I open all my pieces with a disclaimer. Here’s the disclaimer for this one: I am livid. Grammarly will probably have a seizure trying to correct the tone of my sentences and my grammar as I write this, but I have no patience for tuning my language. I am living in a part fascist dystopia, I am exhausted, I am livid.
Media narratives have existed for a long time. Before we had newspapers, televisions, and a more defined idea of journalism, we had the art of storytelling. Kings hired scribes to tell the history of their empire in the most flattering light possible. Scholars erased facts, dates, and numbers that might put them on the wrong side of history. We created wars that were never fought and forgot genocides that wiped out generations. All narratives are stories – the real question is, how much room do we have for truth within them?
A lot of the national publications that we read today started in the pre-independence era. These newspapers were a medium of communication, a shared consciousness of the pro-independence pulse running through the country. Journalists wrote in English, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu – wrote the story of oppression, slavery, of colonization – they called for volunteers and spearheaded the revolution. The history of independence is a lot more complicated, but the fact remains that most of the leaders of the time served as journalists first before they took on any other role. History has never been kind to journalists. They have been beaten, jailed, shot, and killed for telling the truth. How much room do stories offer for the truth? A lot of room, a f**k ton of room, and that is precisely why the media is always diametrically opposed to those in power (whosoever it may be) – because journalists excavate the truth from fiction, and no reasonable democracy can stand without a strong body of press.
That is the simple difference between storytellers and journalists. We write fiction inspired by the social consciousness, and journalists define our society for us. If an angry and pathetic man suits up and screams on television every night that the ruling government is the best thing that has ever happened to the country, that’s what our stories reflect. If a docile and pathetic intellectual suits up and lulls us to sleep every night on television with the news that the ruling government is the worst thing to have ever happened to us, that’s what our stories reflect. We are the narratives that we are fed. In essence, a news article, or an op-ed, or a panel debate, is the story that defines all the stories to come.
So when a journalist is censored for writing a piece or speaking their mind, when they are shot on the doorstep for expressing anti-establishment sentiments, when they are jailed , or fired, or stripped of their dignity – we are erasing all the people whose stories they are here to tell. It is not just one news article that doesn’t get published, it is thousands of, millions of stories that go unheard.
History has not been kind to our journalists, and we are not being kind to them either. Trump called the news “fake media”, Bolsonaro had journalists thrown in jail, MBS cooly allowed the murder of a foreign journalist in his embassy, and we in India have maintained an excellent track record of erasing journalism that we find problematic.
I started this piece with a disclaimer of my anger. I’m sure my colleague will also write about this, but if you need to source my anger, go online. Open any social media platform and watch the anguish flow. Watch the deaths increase, and watch people beg and scream for oxygen and beds and Remdesivir. Read the news of social media accounts that criticize the government getting taken down, google the journalists who have gotten death threats, and read the narratives being pushed by some newspapers and channels that live in abject denial of the situation. Watch it burn. Watch your country burn.
If our journalists, the people we have charged with being the fourth pillar of our democracy cannot stand free in this world, what are we? If they get plucked and thrown out, then where do you and I stand? If media houses can be bought and sold, if storytellers replace journalists, then where do we stand?
If those who spin fiction are awarded by those in power, and those who tried to rectify the narrative are now buried in their graves, where does that leave us?
Our journalists are not free. We are not free.
Happy World Press Freedom Day. And may the odds be ever in your favor.