Pulitzer reminder to India’s media: Always tell the stories the powerful don’t want told
Opinion

Pulitzer reminder to India’s media: Always tell the stories the powerful don’t want told

As long as these stories continue to be told, there’s hope that the media in this country has not dug its own grave.

By Kalpana Sharma

Published on :

Once again, Kashmir is in the news. For all the right reasons. And the wrong ones too.

When the Pulitzer Prize winners for 2020 were declared in New York on May 5, the big news for India was the choice of three photojournalists from Jammu and Kashmir, Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand, all working for the Associated Press. They were commended for their photographs taken after India abrogated Kashmir's special status on August 5, 2019.

Apart from the fact that all three are outstanding photographers, the significance of their photographs was that they revealed to us in India, and the world, the blatant untruth in the official narrative.

We were asked to believe that there was no real opposition to the Indian government's actions. Countering this proved a herculean task for the media given that the government had clamped down hard, shut off the internet and phones, both mobile and terrestrial, and placed the entire region under curfew. Under these circumstances, it was remarkable that information did get out, with Kashmir-based journalists using a variety of strategies to get their stories out.

Photographers were even more challenged, as it was impossible for them to transmit their images without access to broadband. Yet, these three and others succeeded. Those that worked for international news agencies were more fortunate as their organisations were willing to pay for them to either fly down to Delhi to file or upload their pictures. Many of them requested passengers travelling to Delhi to carry their flash drives and memory cards with the images.

The images that succeeded in getting out, such as those for which these three photographers have been honoured, told the other story, one that the Indian government would have preferred remained unrecorded. This is their real significance; they are an unimpeachable record of those days, with each picture literally speaking more than a thousand words.

Anyone who views these images dispassionately cannot but be moved. But in the vitiated politics of today, rather than congratulating the photographers, and celebrating their professionalism and bravery, BJP leaders and their followers used the occasion to engage in the usual whataboutery on Twitter, asking why these photographs and not others, of Indian soldiers and their grieving families for instance, were recognised.

The use of the term "India controlled Kashmir" in the captions and a wrongly worded reference in the citation about Kashmir's "independence" being revoked on August 5 sparked another row. The photographers were called "anti-national" for projecting India in a "bad light". Another suggested that the Booker Prize, which Arundhati Roy won, the Pulitzer and the Magsaysay, won by Ravish Kumar, should all be banned because they were "rigged to support the anti-India narrative”.

And, predictably the volume of the diatribe grew exponentially once Rahul Gandhi decided to congratulate the photographers.

It is evident that the professionalism of journalists or photographers simply doing their jobs under difficult circumstances just cannot be appreciated by people averse to any other political perspective barring their own.

Be that as it may, the Pulitzer is a recognition that is well deserved, and certainly a shot in the arm for all journalists working in Jammu and Kashmir under challenging conditions that are not transitory, but virtually permanent. Even as I write this, internet and mobile phone connectivity has again been snapped with the recent uptick in gunfights between security forces and militants.

Those covering the Covid-19 pandemic do not face the kind of daily challenges faced by journalists in Kashmir, but for them too there are hurdles. The story is not an easy one to tell when it consists of numbers and figures on the one hand and tragic personal stories on the other.

By now, the average reader's eyes would be glazing over at the daily headlines of how many more positive cases have been recorded, and how many deaths. These numbers have to be reported – more so after the diktat by the Supreme Court that the media "must" publish the official version. But this daily dose of statistics can sometimes obscure the real problems on the ground. For instance, the dangers facing frontline workers without adequate safety gear, the quality of the protective gear that India is trying to procure, the attitude of private hospitals in accommodating infected people, the shortages of beds, the unsatisfactory nature of testing, the daily struggles of the urban poor to access healthcare.

It is commendable that some in print and digital media, as well as television, have continued to report such stories and, thereby, exposed the real situation on the ground beyond statistics. A pandemic after all is the story of the lives of people, their fears and anxieties, their ability or inability to access healthcare. Unfortunately, the government still prefers to talk about "positive" and "negative" reports, failing to understand that the media's job is not to project one or the other, but to tell it as it is.

And that is the other uncomfortable reality that the government just cannot turn its face away from because of the media's continuous and determined coverage of the migrant workers story. It has not ended yet, nor will it disappear for some time to come.

We still see hundreds of them setting out on foot with their meagre belongings, men, women, children, determined to traverse hundreds of kilometres. Every story speaks of hopelessness and desperation.

We have also read the stories of hope and heartbreak when the government finally announced, after extending the national lockdown on May 3 by two weeks, that it would arrange trains to take migrants to their home states.

There again, had it not been for the detailed reports in the media that revealed that migrants were not only being charged for the journey, but were also being fleeced by local doctors for the mandatory medical certificate they needed before boarding the trains, the government could have got away with pretending it was doing the migrants a great favour. Only after Congress president Sonia Gandhi offered to pay for the migrants to travel home was there a mad scramble to cover up with more obfuscation about railway subsidies and that 15 percent of the cost was supposed to be borne by state governments. Once again, the record stands in black and white. Thousands of migrants were issued tickets and they paid for them with borrowed funds.

The latest turn in the migrant workers story is even more ghastly: the Karnataka government has decided to stop them from leaving because the local construction industry wants labour to restart projects. It is as if these migrant workers are non-people, slaves who can be put to any task by their masters. That they chose to leave because they had not been paid and did not wish to continue living in pitiable conditions is not acknowledged.

Visit any construction site in the country. You will be horrified at the way workers live, not for a week or two, but for months, even years on end. If after virtually starving for weeks, they pack their bags and leave, should their decision not be respected? How can a government decide otherwise? Are these not citizens with a free choice about where they work, where they live, and how they live? How have we come to such a pass that we can actually contemplate treating fellow citizens in this way?

These fault lines in our society, callous governments and an indifferent society that has virtually invisibilised millions of Indian citizens have to be recorded and reported by the media. As long as these stories continue to be told, despite the pressures to under-report or not report at all, there is some hope that the media in this country has not dug its own grave.

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