Whataboutery will not silence journalism

The media will never stop playing its adversarial role

Published - December 24, 2018 12:15 am IST

Some readers have suggested that this column should only focus on The Hindu ’s acts of commission and omission, and not on issues relating to freedom of expression, press freedom, and constitutional guarantees. If this suggestion is considered seriously, this weekly column would read like a compendium of corrections and clarifications. The Readers’ Editor is not a supra-subeditor. He or she provides the context in which the credible news media works, is an effective interlocutor between the newspaper and its readers, and offers a visible forum for accountability.

Defending two icons

Is it possible to talk about the virtues of the independent news media when we cannot talk about shrinking spaces? Being a journalist is a choice and not a compulsion. Fired by the spirit of public engagement, people opt to become journalists. People are in the public sphere because of a combination of factors. How do we explain the tragedy where we are forced to defend the rights of two great icons of modern India, Amartya Sen and Naseeruddin Shah, to express legitimate concerns about the country? For at least two generations of Indians, Professor Sen and Mr. Shah have represented the best of Indian democracy: they are fearlessly interrogative, argue, debate, dissent, and speak truth to power.

My own journey from being a science student to a reporter was shaped by Mr. Shah’s art. His brilliant performances in Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), and Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983) sensitised me to the cruel realities of this country. His easy articulation of complex issues, sharp wit, role in theatre, and support for cinema not only enriched the art but brought creative minds across genres together. It is sad that BJP Yuva Morcha members prevented him from inaugurating the Ajmer Literature Festival. What is more worrying is that many who are spewing venom on the actor have no clue about his contributions; they are simply buying into the bigotry on social media and castigating him. It is chilling to read what this Padma Bhushan award winner told this newspaper: “The vicious jingoism masquerading as love for the country has reached truly scary proportions and so has the constant whataboutery in response to almost everything.”

In the case of Noble Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, it was another eminent economist, Kaushik Basu, who defended him in a public column against a social media attack. “What has been a shocking experience in the last three or four years is the amount of trolling attacks unleashed on Sen whenever he is cited in popular writings; these come almost entirely from India. The attacks do not have any substance. Clearly, those crafting the attacks, if crafting is the word, do not have the capacity for serious debate. So what they unleash is merely a volley of completely fact-free name calling,” he wrote.

As a journalist, I value what Professor Sen said about the need for an unrestrained and healthy media. He wrote in The Idea of Justice : “The absence of a free media and the suppression of people’s ability to communicate with each other have the effect of directly reducing the quality of human life, even if the authoritarian country that imposes such suppressions happens to be very rich in terms of gross national product.” Professor Sen has argued that the media is important not only for democracy but for the pursuit of justice in general. He said: “‘Discussionless justice’ can be an incarcerating idea.”

Function of a newspaper

The fact that we need to defend the rights of such scholars and artists raises questions about how we are going to do our journalism. The controversy over what Mr. Shah said broke around the same time that the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order authorising 10 Central agencies to intercept, monitor, and decrypt “any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer.” Yet another round of whataboutery has started filling cyberspace, with people saying that such a ruling existed even earlier, so why talk about it now. This suggests that newspapers should stop their critical adversarial function. If newspapers become silent, will they still be called newspapers?


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