Fourth estate and the fifth column

Speaking the truth is the role of the fourth estate; being a megaphone for propaganda is the role of the fifth column

May 25, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Some readers ask how my columns about the larger information ecology and about social media are linked to the journalism of this newspaper. When the government fails to deliver, it invents multiple means to deflect the attention of the citizens from scrutinising its functions. The deflections may vary from waging a full-fledged war to demonising neighbouring countries. Social media is used to manage headlines and amplify misinformation. A few recent complaints regarding this newspaper’s reportage on renewed militancy in Kashmir and border skirmishes with China clearly fall into this category.

Puncturing the narrative

Before clearing their doubts, let me share a personal story. Two decades ago, I was Bureau Chief of Outlook magazine when it broke the story, “Command Failure”. The report explained that the 1999 war with Pakistan took place as the military and political leadership did not take cognisance of the timely warnings of the man on the ground, Brig Surinder Singh, commander of the Kargil-based 121 Brigade. The report widely differed from the narrative that the then National Democratic Alliance-government wanted the people to believe. The official position was that the nuclear test in Pokhran had changed the regional dynamics and that India was talking to Pakistan from a position of strength. The Kargil intrusion not only punctured that narrative but also exposed the limitations of hypernationalistic rhetoric masquerading as news.

I asked Editor Vinod Mehta what gave him the courage to carry a report that questioned the government about a war with a neighbouring country when many media outlets were behaving as force multipliers for the government. He said, and I paraphrase: There are two forms of journalism — fourth estate and the fifth column. Speaking the truth and holding those in power accountable are the core roles of journalism as the fourth estate. To be a megaphone for governmental propaganda and keeping people in the dark is the role of the fifth column. The choice is obvious.

A sentence in the news analysis, “Behind new incidents, a changed dynamic along India-China border” (May 20), read: “By December 2022, all 61 strategic roads along the border, spread across Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, will be completed...” Some readers felt that the newspaper was wrong in mentioning J&K. They said the report should have said Ladakh as the State has now been divided into two Union Territories. They failed to recognise that J&K includes not just Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, but also a huge swathe of territory across the Line of Control. The Indian state calls the region “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”. That region includes the Trans-Karakoram Tract, which India has been consistently claiming as its own. The Hunza-Gilgit region borders Xinjiang Province of the People’s Republic of China to the north, and the Siachen Glacier region to the east. A newspaper has to take a holistic view instead of shoehorning its analysis into the official narrative.

Selective use of the term ‘martyr’

Some readers were also troubled with the newspaper’s reluctance to use the term ‘martyr’ when reporting on the killing of CRPF soldiers. A Delhi-based advocate, Piyush Pathak, wrote: “I have been a regular reader of your prestigious newspaper for more than 30 years. A soldier martyred shall be properly addressed as this would give a positive effect to the society.”

Another reader, Vimal Kumar, felt that despite a Readers’ Editor column on this topic, “The difference between journalism and propaganda” (March 4, 2019), the term ‘martyr’ had been used in some reports (“Solidarity march held for Pulwama martyrs”, March 11, 2019, and “A tribute to Pulwama martyrs, a plea against hate-mongering”, February 22, 2019). He wondered why there is lack of consistency in the newspaper in using the term ‘martyr’.

Mr. Kumar is right. The term has managed to slip through the gate-keeping processes and this is unacceptable. However, to the credit of the desk, Mr. Kumar could not find the term after March 11, 2019. The desire to be the fourth estate trumps external pressure to become the fifth column.

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