The Prime Minister of Pakistan is livid with Cyril Almeida even though Dawn’s star journalist has been more severe on the army in his writings than on the civilian government. Almeida has been put on the Exit Control List, an official measure that is similar to the suspension of one’s passport.
Almeida used to enjoy visiting his relatives in Goa and now he cannot leave Pakistan as long as he is on the exit watch. This measure was introduced by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq to tame his civilian rivals. Now it seems Nawaz Sharif — who happens to be Zia’s civilian protégé — has harnessed it to target a fall guy for his difficulties with the army. It is the government, not the army that has put Almeida in the dock as a potentially anti-national writer.
For South Asian journalists, this periodic confrontation with the system and suffering as a consequence is routine. Bangladesh was considered to be the most dangerous place for journalists followed by Sri Lanka. If we take the problems Nepal’s celebrated Himaal magazine is facing with its government, we’ll probably know that the problem is widespread. In Pakistan, journalists have disappeared. They have been killed. Newspapers and TV channels have been shut down for alleged indiscretions.
In India, on the other hand, journalists face the ire of local establishments at the state level. The Centre has a different way of handling them. Criticising the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu found the editors of The Hindu running for cover. The Shiv Sena has its own way of dealing with troublesome journalists. It is par for the course with other state governments, whether in Uttar Pradesh or West Bengal. Suppose, however, there was an Indian Almeida. Suppose he had written what he wrote against the army and the government in India. Is there an editor to stand behind an Indian Almeida? Perhaps, but there was a time when one could say with pride that yes, we had Frank Moraes, Chhalapati Rau, Khushwant Singh, Shyam Lal or even MJ Akbar before he did a Faustian bargain with politics. Today, such a claim would be a boastful exaggeration.
Almeida had reportedly said during one of his visits to Goa that he didn’t see a bright future for journalism in Pakistan. It's true that there has been a decline since the days of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Ali Khan and some other great editors. But the fact that Almeida is around proves him wrong. It is equally true that the current Dawn editor Zaffar Abbas has stood like a rock with his star journalist.
Journalistic integrity, however, is also a reflection of the pattern of ownership of the media, not just the professional merit of journalists. In India, today, the better journalists in my view are writing mostly on alternate spaces created by the Internet. There are of course, exceptions. But journalists writing on the Internet are predominantly those that were sidelined in their respective newspapers or journals for their views, mostly. In the current phase of the India-Pakistan crisis, the alternative view against jingoism has come from net-based writers, not as much from the so-called mainstream channels or newspapers.
There is a basic difference between Pakistani and Indian journalists, however. Much has to do with caste. Is it not a fact that journalism in India depends on the integrity or its absence among the predominantly upper caste journalists? There is hardly a Dalit worth the name in the mainstream media. Praising and criticising the government or the army is the function of upper caste journalists. Upper caste journalists do all the explaining of a Dalit problem. Reporting a communal conflagration fairly or with bias is their preserve. There are social limits to how one can be fair and objective if there is a social hiatus in the object and the subject of reporting or analysing. That we are still able to get a certain degree of fairness in reporting in newspapers can be attributed to integrity. That doesn’t solve the problem though.
Almeida is a Roman Catholic journalist, sociologically speaking, in a Muslim milieu. Hamid Mir would be a better example of a journalist from the majority community taking on the majority-ruled system in Pakistan. Suspected gunmen linked with the military’s ire at Mir's reporting shot him. He has survived without compromising his stance one bit. The sociology of a newsroom in Pakistan is different from the one in India. In a Karachi newsroom, for example, I have seen journalists close to the MQM working with colleagues close to the arch-rival Jamaat-e-Islami. The newsroom can have a journalist against the army, against Nawaz Sharif, against the PPP, against and for Baloch independence. A PPP journalist would be against the army, as would a Nawaz Sharif loyalist. Journalists loyal to the army would be keeping an eye on everyone, including the Jamaat these days.
Is there an editor to stand behind an Indian Almeida? Perhaps, but there was a time when one could say with pride that yes, we had Frank Moraes, Chhalapati Rau, Khushwant Singh, Shyam Lal or even MJ Akbar before he did a Faustian bargain with politics. Today, such a claim would be a boastful exaggeration
This varied sociology usually balances out any bias in the final reporting. There are of course, newspapers and channels purely run by the army and political groups. The viewers who know exactly where they are coming from can sort them out. In India, similarly entrenched conflict has given way to a seamless transition to the party in power. The paper that was supporting Manmohan Singh is supporting Narendra Modi and so on. Again, of course, there are exceptions.
How does the sociology of a newsroom affect the news? Do a caste-wise survey of the nationalist quotient in one’s opinion, and you would have the answer. No one wants to rub the army the wrong way, but Maywati’s emphasis on chest thumping would be different from the Akali’s or Shiv Sena’s. This is the reason perhaps that when the government of Pakistan was in denial of Ajmal Kasab's Pakistani origins after the Mumbai terror attacks, it was Dawn journalists who challenged the official version. In India, I imagine this would take mountains of courage. Journalists like Almeida and Mir are still debating what is good for Pakistan and what is not. Unlike the debate in Pakistan, a majority of TV channels in India seem to have arrived on a consensus on what is good for their country.
In India, more often than not, this is also determined by the pattern of ownership of the media. In India, if one man can directly or indirectly own 27 TV channels, as is widely claimed, would the channels be promoting varied approaches to nationalism? In Pakistan, no one owns that many channels. That’s another advantage they have in producing a stream of talent like the one Almeida represents.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist, who writes for the Pakistani daily Dawn