Commemorative columns can be an occasion to celebrate a body of work. They have a tone of pride and professional satisfaction. But, I reside in a borderless terrain between personal satisfaction and a profound sense of melancholy as I write this 350th column.
As the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, the seven-year long journey has been gratifying and the constant engagement with the readers, which included periodic ‘open houses’, was not only rewarding but also stimulating. But, the fortune of the news media industry is a cause for concern for any one who cherishes democracy.
The threat comes from multiple nodes: governmental manipulation; digital disruption; the greed of the Silicon Valley platforms; falling advertising revenues; paywalls not generating adequate resources to fund quality journalism; the dual menace of disinformation and misinformation; and finally, the growing news avoidance among the citizens.
With the threat for independent journalism coming from not just authoritarian countries but also from democratic regimes, early this month, Canada and the U.K. jointly hosted a global conference on media freedom in London. Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer who defended the two Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar for their reportage on the Rohingya crisis and who is defending the Philippines journalist Maria Ressa in her legal battle with President Rodrigo Duterte, made a forceful presentation.
Ms. Clooney said that only one in 10 people in the world live in a country with a free press and that share will shrink further unless democracies protect the freedom of their own media with deeds as well as words and stand up to abuses elsewhere. In her reflections about the conference, Roula Khalaf, Deputy Editor at the Financial Times, said we either need to fight for press freedom or watch it wither away.
A trailblazing magazine
There are many articles to mark the 50th anniversaries of man’s landing on the moon and the redefining act of bank nationalisation in India. However, very few are aware of the fact that, if it had been permitted to survive for another five months, The Herald, a magazine published from Karachi and one of the finest magazines of South Asia, would have observed its 50th anniversary this year. This trailblazing magazine was shut down this month. In my three-and-a-half decades of experience in journalism, I have been a magazine journalist for two decades and it is disturbing to see the crisis that is engulfing magazine journalism.
My predecessor at Panos South Asia and one of the editors of the Dawn group of publications, Saneeya Hussain, introduced Herald and its journalism to me. It was she who pointed out how, in a sense, Herald exemplified Tom Wolfe’s 1972 canon of “new journalism”. Wolfe had written: “The kind of reporting we were doing struck us as far more ambitious, too. It was more intense, more detailed, and certainly more time-consuming than anything that newspaper or magazine reporters, including investigative reporters, were accustomed to… We had to gather all the material the conventional journalist was after — and then keep going. It seemed all-important to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment. The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.”
A voice of dissent
Azhar Abbas, a distinguished print and television journalist from Karachi, wrote a moving piece about the closure of Herald in The News. His obituary for Herald read: “Herald has been a voice of dissent for decades. Despite the pressure of daily newspaper coverage, the magazine kept itself relevant by doing investigative stories and detailed political analyses. As a young reporter in the 90s, working with accomplished journalists like Zaffar Abbas, Idrees Bakhtiar and Talat Aslam, it was at Herald that I learned why writing in public interest is more important than any other interest.”
The searing editorial, ‘Sword against pen’ (July 18) in this newspaper brought out the challenges in India. It said: “In India, the Centre and several State governments have not merely shown extreme intolerance towards objective and critical reporting but also taken unprecedented measures to restrict journalism.” There is a need to form a vibrant covenant between journalism and citizens to strengthen our democratic credentials and to save the hard-won freedoms.