Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Democracy or No Democracy, Free Press Is Under Attack Across Asia

Across Asia, the news media confronts unprecedented threats. In recent weeks, three Hong Kong journalists have been attacked, one of them almost fatally. Self-censorship there and in Taiwan — where journalists work in the shadow of an authoritarian giant — is rising, according to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Reporters are, in principle, freer in democratic India. But more and more, politicians and corporations have taken control of media companies, often through surrogates or front companies, and used them to advance sectarian interests. A detailed investigation in Caravan magazine last year revealed how Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries — the new owner of one of the country’s biggest media empires, Network18 — had enabled propaganda for Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, and right-wing discourse in general. A leading television anchor at CNN-IBN subsequently denounced on Twitter the “evil out there” that is “silencing independent journalists.”

Certainly, those unwilling to toe the corporate line risk punitive action.

Late last year, Hartosh Singh Bal, one of the most intrepid journalists in the English language press, was forced out as political editor at Open magazine. The newsweekly’s industrialist owner complained that Bal was making too many “political enemies.” Evidently, that’s no longer a problem: Last week, Open ran a puff piece about Amit Shah, Modi’s closest consigliere, who is charged with ordering extrajudicial killings and is presently out on bail.

Cynicism about the Indian media is growing fast, and with good reason. Its deliberate omissions border on the unconscionable. Hundreds of young men have been blinded, sometimes permanently, by pellet guns fired at them by Indian security forces during protests in India-ruled Kashmir, but detailed reports on these and many other atrocities have yet to make the front pages of Indian newspapers, let alone to strain the vocal chords of unfailingly strident TV anchors. In fact, as Caravan also revealed, many of the prominent reporters covering Kashmir have long been stenographers for Indian intelligence agencies, zealously vending disinformation.

If anything, the media is even more diversely menaced in Pakistan. India’s neighbor is home to some of the world’s bravest journalists, partly because the range of threats they confront is so broad — from the many spooks of a murky security establishment to feudal strongmen and assorted fanatics eager to kill in the name of one sectarian cause or another. Nearly 30 Pakistani journalists have been murdered in the last four years, including Saleem Shahzad, whose oft-confessed fear that elements within the Pakistani state would assassinate him was subsequently confirmed by the Barack Obama administration.

In the multipronged onslaught on Pakistan’s fourth estate, “TV stations have been bombed, film crews targeted and most news establishments work from behind concrete bunkers,” the novelist Mohammed Hanif wrote recently in the Guardian. “Media owners and executives go around in bomb-proof SUVs and accompanied by dozens of armed guards.”

Such protection no longer seems adequate. A few weeks ago, a car carrying Raza Rumi, a respected commentator and author, was raked with machine-gun fire. His driver was killed. Last week, unidentified gunmen attacked Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s most visible journalist in recent decades.

Mir was shot six times but survived. He and many other journalists have fingered the dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence. In response, the Ministry of Defense threatened to shut down his employer, Geo TV. A section of the Pakistani media even defended the ISI, accusing its critics of being Indian agents.

Plainly, the urge to cater to power infects Pakistani “journalists” no less than it does Indian ones. Like the valley of Kashmir, Pakistan’s independent-minded province of Balochistan hosts an everyday regime of murder, kidnapping and torture that is systematically disregarded by the national media. Hanif broke a disgraceful silence last year with a short book titled “The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are,” which describes six cases of Baloch men kidnapped by Pakistani security forces.

Quietly accumulating one devastating fact after another, its few pages gain an extraordinary power. Take, for instance, these sentences:

In the last week of November 2011, Qadeer Baloch, a retired UBL employee from Quetta, did something that no grandfather should have to do. He held his four and a half year old grandson’s hand and took him to see his son Jalil Reki’s mutilated bullet-riddled body and made sure the kid got a good look at it.

Hanif has consistently decried a culture of impunity that is enabled by the media’s apathy, if not complicity. He has also warned how these entwined evils steadily creep in from the atrocity-rich borderlands to the uncaring heartland. “Even in the darkest of times,” Hannah Arendt once wrote, “we have the right to expect some illumination.” Yet journalistic institutions, pressured by political, military and commercial interests, increasingly seem too frail to oblige. The responsibility falls, frequently and unfairly, on such individual dissenters as Hanif, whose courage and integrity make them all the more vulnerable in these dark times.

Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.


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