Thursday, June 23, 2011

Post-textual Journalism


The other day, I had a conversation with a few colleagues on the heat our journalists take so often these days. This happened in the backdrop of the ongoing media uproar over the June 5 attempted killing of journalist Khilanath Dhakal of Biratnagar, and the maltreatment of others in Chitwan, Kanchanpur and Mugu.

Usually, I find myself weary of talking about such offenses or the repression of the press mainly because it is so depressing. This has happened so many times. Like in the replay of an old, gory movie, we know the storyline and the plot, and the characters. And the reactions are so predictable.

It seems it’s always the same: The culprit was not happy with a piece of news. He could not stand a free press. He decided to take on the task of the violent rebuttal. How could he dare to attack the Fourth Estate? Then, there’s a sudden spike in media reporting of the assault. Enter Federation of Nepali Journalists and other civil society groups. Condemnations and phased protests. A platitudinous promise by the government to “bring the guilty to book.” The “unidentified” offenders on the run. Justice denied. Impunity reigns. The end of the story.

Somehow, this time around, I sensed some difference in the storyline, and that is a good thing for a columnist who is always under pressure to look for significance in everyday issues and events.

First, I personally got to interact with a Biratnagar neighbor of the main bad guy, Parshuram Basnet. This neighbor tells me: Yes, he is an underworld don. And he projects himself in the community as a benevolent youth leader! That interpersonal sharing, that first-hand account made the story more real and immediate for me.

Second, the identity of the culprits is unmistakable in this case, and they remain under strong patronage and protection of some of the nation’s leading politicians. Third, surprisingly perhaps, in this case, we are beginning to see some fissures in the otherwise firm solidarity by our media fraternity against the enemies of press freedom. Fourth, by sheer coincidence or by our regional socio-political design, this affront on the Nepali press took place this time alongside a sudden wave of violent attacks on journalists in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

By those counts, so, here was some new context to an old story. On a positive note, two recent events brought added significance to this dismal setting. In a country with 100 percent impunity in journalists’ killings (more than a dozen were killed over the past decade) and amidst the new wave of attacks on media persons, we received the news of the conviction of suspects in two previous killings. On May 30, the District Court of Bara slapped life imprisonment to two of the five accused in the 2007 murder of journalist Birendra Sah. In mid-June, the District Court of Dhanusa convicted two suspects in the 2009 murder of journalist Uma Singh.

These are welcome decisions by the courts and they may help revive our faith in the rule of law. However, in order to build further on the lessons learned so that the problems of impunity and the state of continuing insecurity can be addressed effectively, the more useful question we should be asking is this: How those courts processed the cases and how they delivered justice to the victims and their families?

This is an important question because most stories on attack on journalists, or for that matter attack on any individual, end with reports of the attack and a call for justice. Journalists themselves should take the lead in finding examples of successful prosecutions and asking if such trials and investigations could be emulated in other unsolved cases.

In order to do their job, and do it well, today’s journalists need much more than just ink or a keyboard. Their adversarial role is not merely limited to challenging or questing ONE bad guy, a government, or those in authority. With the massive diffusion of power among fractured ideologies, political parties and even non-state actors like thugs, criminal groups, and shady contractors, journalists’ role has become multifaceted, requiring more brains and stretching their journalistic resources thin, to their limit. As a result, reporters and their managers have to fight more of their professional battles outside of their texts, outside of their newsrooms, in the fields out there, within the many institutional constraints.

In this light, I find the recent wave of attacks constructive to advance one of my own little theories of the press that I discussed elsewhere sometime back.
These days, in Nepal or India or Pakistan or any other country, the classic view of journalists as neutral zones is seriously under threat. We have entered the era of post-textual journalism, where media actors and structures, not the actual journalistic products, are often read and contested within the frameworks of power and influence. Reporters are judged in public less by their professionalism and more by their perceived overall social or political clout, their high potential to attract persuasion and propaganda. Battles are real, and they are raged out in the open, not in the enlightened pages of the newspapers.

This type of journalism is further strained by the increasing diffusion of media power along partisan lines. Power is recognized for what it is because of its power to include everyone. Now with the continued political fragmentation of that power, we have many such small rallying points, many small inclusions in the form of associations that lean toward this party or another, and these are often outside of the professional domains. Rather than focusing on the quality of their craft, their stories, and their professional values of fairness and independence, some find themselves in awkward situations of serving their partisan interests rather than solidarity for their own profession.

I think the issue is how to manage this type of journalism. We may call for legal provisions or professional ethics like we always do. We can protest and can demand a speedy justice process for the victims, and more stern actions against the offenders of the press. But the problem is more rooted in our society’s general attitudes and values regarding the press. And that also starkly reflects in our political leaders’ typically illiberal attitudes toward press freedom.

We need to create a wider social awareness about the role of the press in a free society. Users of media, not only journalists, must know the full implications of a free press. The general public as well as potential abusers of the media must be reached with reason before they may try to victimize or manipulate the press.

On their part, individual journalists and their employers can strive for more specialized knowledge and skills to deal with hostile situations and potential threats to their lives. It is not enough for journalists today to write good stories; they must also be safety experts, able to avoid attacks, defend themselves physically when needed, or seek help. It is not enough for them to mine data for background research on a corrupt politician or a businessman; they must also be conversant about the full legal implications of their works. In other words, they have to be able to go far beyond their story.

Published in Republica, June 22, 2011