession called journalism. The Columbia Journalism Review helps to contextualise Márquez’ brand of descriptive journalism. In its January-February 2010 issue, a brilliant article by Miles Corwin titled “The journalistic education of Gabriel García Márquez” brings out the crucial difference between Hemingway and Márquez.
Miles Corwin writes: “Hemingway and García Márquez also differed on how lasting ones’ journalistic apprenticeship should be. The former admitted that journalism was good training for a young novelist, but contended that it was important to get out in time, because newspapers could ruin a writer. García Márquez felt otherwise. “That supposedly bad influence that journalism has on literature isn’t so certain,” he has said. “First of all, because I don’t think anything destroys the writer, not even hunger. Secondly, because journalism helps you stay in touch with reality, which is essential for working in literature.”
According to Corwin, “García Márquez put this belief into practice: even after he attained great success as a novelist, he never abandoned journalism. He used the money from his 1982 Nobel Prize to purchase Cambio, a failing weekly newsmagazine in Colombia. He established the Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, where veteran reporters give workshops for young Latin American journalists. And during the past few decades, while writing novels, he has kept reality at close quarters, publishing numerous essays, opinion pieces, articles, and a masterful book of reconstructive journalism, News of a Kidnapping.”
The Nobel laureate himself brings out the key difference between a great work of fiction and a good journalistic piece in his interview to The Paris Review. He says: “In journalism, just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction, one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer.”
One of the biggest compliments Márquez gives to journalism is actually a lesson for any journalist who tends to move away from ground reality and aspires for a higher perch. He says: “The writer’s very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say. Journalism is a very good guard against that. That’s why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world, particularly political journalism and politics. The solitude that threatened me after One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t the solitude of the writer; it was the solitude of fame, which resembles the solitude of power much more.”
The 121 journalists who were killed in 2012 did not lose their lives in vain. They helped all of us keep in touch with the real world. I hope no journalist is killed this year for doing his duty.