By Atharva Pandit:
What is happening to the freedom of press in the current climate? It wasn’t spectacular to begin with, but for the sake of argument, and keeping aside a handful of unfortunate incidences (including Daniel Pearl’s brutal killing), the 90’s and the early 2000’s were good years to be journalists and writers who were committed to defending with all of their intellectual might the liberty to speak, write and express freely, anywhere they felt like, and any which way they hoped would make an impact: prolific articles in international newspapers, newsroom debates, press conferences, extensive activism… But what we find today are governments which have decided that what their countries need is not proper human resources or the capital to pay back a building amount of debt, but jails filled up with those who speak the truth and graveyards full of fighters whose only weapon is their vocal opinions and prolific pens. Apart from that, journalists today have nothing to counter the war which is being waged against them the world over. They are not just helpless, but also fearful: will their next story cost them their lives? Will their opinions, out in public, eventually cost them their hard-earned jobs?
There have been numerous examples of journalists and human rights activists, sometimes one doubling up as the other, being jailed, sacked, or in extreme cases, killed. Threatening and intimidating has been popular with dictatorial countries which want the activists to cease their work which extensively deals with uncovering the dirty secrets of the regime. The most recent example is that of the Washington Post’s Tehran-based correspondent Jason Rezaian, who, along with his wife, also a journalist writing for a Dubai-based newspaper, was detained by the Iranian police without any proper explanation, except the typical one: that Rezaian and his wife were undercover agents for Western secret services spying on Iran. The accusation, naÃ¯ve and clichÃ©d as it is, cannot certainly be applied to Rezaian, who is one of those journalists for whom one subject is every subject, and for the reporter who held dual citizenship, that subject was Iran, his homeland. He was always seen inviting people to the country to experience its true culture and beauty, especially so after the Islamic Republic has, indeed in the current years, opened it’s otherwise tightly shut doors to the Westerners. However, suddenly, in an unprecedented move by the Iranian authorities, the foreign correspondent is under detention and even his powerful friends have come of no use in securing his release. A video by his mother and statements by several international human rights organizations demanding his release have followed, but Rezaian’s whereabouts are still unknown. For anyone interested in the rapidly changing Middle Eastern geopolitics, and especially the politics of Iran post the Iran-contra scandal, Rezaian’s reports were a must, but today we find him behind the bars for something which he hasn’t done.
This phenomenon is the one which we find repeated in several countries around the world, and the troubling part is, most countries which have featured on the lists of jailing journalists are well-established, “progressive” democracies. One look towards Turkey would prove that point: the country is a Democracy, which the nations under influence of the Arab Spring have been looking at for inspiration, but reports and statistics which rank nations according to their progressive approach towards press suggest otherwise. Turkey under Erdogan proves to be another Russia under Putin- a democratic institution gone awry trying to tidy up its dirt by punishing those who seek to clean it. From the cold blooded murder of Hrant Dink, a journalist who wrote and spoke out for the minorities of Turkey, to the recent jailing of journalists and publishers for publishing “anti-national” material, as in the case of Ragip Zalakolu, a publisher who started off by writing on social issues and moved towards the criticism of military regime which took power post the military coup of 1971, to the firebombing of his office in 1995 by right-wing extremists and the recent detention of him and his son, also a journalist, Zarakolu has led a long fight for the minorities which live under Erdogan’s grip. Investigative journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, both have been arrested and prosecuted for anti-national activities- and they form only a handful of thousands of journalists, writers, teachers and scholars which have been victims of the crackdown led by the Turkish government for the past two years. The Arab Spring, one hopes, won’t produce nations like Turkey, at least with regards to the issue of freedom of press and free expression, but the signs are already visible. About two months ago, Egypt, one of the countries which were under fire during the Arab Spring, jailed three journalists working for the Al-Jazeera network. The journalists, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were accused of aiding the Brotherhood, a militant faction which works against the democratically elected government. The proof: one of the journalists was found with a spent bullet in his pocket, which was collected as a memorabilia, and which was used by the Court to prove that the journalist was, in fact, in possession of arms. Nothing could have been more absurd.
Closer home, not much was made about Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose’s resignation from CNN-IBN, although the reason behind it was something which could have made headlines: the fact that a company like Reliance, which has been a supporter of the BJP, taking over meant that the channel would no longer remain independent; it was as good as state-sponsored. Sardesai and Ghose’s Marathi news counterpart, Nikhil Wagle, one of the most dynamic television journalists to have graced the Marathi news media, working for IBN Lokmat, resigned as well. Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor at “Open” magazine, was sacked in November 2013 for reasons as of yet undisclosed, although it is largely believed that it had something to do with his political work. Bal was offered about 1.5 million Rupees to leave quietly, which he refused, and chose to speak out against the management for his sacking and the termination of independence. Although it is depressing to see the arrival of war on journalistic freedom in India, it is, at the same time, heartening to watch independent journalists and their platforms taking the fight against this media menace.
And then there are those who like nothing better but to silence their critics once and for all- Putin, for example, who has been accused of overlooking the killings of journalists in Russia and silencing his critics by threatening or intimidation (several cases report a similar pattern: a phone call of intimidation, and then the disappearance in wilderness of the person who was threatened). But it’s not just Russia where journalists pay with their lives- Pakistan has turned out to be another country where shots have been directed at those who dare to speak out truth. Hamid Mir was attacked in Karachi in April, and his employers, the Geo News, accused Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) for the attack, which eventually led to the closing down of Geo. The media in Pakistan, which has long been viewed as brave and some of the purest bunch of truth-seekers which helped oust General Musharraf, has been under the threat of turning out to be another example of how journalism, in simple words, can kill. About 34 journalists have died in duty since 2008 in Pakistan, and, in the words of Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, “it is supremely dangerous to be a reporter in Pakistan.” But replace Pakistan with any “healthy” democracy in the World, and one would get to the same conclusion: journalism has become a dangerous game.
The fate of journalists, like those in Turkey and Russia, Egypt and Iran and other such faux-democratic institutions is unfortunately sealed, but what such cases do is to endanger the universal profession of journalism. As Dexter Filkins, a war correspondent, points out, “Remember that when you start arresting journalists, the freedom for those not in jails shrinks, too.” Certainly, thus proving that the cost of being a writer or a vocal supporter of truth and honesty is turning out to be heavier by the day. It is to be seen what fate Jason Rezaian would be subjected to, but his case points out to the depressing fact that journalism has ceased being what it traditionally was and should always be: free, independent and truthful.