The contrast was stark. On the one hand we saw a newsroom full of young journalists breaking a major story of crime and murder on the first day their news network Republic went on air. On the other side in the very studio and beyond, jaded politicians and commentators wondered where the crime was and called for more evidence.
On one side was enthusiasm brimming over to track the guilty and bring them to justice, on the other side was cynicism backed by minute political calculations about who stands to gain and lose if punishment followed crime.
For me this is dilution and diversion. Interpretation of facts as they emerge is rarely an innocent exercise. Some of us in the media said there was nothing to the story as we had been there and done our stories. What we didn't say was that we had inadvertently or consciously helped in burying the evidence over ten, fifteen or even twenty years. Cynicism is the death knell of good journalism. Journalists who are not pesky and curious harm journalism.
The story was, is and always will be macabre. The Republic’s was a taped conversation between Shahabuddin, one of India's most dreaded mafia dons, and former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, himself a convict out on bail, in Bihar. Shahabuddin is no ordinary criminal - he has dumped people in acid to make bodies disappear, killed in cold blood and runs a gun-alcohol business from his prison cell. He is also a national security threat with alleged links to intelligence agencies outside India. Bihar has a border with Nepal.
The context and language of the tapes were important - they showed the closeness of the two convicts and how they influenced thinking. They bypassed the current Chief Minister of the State Nitish Kumar in their criminal dealing. Nitish Kumar enjoys wide respect and had promised to end crime in the state. He also has ambitions to become India's Prime Minister in 2019 for which he needs the support of all including the two criminals. I have spent many years of my formative years in erstwhile Bihar and Gangs of Wasseypur is not a film. Disappearances, murders, violence can give the mafia dons in Sicily a run for their guns.
The tapes have pushed Nitish Kumar against the wall. What did he not know and when did he not know it but no politician in India ever fades away or is held accountable. As the day progressed and it became clear to all that the political response would be to obfuscate, deny and brazen it out, I was disturbed by two things. One, the cynicism of India’s political class and by extension the absence of enquiry and anger among commentators and experts who waltzed in and out of the new television studio. The other was how so many of them had come to do their piece without as much as a basic courtesy to understand the latest work of reporters who take risks to bring stories like this to the fore. It's a leak, so the motive must be questioned, I was told. Leaks are part of investigative journalism. By the end of the day, the ecosystem had kicked in extracting its pound of flesh, also called IOUs.
As a journalist with over two decades of experience in reporting from India and around the world, here’s what I have to say to the cynics. It is not the job of a young reporter to judge which stories are important and which are not. They have to report what they see and dig further if necessary. We are writers of the first draft of history. It is not the job of editors to please political groupings by selective reporting. That is censorship in its crudest form.
Abdication of responsibility creeps up subtly and in some cases, bluntly. In the past year we have been writing about an 'atmosphere' of censorship in India. Reporters I have spoken to say very often editors and senior colleagues do not work on stories either because they have something to hide, or because the risk is too big (read financial and business interests). It is never stated as thus - the more sophisticated way is to stay it's an old story. A European friend who knows the Indian media scene well and who returned from a recent visit to New Delhi said 'paranoia' among the media was palpable.
It is because we in the media have abdicated our responsibilities that people like Lalu Prasad Yadav and his ilk are treated with kid gloves. It is because we go to their parties and weddings and rush to seek their views on all and sundry issues that they gain legitimacy. They occupy our space and sully it.
How many times in the past years have we in the media reminded our readers and audiences that the man is out on bail, compromising not just actions in his state but also across India?
How many times have we drawn attention to crime, corruption, violence and death enabled by our politicians?
How many times have we allowed ourselves to be derailed by noise in the hope that no one will ask why we remain silent about the elephant in the room?
If young reporters are making mistakes, there is a way to help them get back on track. That requires commonality of purpose and empathy - not sympathy and derision. Corruption is India's biggest scourge. We will remain an under-developed country till we face this hydra head on. Casting suspicion and doubt are the first steps ecosystems take to drown genuine debate.
Investigative journalism is long, tedious and nerve-wracking. There is no guarantee that at the end of long days and hours of work, there will be a water-tight story to tell. It is not easy to get sources to confirm sensational information and if you are a journalist – two sources per piece of information, not repeating private conversations, etc – that task gets tougher.
I don’t know where or what the investigations by Republic will lead or whether Bihar’s killer mafia will even be touched, but for god sake, stay silent if you have nothing to add other than cynicism and boredom to the work of young reporters. Our record of making India corruption free is hardly stellar. If reporters are trying to pull in the right direction, stay out of their way.
(Image credits: Twitter.com/@somkritya)
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