Strident nationalism and rigorous journalism

There seems to be little introspection in the government about what led to the deadly attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir a year ago. We do not know what steps the state has taken to prevent such dastardly attacks from taking place in future.

Like the state, can journalism too afford to not introspect? When a section of the media hyped up India’s retaliatory strikes in Balakot,Pakistan, and its dogfight with Pakistani jets that led to the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, this newspaper did it its duty by merely reporting facts. It did not provide fodder for propaganda.

Journalism and propaganda

My column titled “The difference between journalism and propaganda” (March 4, 2019) was subjected to a savage attack for not being “nationalistic” enough. It was written at a time when many believed that there were major strategic gains to be made with the Balakot strikes in Pakistan, and that the Indian Air Force shot down an F-16. While media propagandists were busy putting out unverified numbers of terrorists killed in the offensive, The Hindu decided to stick to reporting facts which it could either verify or attribute to a responsible authority. It consciously decided not to publish claims of military success by anonymous sources. The lack of accountability made selective plants in the media not only suspicious but also vitiated the information environment. When eye-witness accounts of the Balakot strikes emerged in the international media (Indian journalists do not have access to Pakistan), discerning readers understood the difference between journalism and propaganda.

A year later, as this newspaper pointed out in its report, “Many loose ends hamper probe into Pulwama attack” (February 15, 2020), the National Investigation Agency has not been able to trace the source of high-grade explosives used by the car-borne suicide bomber. There is little or no inquiry into the intelligence failure that led to the attack. The dramatic arrest of Davinder Singh, Deputy Superintendent of the J&K Police, on January 11 when he was supposedly ferrying two Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists, Naveed Mushtaq alias Babu and Altaf, as well as an unidentified lawyer who allegedly worked as an overground worker for terror groups, makes the issue murkier as Singh was posted in Pulwama.

Nationalism and patriotism

In my column, “Retaining the ability to question” (April 8, 2019), I invoked a George Orwell quote — “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act” — to explain the newspaper’s meticulous reports on the U.S.’s count of F-16 planes in Pakistan. Orwell’s 1943 resignation letter from the BBC has been a guiding light to many journalists to hold on to journalistic principles in the light of overwhelming governmental propaganda.

The author of 1984 also wrote an essay called “Notes on nationalism” which listed out the various blinkers generated by the notion of nationalism. Orwell made a clear distinction between the enabling idea of patriotism and the debilitating imagination of nationalism. It is important that this essay is read not only by journalists, but also by citizens to guard against the hijacking of our democratic rights by demagogues. In a searing passage, Orwell explained the trappings of nationalism: “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should – in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 – and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning.”

Journalism has survived various bouts of strident nationalism. But the present variant has a new complication in the form of digital multiplications and algorithm-driven manipulations. For instance, Google maps shows two different versions of Kashmir: one for users accessing the Internet from India and one for those outside the geographical border of the country. Unlike algorithm-driven selective interpretations of events, which in many cases lie between half-truths and blatant lies, journalism refers to the act of first verifying information and only then publishing it.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 2:17:52 AM |

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