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Image cannot be better than reality

For the last two decades, I have been an ardent advocate of May 3 celebrations. I endorse the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) affirmation that this day acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom; it is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. The website of UNESCO on World Press Freedom Day points out how this day is an important symbol of support for media who are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. One of the key acts on this day is to remember and honour journalists who lost their lives to bring us stories.

From Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous declaration that journalism is the best job in the world to broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s observation, “It is well to remember that freedom through the press is the thing that comes first. Most of us probably feel we couldn’t be free without newspapers, and that is the real reason we want the newspapers to be free”, I have cited several instances to support my advocacy for a free press.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and altered our lives in more ways than one, I was reminded of Amartya Sen’s words. In his essay, ‘Speaking of freedom: Why media is important for economic development’, he dealt with how a set of interrelated components of press freedom — its intrinsic value, its informational role, its protective role and its constructive contributions — become a bedrock for equitable development.

While my world view about journalism has not changed, it is rather difficult to talk about the virtues of the profession when its professionals are paying an unusually high price for doing their job. I could not really come to terms with the vitriol that was directed at sections of the Indian press for pointing out the failure of the government in controlling and protecting people from the ongoing second wave of the pandemic in the country. I had to stop many times before I could finish reading a short statement by the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), which mourned the loss of more than a hundred journalists who have lost their lives in India over the past year. Apart from the anger and grief in the statement, I also noticed that fear was an inescapable emotion that ran through it.

The NWMI statement read, “Journalists are the unacknowledged and unsung messengers who have been bringing to light the reprehensible disintegration of basic healthcare facilities in the midst of a pandemic, often reporting from the field, standing outside hospitals, morgues and cremation grounds alongside scores of desperate patients and relatives.” While this seems to be a simple truth to realise, I am truly at a loss to understand why governments — both at the Centre and in States — are not extending all the facilities provided to frontline workers to these professionals.

‘One-sided narrative’

Instead of providing the necessary infrastructural support, the government of India is busy attacking international media. Major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and The Straits Times, and most TV channels, blamed the Modi government for ignoring warning signs, holding an extended election in West Bengal, and not cancelling the Kumbh Mela. Irked by the truth of these reports, instead of improving the delivery systems, the government wanted all its diplomatic stations to counter the “one-sided narrative”.

It is time for news media to remind the government of an important recollection recorded by the scholar-diplomat and former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. He recently said on Twitter, “A former Foreign Secretary Venkateswaran used to tell us that it is a law of optics that image cannot be better than reality. Best concentrate on dealing with the crisis. The world has a stake in our success. Image will follow deeds and success.”

We must realise that misogyny is the first indicator for the shrinking of democratic spaces. Al Jazeera carried an extensive report on how there was, and is, a sharp surge in the online abuse of women during the pandemic. Human Rights organisation Amnesty International published a detailed study, titled ‘Toxic Twitter’, which documented the traumatic experiences of many women on digital platforms.

If journalism has to thrive as a public good, then it is important that journalists are alive to do their job.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 3:02:26 PM |

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