News of Shujaat Bukhari’s murder hit me like a brick – it was a chilling, extreme reminder of the increasing attacks aimed at journalists today.
The situation in Kashmir, of course, has always been more complicated and severe than in the mainland. That Bukhari was shot dead on the same day that the government rubbished the latest UNHRC report which criticises India for human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir shows how severely the centre underestimates the valley’s problems.
This murder immediately brought back the fears that first cropped up during another famously truthful journalist’s killing – Gauri Lankesh. And although the latter resulted in protests for press protections and public outrage, it wasn’t enough. This wasn’t the new normal yet but was inching towards that.
When freelance journalist Priyanka Borpujari is detained, photojournalist Anushree Fadnavis’s equipment is snatched or Rana Ayyub is viciously trolled online, all while they were doing their jobs and reporting on rights abuses, it’s hard to feel safe in journalism career choice.
In times like these, when India’s press freedom ranking is 138 out of 180 countries, fake news abounds and social media trolling (and rape and death threats) are rampant, being a young journalist can be daunting.
Unbiased, objective reporting, that Bhukari was so respected for, is being attacked, and by that I mean now the actual journalists behind the stories are being personally (virtually or physically) abused. Most women journalists in India are pretty used to being trolled online with rape threats, and despite trying to fight against its normalisation, cyber attacks have become all too common.
Is this increase in trolling led by increased access to social media? Journalists, especially ones who punch up, have always been met with aggression from the state and its supporters. There used to be threats and bans to books and even people, but that has now descended into physical violence. So, is there an increased need for rational, empathetic voices in these times? But when did the risks become an actual fear for life?
At a solidarity gathering for Bhukari in Delhi, many renowned journalists spoke out in support, shock and anger. They spoke of his courage and peacebuilding efforts, his rational discourse and deep want to bring two very conflicting sides together in discussions. Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire said, “Bhukari defended the shrinking spaces of reason and democracy”.
In one of his last tweets, Bhukari wrote of the need to highlight voices from the ground:
He championed bringing unheard, subdued voices and their issues to the fore and hearing about someone killed for their efforts at peace was both horribly ironic and chilling.
He was famed for his rationality, and in always trying to create a dialogue between opposing sides. Nidhi Razdan, executive editor at NDTV spoke of this at the gathering, saying “His work to bring together Pandits and Muslims. I want to thank him for that.” The search for common ground is what often left him vulnerable to all sides, as by being critical to all sides he didn’t write ‘for; or ‘against’ any side, but attempted to bring about a conversation on the issues.
It takes great bravery in forging ahead despite the restrictions. Varadarajan said, “It’s easier to retreat into silence or the certitudes of one hard position or another. Because to move away from those safe havens means to paint a massive target on your back, from one side or the other.”
Thinking of Bhukari’s journalism and peace-building activism, I think of the purpose of my writing. Journalism, especially when used to speak truth to power is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Activist writing and developmental journalism, where unheard stories and oppressed voices are highlighted usually means taking down mainstream voices and dominant powers than have (usually actively) subdued the latter. Speaking on justice and rights, you are bound to go against the tide and offend many higher-ups.
In a global climate of clamping down on media freedoms, the importance of good journalism that continues to shine a light on underreported happenings increases. Journalists are the ones to create a conducive environment for informed public dialogue, especially in times when democracy is under threat and institutions fail to do their jobs properly. They are needed to keep the fire of public consciousness alive and ready to hold those in power accountable.
When public discourse often gets reduced to a partisan echo-chamber, journalists do have the power (and responsibility) to shift the narrative away from personal labels and towards a peaceful debate focused on reconciliation.
For me, honouring Bhukari and other slain journalists means finding a hopeful purpose in the mess around us, and cutting through the cynicism to strive for unbiased reporting. It means navigating through the personal attacks and pushing for humane, sensitive reporting and hopeful journalism.
Featured image credit: The Wire