12:00 AM, May 04, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:01 PM, May 05, 2018

Power to the powerless

Placards from a protest in Istanbul against the killing of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja. PHOTO: OZAN KOSE/AFP

The general attitude toward journalists is perhaps summed by what Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer, expressed many years ago, “If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

This view is still shared by many in our society today. Someone with solid academic credentials who chooses to become a journalist is considered a failure by family and friends. When someone fails to find a job anywhere else, he or she becomes a journalist, goes the conventional wisdom.

It could not be more wrong.

Journalists are different. As high-handed as it may sound, they are. No matter how old they are, they have a childish romanticism to them—sometimes self-destructive, but also deeply moving. Young men and women, educated in the best of the universities, hunker down interview boards to join a profession that practically guarantees them rejection, hardship and poverty. Editors dutifully remind them of their likely fate, but they come in hordes anyway.

They want this way of life so very much—not only to succeed in it, but to be a part of it, to stroll in it and feel it wrap around them. I admire their brash impracticality, and wonder if, in some way, their reckless enthusiasm for exposing the truth represents an unconscious protest against this money-driven age.

But I never heard any of my colleagues ever brag about such a lofty ambition, or indicate in any way that they thought of themselves as heroic for taking the “road less travelled by.” If anything, they always made a show of bemoaning the lovely madness in their desire. Yet, I cannot help but think that something deliberate and stubborn lies behind their decision to choose this career.

Journalists often downplay the seriousness of their work by joking about changing the world. I do believe that they are changing the world, no matter how ridiculous that may sound. But they never show it, because they know that if they look like they are trying to change the world, their work will sink from its own burden. But in the best of their work, the idealism is there—hidden—like fish below the surface of water.

And it is idealism—not only in the press but also in all other spheres of life—that is changing the world. Journalism matters because it disturbs people. You never heard of a tyrant who wanted to jail marketing executives.

Journalists wouldn't find any purpose in joining this profession unless they believed in significant things—right over wrong, good over evil. Their writing sometimes may deal with the grey areas between these two absolutes, and all the relativities that life requires. But they still acknowledge that absolutes exist, and that they are on the side of the angels. I have never known a great journalist who did not believe in decency and right action, no matter how grave the circumstances were.

To some journalists, writing is the cure for the disease of living. From afar, it may seem like an escape from the world, but at its best moments it is an act of rescue. Everyone has his own way of seeing into suffering and wrong. Journalists share the desire to save the world from its blights by going deeper into them until they lie exposed.

Going deep is tricky business. Finding facts can be hard in a society where institutions suffer from a lack of accountability. Once assigned a story on how to increase the production of dairy milk in Bangladesh, your correspondent went to the relevant department to find out the total number of dairy cows in the country. To his surprise, the officials did not find the subject as innocuous as he thought. One of them asked him why he should have access to “this kind of information.” Then the official exercised his right to remain silent for fear that anything he would say would be misquoted and used against him.

Many journalists suffer much worse on the job. Earlier last month, Palestinian photojournalist Yaser Murtaja was shot by the IDF while covering protests more than 300 feet away from the border. He was reportedly wearing a flak jacket marked “PRESS.” Murtaja died of the injuries the following day. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 14 journalists have been killed in 2018 so far, 262 were imprisoned the year before while 58 remain missing globally.

Attacks on the freedom of the press come from governments as well as non-state actors. The strategies to suppress the media fall into three categories, according to Joel Simon, the executive director of CPJ, such as repression 2.0, veiled political control and technology capture.

Repression 2.0 is what Simon calls a renewal of the old-time tactics, from state censorship to the imprisonment of critics. Veiled political control is a systematic effort to hide repressive actions by packaging them as democratic norms. In many parts of the world, governments justify introducing oppressive laws by claiming that they are necessary to suppress hate speech and provocation to violence. Much has been written lately about the implications of the proposed Digital Security Act in our country, which hardly needs repetition here.

Finally, technology capture, according to Simon, means using the same technologies that have given rise to the global information explosion to gag dissent, by putting critics under increased surveillance, blocking websites and using trolling to silence critical voices.

Meanwhile, non-state actors—from armed groups to drug cartels—have bypassed the traditional media by exploiting information technologies to communicate directly with the public, often posting videos of graphic violence.

In this changed scenario, a free press is sine qua non for democracy. Journalists are not enemies. They serve and strengthen democracy by promoting unfettered political debate and exposing the actions of the government and the private sector to the harsh scrutiny of an informed and engaged citizenry.

Journalists are power to the powerless. States and societies are known by the way they treat them.


Amitava Kar is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.


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