Without fear or favour

IN AN age where both fear and favour play an influential role in the reporting of news, journalism that stands firm against government and corporate hegemony is the last hope of democracy. Whether it is reporting on the unfolding story of the Kanchi Sankaracharya's arrest, or analysing the real reasons behind America's war on Iraq, journalism that records with accuracy and investigates with intrepid insight becomes ultimately "the first draft of history," something that stands validated by the test of time.

These days when powerful corporate and establishment interests threaten the freedom of media worldwide, the work of some remarkable and often unlikely heroes stands as a clear testament to the power of the press as a staunch defender of public interest. A new book edited by John Pilger, celebrating some of journalism's finest and most poignant moments, is a timely reminder of what journalism can and should be. Pilger himself is a distinguished veteran of this kind of journalism. In his more than thirty years in the field, his expos�s, whether it was about the genocide in Cambodia, the killings in Vietnam or his searing criticism of American foreign policy, have consistently highlighted the suffering of the powerless and exposed corruption in high places.

Tell Me No Lies brings together some of the most brilliant reporting that the twentieth century has seen. Each piece introduced by Pilger explains the context and struggle that went into what he calls "the insurrection" against "the rules of the game." Investigative journalism is not just about detective work, Pilger says, it is also about journalism that bears witness and explores ideas. It dismantles the secret centres of power and reveals the hidden agendas of those who are in control. Whether it was in Hiroshima sixty years ago or in Falluja now, the suppression of truth bears a terrible cost in terms of human lives. Therefore, it is the independent inquiry, eyewitness accounts and the relentless pursuit of facts often in the face of great personal danger that brings to light some of the gravest crimes that are committed in the name of freedom.

Consider the frontline reporting of Jo Wilding from Falluja, Amira Hass an Israeli journalist living among the dispossessed in the Gaza Strip, and Anna Politkovaskaya's account of the ceaseless war on Chechnya. Each of these writers has pushed the boundaries of reporting by the painful immediacy of their first person accounts.

Wilding is not a journalist but a young human rights observer whose dispatch from Falluja in April 2004, first published on the Internet, sharply contrasts with the reports of those "embedded" with the American military. With sniper bullets whizzing past her head, sirens screaming and lights flashing, Wilding writes that the ambulance in which she is travelling with the wounded and dying is shot at by U.S. soldiers. "... I start singing. What else do you do when someone's shooting at you?" and later on the streets, "... there's a man, face down... a small round stain on his back. We run to him. Again the flies have got there first... as we each try to roll him on to the stretcher, Dave's hand goes through his chest, through the cavity left by the bullet that entered so neatly through his back and blew his heart out." All this happens to unarmed citizens, says Wilding, out of the view of the world, out of sight of the media because the embedded media in Falluja cannot go beyond the outskirts.

Pilger's inclusion of Wilfred Burchett's famous scoop, "I write this as a warning to the world" after his daring journey to Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing, suggests that if Burchett had been part of the orchestrated official propaganda machine, the horror and devastation of a post-nuclear Hiroshima would not have immediately come to light. Similarly, Martha Gellhorn shows us what genocide means after a visit to Dachau just after the German defeat where "... behind the barbed wire and electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky."

Independent reports like these may not bring down governments; but to use a phrase that Edward Herman borrows in his landmark essay "The Banality of Evil," they encourage resistance to "normalising the unthinkable." In another article on Iraq, Pilger also emphasises this. "It is the function of experts and the mainstream media to normalise the unthinkable for the general public."

Another serious flaw of the establishment media is the tendency to overlook the predicament of the marginalised. Gunter Wallraff's outstanding work included in this book directly counters this propensity. By disguising himself as a Turkish immigrant, he penetrates Germany's illegal labour force and exposes the appalling conditions of near slavery and racism. Apart from sparking a national debate on an issue that lay dormant in the public mind, the investigations led to the filing of several thousands of criminal complaints.

Other pieces in this excellent book reveal new and detailed insights into events that mainstream media frequently either overlooks or reduces to sound bytes and quick visuals with the aid of new technology. Robert Fisk's persistent burrowing into the true goings on in Iraq, Linda Malvern's account of the genocide in Rwanda are but two of them. Pilger pins his hope on the emergence of another force to counter the pressures of media monopoly: "a new breed of citizen reporters" and the raised political consciousness of millions of people who use the Internet, the community radio, and alternative public space to oppose domination and oppression across communities whenever they get a chance.

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