A journalist must express himself through media, not by shoe throwing (Comment)

April 8th, 2009 - 12:39 pm ICT by IANS  

P. Chidambaram By B.R.P. Bhaskar
Jarnail Singh, correspondent of the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, was following the well-established Indian media tradition of imitation when he hurled a shoe at Home Minister P. Chidambaram at his press conference in New Delhi.

There was a slight departure from tradition, though. The Indian media usually imitates the West. Many newspapers are indebted to the West not only for their journalistic style but also for their names. Jarmail Singh imitated not a westerner, but an Arab, Muntazer al-Zaidi of Iraq, who had attracted attention worldwide by hurling a pair of shoes at President George Bush at a Baghdad press conference late last year.

Muntazer’s was an act of protest against the US atrocities in Iraq. He became a hero across the Arab world instantly. He also found admirers in anti-US circles elsewhere.

Jarnail Singh’s was an act of protest against the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) report absolving Congress leader Jagdish Tytler of complicity in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. He became a hero to at least a section of the Sikh community instantly. Quite possibly he has also found admirers in anti-Congress circles elsewhere.

Muntazer was tried by an Iraqi court and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on a charge of assaulting a foreign head of state. Jarnail Singh was let off by police in less than two hours as Home Minister P. Chidambaram forgave him immediately and did not want the police to prosecute him.

When Muntazer and Jarnail Singh hurled shoes they were registering political protests, not performing any journalistic function. Like any other human being, the journalist has multiple identities. When his political or social identity overrides his journalistic identity, it is a clear sign that he is failing as a media practitioner. It testifies to his professional weakness. It is professional grounding that enables the journalist to overcome the pulls of other identities.

Ideally, a media person must express himself through the media. At least that is what his professional training must equip him to do. But, then, the media has limitations. A media person who becomes conscious of these limitations is entitled to step out of the professional bounds and use other means to put across his ideas.

However, so long as he functions within the framework of journalism, he has an obligation to ensure that his conduct is consistent with the requirements of the profession. Media persons must have good working relations with newsmakers. Shoe-throwing is not conducive to healthy interaction between newspersons and newsmakers.

Colleagues have described Jarnail Singh as a serious journalist, not given to maverick conduct. His action cannot be explained merely in terms of dissatisfaction over the home minister’s answer to his question about the CBI giving Jagdish Tytler a clean chit. Quite obviously he was giving vent to the sense of hurt in Sikh minds over the administration’s failure to bring to book those responsible for the killings.

Nearly 3,000 Sikhs are believed to have been done to death in Delhi as Indira Gandhi’s supporters went on a rampage after her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. According to eyewitness accounts, Congress leaders like H.K.L. Bhagat, Tytler and Sajjan Kumar had instigated the riotous mobs.

Twenty-five years after the reprisal killings, the system has not been able to render justice to the victims. Since some Congress leaders of Delhi have been personally implicated, the party has a special responsibility to assuage the feelings of the victims. Delhi has just seven seats in the Lok Sabha. Is the Congress party so short of leaders there that it needs to nominate Tytler and Sajjan Kumar as candidates?

The CBI’s credibility as an investigating agency has been called into question often. The agency is directly under the prime minister. Use of the official machinery by those in authority to serve their political interests is not entirely unknown. It is necessary for those on the two sides of the political divide to realise that the credibility of such institutions needs to be protected. When the CBI named Communist Party of India -Marxist (CPI-M) politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan, who is a former electricity minister of Kerala, as an accused in a corruption case arising from a deal between the State Electricity Board and the SNC Lavalin company of Canada, the party charged the central government with implicating him with a political motive. Yet when the alleged Israeli missile scandal broke, the CPI-M demanded that the CBI be asked to look into it.

While the sense of grievance of the Sikhs is genuine, the current furore over Tytler’s role is essentially political. An eyewitness account may not be sufficient for a judicial commission to indict a person. The investigating agency will need evidence that a court will consider credible to launch prosecution.

The Shiromani Akali Dal, which has rushed in with a reward of Rs. 2 lakhs to Jarnail Singh for bringing the Sikh grievance to the fore, was a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, which was in power at the centre for six years. It must, therefore, bear its share of responsibility for the denial of justice to the Sikh community.

(08.04.2009-The author is a veteran journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at brpbhaskar@gmail.com)

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