The case of the murdered Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta once more brings to the fore the power wielded by the media as also the many threats it is constantly faced with. The ramifications of the killing of Galizia two years ago have now pushed Malta into a full-blown crisis, with a businessman already taken into custody on questions of his role in the murder. Other powerful figures could soon be brought into the net of investigations. And now the country's prime minister has resigned over the whole sordid affair.
But does the Galizia story revive public confidence in the ability of the media to speak truth to power? Only a year ago, the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by agents of the Saudi government in the putative security of Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul. The finger has been pointed, worldwide, at Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for Khashoggi's grisly end. The journalist's remains, sliced into pieces, have never been found. And after an initial flurry of hurling disgust and condemnation at the Saudi prince, the world seems to have come round to accepting him as part of the global elite, beyond and above reproach. Even the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, originally determined to get to the bottom of the tragedy, has gone disturbingly quiet in these past few months.
When you deal with the question of press freedom, you actually ought to be confronting the many dimensions of it. And then try to answer them as best you can. It is always the questions that throw themselves at you. It is immaterial whether they emanate from the dark corridors of political power or the dungeons of misanthropic men. There is the tragic tale of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who disappeared on a Pakistani street and then had the terrible misfortune of being decapitated by elements holding a perverted view of faith. Of course Pearl was a courageous man. You are not a journalist if boldness is not part of your character. But there is also the inevitable, though unpalatable, truth that courage can often be an invitation to disaster, to an immensity of suffering for the one armed by it.
If you have trouble with that line of argument, you only have to go into the instances not many years ago of the murder of a Turkish newsman and a Russian journalist. We have some idea of why the Turk died, and it all had to do with his views of the place of Kurds in Turkish society. He died at the hands of a fanatical teenager. But that Russian journalist, a woman who set out to expose the corruption and the conspiracy at work in her own country? She had been warned earlier of the consequences of owning a mind that was in endless, ruthless investigation. She warded off death, until death finally caught up with her. Here in Bangladesh, the killing of men like Manik Shaha and Balu and so many others left many of us in the media despondent for days and months on end. In the end, though, we emerged from the shock renewed in our ability to expose misdeeds at the top. It does not matter that a politician turns into a predator in search of newsmen to beat up, perhaps even kill, when they speak of his conspiratorial deeds. What matters is that the journalist in our times does not mean to give up the power he wields to put bad men and women in their places. That cheers you up, somewhat.
But just as you think you are a free journalist, you remember all the calls that governments have over the years made about the need for objective journalism. Does it not strike you as peculiar that the profession you are engaged in should be coming to you in such an adjectivally defined way? You know as well as the rest of us do that you are either a journalist or you are not, just as it rains or it does not. Therefore, when that bit about objectivity is pushed in your face, you know that objectivity is not what men in power are after. They are informing you, simply and without embarrasment, that they mean not to accept any criticism of what they do. Objectivity, then, could be a politically correct term these days in the sense that it could mean a clear propensity to uphold the lie as truth. Back in the old days of dictatorship, there was something called 'advice' coming from the government --- and it was always in the nocturnal hours --- asking newspapers not to print particular news items. You could of course choose to go ahead and print the items. But of course you wouldn't, for the advice was really a command, an overturning of which could push you and your family into unforeseen misery.
All this talk of a free press is everywhere a matter of truth confronting power. Do not forget Watergate, that seminal moment when two intrepid young journalists destroyed an imperial presidency. When Richard Nixon fell in August 1974, it was the freedom of the media that triumphed. Here was an instance of how investigative journalism could cause the world's most powerful individual to bite the dust. These victories, you will likely suggest, are possible in America. And you could be right. Does anyone among you recall the self-questioning Lyndon Johnson went into for the first time in his Vietnam-clouded presidency when Walter Lippmann told Americans the war was going all wrong? Johnson told his aides, in a plaintive tone as it were, that if Lippmann went against him, there was a good chance America would go against him as well. And that is where you have the media compel an administration to stand, to pause, to glance at the landscape before it. Johnson, asked if he would seek re-election in 1968, told journalists that he would cross the bridge when he came to it. Days later, Time newsmagazine printed a cartoon depicting the US president surveying a bridge broken and burnt by the fires of Vietnam.
The trouble with countries run by self-obsessed governments is that they are often witness to some of the crudest patterns of behaviour on the part of the powers that be. Pakistan's Salamat Ali had the lash rain down on his back for the temerity he displayed in faulting General Ziaul Haq over the dictator's policies. Zia tried to break the man. Men like Salamat Ali, fortunately for all of us, do not break. Unfortunately, however, not every journalist is a Salamat Ali. In Bangladesh, there have been newsmen who have cheerfully belittled the War of Liberation through radio programmes they called Plain Truth --- it was neither plain nor the truth --- before going on to serve in high positions in the very country they once lambasted as a way of pleasing their masters in distant Rawalpindi. One among them would go on to achieve notoriety through engaging in innuendo and calumny against the jailed leaders of the Mujibnagar government in November 1975. All those incarcerated men were then done to death in the dark confines of prison. You are saddened to think that there are circumstances when even journalists can turn out to be fearsome beings. When that happens, what happens to the freedom of the press? Let the answer be. And yet let us not forget that some good journalists have often pushed us into deep disappointment through their foray into bad government. Altaf Hossain may not have been a legendary journalistic figure, but he was a well-known editor of Pakistan's leading English language newspaper Dawn. He should have stayed there. He did not, for it was a berth in Ayub Khan's government that he fancied. In early 1965, he became Pakistan's minister for industries and natural resources. He thus got lost in woods that no one wanted to venture into.
A free press is not what you should expect from journalists always looking for a role in politics. Neither should you think the media are autonomous when newsmen in the West are happy to be in a queer condition we now have come to know as embedded journalism. You report from behind the lines set by a government, in this case the Bushies in Iraq, and expect people around the world to take you seriously. Well, people have other directions to turn to. And one of those is Al-Jazeera, where the truth offered is a whole lot more palatable than what embedded journalism can bring to you on its platter. Why else would David Frost be there?
We ought to be recalling such icons of journalism as the Indonesian Mochtar Lubis. And we do. In our times, there is the bold Jon Snow at Britain's Channel Four. There is too Jeremy Paxman, whose sharp, crisp slicing of arrogance in high places comforts us in our darker moments. And, remember, there was Dan Rather once. In India, where journalists have had cases of sedition filed against them, we yet take courage from men like Karan Thapar and Raveesh Kumar.
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