Ranjona Banerji: Journalists under attack

07 Mar,2014

By Ranjona Banerji


Three Al-Jazeera journalists have been jailed in Cairo and are being tried as “terrorists” for apparently supported the now ousted government that was run by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Jazeera’s Egypt bureau chief, Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and producer Bahir Mohammed have been charged with “joining a terrorist group, aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security”. They were brought into court in a cage. The Muslim Brotherhood has been designated as a terrorist organisation, although whether you agree with its politics or not, it did win an election after Hosni Mobarak was removed from power after the protests in Tahir Square in 2011.



The Al-Jazeera case certainly needs more condemnation from the world’s journalists and definitely from the fraternity in India, insular as we are. It could well be that we are spinning into an Egypt-like situation. Day after day, journalists in India are being accused of being agents of one political party or the other. As long as these were snide remarks on social media, the allegations were harmless.


But what happened to former Hindu editor-in-chief Siddharth Varadarajan is far more disturbing. He put up a post on his Facebook page which stated that the caretaker of his flat in Delhi was beaten up by four men and warned that his “sahib”, that is Varadarajan, should “watch what he says on TV”. They also threatened Varadarajan’s wife Nandini Sundar, who is a sociologist and has been studying the state of Naxals and tribals in Chattisgarh. Neither Varadarajan nor Sundar were at home when this attack took place.


Varadarajan says he has no idea who these goons reported to and is also unsure which of his TV comments caused offence. As he pointed out on twitter, he is on TV every other day. However some people have decided that it was Varadarajan’s criticism of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Others, sadly many of them journalists themselves, have decided that the best response is to make fun of Varadarajan, especially for having a “caretaker”.


Now I’m all for a good joke but I feel humour is not going to alleviate the situation we as journalists may find ourselves in. The political atmosphere in this country is getting more and more divisive and corrosive. The street fights between the Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the constant attacks on Ashutosh for giving up journalism and IBN7 to get into politics and the Aam Aadmi Party, the sense that everyone has (including me) of several journalists abandoning the pretence of objectivity to support politicians are not good omens.


Interestingly, I find the same journalists who attack Ashutosh are big supporters of Arun Shourie, who also gave up journalism for politics. But then Shourie did join the BJP, which only makes the schisms in journalism in India clear. I remember when a colleague in Mid-Day decided to stand for elections in the 1990s, we all helped in whatever way we could financially regardless of what we thought of his politics. But we did not make a public joke out of him. Different times?


It is however disturbing that we cannot understand that threat that we are under from all quarters. Journalists have some rare moments when they can come together. Members of our fraternity or sorority if you like (tomorrow is International Women’s Day after all) have been under attack before and we have banded together better than we have now.


I do not know if this is the influence of television journalism where the personality cult is so carefully cultivated and where it is easier to believe in your own importance and where personal rivalries are played out in nightly programming decisions. Print journalists appear to have a stronger camaraderie. But whatever the reason, we are pulling apart when we should be pulling together. This will only be to our own detriment. Even a rookie journalist ought to know that politicians and political parties will support you only as long as you are useful to them. After they’re gone all you have left is us. If you don’t feel like a journalist or one of us, it’s better to just join that political party you love and get it over with.


Okay, end of lecture. Cue bugles.


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