Interviews with seasoned journalists highlight challenges in the profession

In my younger days, whenever there was a party in my house and guests would ask me, “When you grow up, what do you want to be?” I would answer almost in auto response, “A journalist!” They would invariably raise their eyebrows and say, “Smart girl!” and I would savour the feeling of being ‘smart’.

It is only of late when I know there is not much more ‘growing up’ to do that I have started thinking about this childhood choice more seriously. What does it really mean to be a journalist? What is the passion that drives these people you watch on TV to brave dangerous war conditions or visit hurricane-hit coastlines?

Especially now when the realities of journalists being imprisoned or even killed are often on the news? Yes, I am talking of the Reuter’s reporters jailed in Myanmar and the recent even more horrific case of Jamal Khashoggi’s death in Turkey.

So I decided to interview three different journalists from three different countries – Ma Thida of Myanmar, Ravi Velloor from Singapore, and Romita Dutta from India. It was fascinating to learn why each of them turned to journalism. While for both Ravi and Romita journalism was a childhood passion and was connected to their interest in writing, for Ma Thida it was obviously more connected with the condition of her country. She is a doctor by profession yet when she saw her country was in so much political turmoil under the Military Rule, she took up journalism. She felt it would help her understand her country and people better. So for her, it was a way of helping her country. While for Ravi, for instance, it was a line he had read in National Geographic in an article written by actor Robert Redford: “We rode into Circleville brushing the city dust off our clothes…” He had thought that line was very clever — normally, one would arrive in the city brushing the country dust off our clothes but here Redford had cleverly turned it around. And so began Ravi’s lifelong fascination with travel, adventure and journalism!

It was also interesting to find out how many different kinds of journalism there can be and what a variety of stories they can explore and write about. Maybe this is also connected to the exact country they are in and the environment around them. Thus, Ma Thia publishes weekly and monthly journals on current affairs, data from existing laws and data from international and national NGOs’ recommendations from their reports. This she feels is important because in Myanmar because for over 50 years when they did not have a democracy, the government made sure no one got to know anything about the laws or about what the government was doing. So now when they have more freedom to express themselves she feels as a journalist her job is to make sure the people of Myanmar are well informed about what they can do.

In comparison is Ravi Velloor, living in modern Singapore which is so well connected with the Southeast Asia region and the world – he is an Associate Editor and writes two columns for The Straits Times: ‘Speaking of Asia’ which focuses on Asian trends, diplomacy, politics and transition, and ‘In Good Company’, an interview-based column with top global business personalities. Again there is Romita, an Associate Editor at India Today, operating from the less-economically developed West Bengal. She does a lot of investigative stories on health, education, social ills, superstition, environment and grave problems such as human trafficking, child sex racket and environmental hazards of the corporates. She speaks of a story she had done on a remote village in Bankura where people still have to hunt for deadly kolmi insects to ensure food for the family. Kolmi insects are poisonous to skin and eyes but they fetch a good price in the market for preparing medicines. She met one such person, Upen Bhokta, who died of skin cancer. His whole body had marks of burns and scars from Kolmi insect bites, but his face always bore that smile, the smile of ensuring two meals a day for his family. So each of them have taken on different fields of study in journalism – their choice determined by both personal interest as well as the needs of their environment.

This thought about the close link between journalism and the political and social situation of the country brings me to my final thought about the subject – in today’s world where there is a noticeable increase in conflict and where countries are getting more and more conscious of their control on their own territories, how does the environment affect journalists and their work? When asked, Ma Thida, who comes from one of the most troubled parts of the world, said she needs to spend a considerable amount of time training younger generations on the ethics of journalism so that in future they don’t compromise and know that as a journalist it is important to maintain an independent opinion.

Thus she is the first elected President of PEN Myanmar, an association which promotes freedom of expression and raising awareness on federalism and the peace process. She feels journalists need to first know what they ‘can’ do before they start doing it.

Romita too speaks of losing the power to speak out, of journalists having to pay with their lives for being outspoken, “True, things have changed over the last five years. We the journalists like any other ordinary sensible and forthright people feel a noose tightening around us. Things are becoming stifling. You are losing your constitutional right to express, right to speak out, right to protest and right to be.” Ravi too, while agreeing that journalists in Myanmar do face restrictions and that there is increasing pressure on Indian journalists who are critical of the government, sums it up beautifully, “There is no real ‘free press’ anywhere in the world. Journalists frequently have to be mindful of the sensitivities of their masters.”

Thus, journalists remain, playing an important role in every society, helping explore stories and issues that the authorities often do not want to bring out in the open. For doing this they often come under pressure and criticism, but as the ‘Fourth Pillar’ of any democracy, they need to strike that important balance between maintaining an independent opinion and being mindful of their social and political environment. Without them, the basic human right of freedom of expression would seriously suffer.

First published on 22 Feb 2019

Link to article on Dunia