Packing a punch | india | Hindustan Times
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Packing a punch

Whereas Pakistan’s media understands that if it doesn’t speak up, their country’s existential crisis could spiral out of control. To that extent, even when they seem to “embarrass” their country with their hard-hitting reports, they are really acting in the ‘national interest’. Barkha Dutt writes.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2009 22:30 IST
Barkha Dutt

It is journalism’s eternal riddle — that one question we ask constantly but are never able to answer simply. To what extent does (and should) national identity and loyalty determine how you report? I think we often get suspicious when the political establishment hides behind the veil of “national interest” and hurls instructions at us. But equally, our otherwise argumentative media tends to intuitively back the Indian State if the enemy is external. In other words, we will ask the awkward questions in Kashmir; we will investigate and expose fake encounters and we will be mercilessly critical of an incoherent Naxal policy. But when it comes to war or terrorism the rules change automatically. Our Indianness invariably and understandably colours our reportage while we struggle to find an enlightened balance.

And so, right after the Bombay attacks, the Indian and Pakistani media were often locked in a complex emotion of competitive nationalism. It didn’t help that microscopic scrutiny was throwing up impossibly irrational and contradictory verdicts. The same television debate was slammed as “too shrill” by the peaceniks and “too soft” by the hawks.

We were either guilty of not being nationalist enough or scorned for being “jingoists”. In this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t scenario, a strange new tension crept into the cross-border discourse. When Pakistani journalists would appear on our shows, even the most trenchant critics of Islamabad’s security establishment would feel obliged to take a more muted position. And when we went on as analysts on their debates, we were similarly cautious.

To some extent this confusion is entirely understandable. Unless you are the sort who has seceded from the very concept of the Nation-State and embraced the world as your village, where you come from will subliminally define everything you do. Yet, we are equally duty bound by our commitment to speak the truth; even those shades of it that are unpalatable to our self-image as a country.

And on that score alone, we must concede that Pakistan’s media has been simply extraordinary.

The initial few days of tit-for-tat aggression soon gave way to a more measured introspection. It was the Geo TV network that first famously exposed Kasab’s Pakistani nationality, weeks before Islamabad was even ready to consider the fact. The channel secretly filmed residents of Faridkot in Punjab who openly spoke about knowing the young man who told his mother he was going away to fight “jihad”.

Within days, Geo was dragged to court by a senator of the ruling party on charges of “damaging Pakistan’s image.” Dawn News then scooped an interview with Kasab’s father, who looked at the photograph of a young man hugging an AK-47, and said quietly, “This is true, this is my son.” All this while Pakistan’s government was persisting with denials and obfuscations. But it didn’t deter Pakistan’s media from either remarkably brave investigations or amazingly blunt analysis on the state of their nation.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, scientist and writer, warned of the ‘Saudi-isation’ of Pakistan. In a chilling commentary, he said, “Extremism is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities. Left unchallenged, this education will produce a generation incapable of co-existing with anyone except strictly their own kind. The mindset it creates may eventually lead to Pakistan’s demise as a Nation State.”

And this week, the horrific killing of Geo’s correspondent Musa Khan in the Taliban-held valley of Swat is a grim example of the sort of risks Pakistan’s media take just to be able to do their job. Within an hour, Pakistan’s journalists hit back. “Kill us if you dare,” said Geo’s Executive director, Hamid Mir, “We will fight your guns with our pens and paper.”

Even to those Indian journalists who routinely report from conflict zones, this sort of pressure is just unimaginable. Yes, many of our best journalists have braved bullets and threats in the line of duty. Our young colleagues in Jammu and Kashmir carry scars that are both emotional and physical. But perhaps we have never known what it feels like to report against a constantly antagonistic State.

Most of my friends in Pakistan live under persistent threats to their lives. It didn’t stop Asma Jehangir and Jugnu Mohsin from leading a peace missive to India. My friend, journalist Imtiaz Alam, and I often argue ferociously over his pronouncements on the Indian media. But, I have never stopped admiring his indefatigable spirit and ability to always ask the toughest of questions. He was assaulted this week by unidentified men on motorcycles who warned him to lie low and keep shut. But he was back on the street protesting with fellow journalists, within an hour. Another journalist friend sent me the following text message this week: “Journalists of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your lives.” It was a biting, satirical comment on how inconceivably hard it is to be a journalist in Pakistan today.

Pakistan’s journalists have routinely argued that Indian journalists are more pliable and accommodating than they need to be. I’m not sure I agree with that, but there have certainly been moments in the past month when I have questioned our own ability to go against the State (as distinct from speaking out against governments, which we thrive on). Perhaps it has much to do with the fact that we are comfortable as Indians and with where our country is.

For the most part, we are proud and self-confident (sometimes to a fault). Whereas Pakistan’s media understands that if it doesn’t speak up, their country’s existential crisis could spiral out of control. To that extent, even when they seem to “embarrass” their country with their hard-hitting reports, they are really acting in the ‘national interest’. The dream of democracy rests on their shoulders. And we must express our admiration and gratitude for their courage in these dangerous times.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV