‘Journalists can’t change the world’


REPORTER’S DIARY:

By Malik Siraj Akbar

CHENNAI: “We journalists believe we can change the world. We can’t,” said veteran Indian journalist Nehal Singh during a two-week long media forum, ‘The Summer Academy’, organised by the German-based International Institute of Journalism (IIJ) from April 16 till April 28.

“Why did I become a journalist and what happened to my dreams and expectations,” said Singh while addressing the 24 journalists from seven South Asian countries, including four from Pakistan, gathered at the prestigious Asian College of Journalism, in Chennai to learn more about ‘Media Freedom and Responsibilities’. “In our futile efforts to change the world, we often violate our responsibilities and breach the trust society has placed in us,” Singh added.

Although the journalists represented assorted parts of the South Asian region, they shared several identical problems. Abject poverty, ailing health facilities, poor education, ethnic strife, poor governance and restricted press freedom were some of the burning issues discussed by the media of the SAARC countries.

In the midst of the discussion, an Afghan reporter received news that one of his colleagues had been murdered for writing an editorial against the callous murder by the Taliban of another Afghan journalist. This incident cemented the notion that journalists in the region existed in a constant state of insecurity. Considering press freedom in South Asia, all the participants declared that it was currently the most dangerous profession in the region.

Various delegates gave presentations that revealed how hazardous it is for reporters to independently cover the violent movements of the LTTE in Sri Lank, Maoists in Nepal, Taliban in Afghanistan, Balochis in Pakistan, Nagas in the North East of India and the “peacefully repressive” regime of the king of Bhutan. Britta Petersen quoted an Italian writer in her presentation, “In war zones, you can’t afford to make any mistake. Your first mistake may prove to be your last one.” Lectures giving an overview of the Indian media, freedom and responsibility in the media, reporting from the parliament and economic and business journalism were also illuminating.

The intensive Summer Academy session took up 12 hours daily, from 9 am to 9 pm, and while the tedium forced several reporters to fall asleep during later lectures, everyone involved truly appreciated the unique opportunity.

Jochen Gaugele, political editor of Bild am Sonntag, a German tabloid, apprised the participants of the decreasing circulations of newspapers in the West due to a major shift of readers and advertisers from print to the web. He said ‘tabloidisation’ was increasingly popular in western countries to prevent loss of readers. “Tabloid journalism does not necessarily mean sensational journalism,” he said. Indian journalist Sankarshan Thakur of Tehelka argued, however, that newspapers were losing readers because of the low standard of journalism prevalent today rather than the online boom. “Unless journalists stop cheating their readers, healthy journalism can’t be produced,” he said.

Lectures by Premesh Chandran of Malaysiakini, Kuala Lumpur and Nikhil Lakshman, editor of Rediff, an Indian search engine, brought home the point that online journalism could very soon overtake print journalism. However, newspapers in South Asia, where Internet penetration is still not as high as the developed world, still do not take this threat as seriously as their western counterparts. Instead, newspapers in India are steadily witnessing a rise in their circulation due to their cheaper rates.

During a two-day field trip, journalists visited a number of temples and churches in Chennai, including the historic Maylapur Temple. Like several South Indian cities, an IT boom echoes in Chennai. Eating Edili and Dosa, the popular local food, at ‘purely vegetarian’ Vasanta Bavan restaurant, on a banana leaf was a truly unforgettable experience. There was, surprisingly, some trouble encountered when trying to communicate with “we don’t speak Hindi” taxi drivers, however, a few broken sentences of Tamil soon made things bearable. The city also hosts the crowded Marina Beach, which is the world’s second largest beach, and the alluring Basant Nagar Beach. Spencer Plaza, a huge shopping centre located on Mount Road, was a good place to shop but cheaper items were available at Tinagar, Pondi and Burman bazzars.

The Summer Academy was also a great chance for South Asians to learn each other’s cultures and languages. It was an interesting sight to see delegates from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan haggling with shopkeepers over various items in Hindi. The two-week interaction between the journalists served as a reminder that the people of South Asia have more similarities than dissimilarities. People of the SAARC region share a common culture. Their requirements are as much the same as their mutual desire for progress. Thus, the people of South Asia deserve a peacefully happy world of multilateral regional cooperation. Similarly, the media has a key role to play as it dictates the future of the region, one which many believe is going to lead the entire world in the near future.

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