Wednesday, 10 August, 2022
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Among 26/11 casualties: Honour among journalists

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One collateral damage of 26/11 was to the old professional bonhomie among journalists of India and Pakistan. It led to the rise of the constantly warring commando-comic channels on both sides. That wound has festered in the following nine years instead of healing.

You can call it great professional bonhomie, or plain old honour among thieves. But over the decades Indian and Pakistani journalists have treated each other rather well. Any Indian journalist who has been to Pakistan only has stories of great hospitality and warmth to tell you, of how his Pakistani counterparts spared their work and family time, shared stories, sources, cars, and even mobile phones — since Pakistan got them nearly a half decade before us.

We also have touching, even breathtaking, stories of professional and personal sacrifice made by Pakistani colleagues on the lines of old-fashioned camaraderie. In my case these range from the serious to the sublime. Serious, like Rahimullah Yousufzai, the doyen of the “Frontier” media, based in Peshawar, taking me and photographer Prashant Panjiar under his wing, literally, even getting one of his photographers to sleep in our hotel room for our protection, since it seemed we were getting some “wrong” kind of attention in the summer of 1993. Or one other summer late night in Karachi, 1990, when it suddenly looked like war was about to break out, Parveen Aunty, the most adorable mother of Pakistani media tycoon Hamid Haroon, and so much an older (though only just) sibling that my parents never gave me, sending her driver over to bring me “home”. “God forbid that a war should break out, but if it does, I want all my children in my home,” she said, when I protested.

The sublime (don’t anybody dare ridicule marital commitments, howsoever quaint they may be) was when, on my last day in Karachi at the end of a tour of duty, I wanted to go shopping to the older part of the city to buy “parandis” (the multi-coloured streamers of thread and string tied with plaits, and that Pakistanis design with panache). I had taken directions from fellow reporters in the Dawn newsroom. But as I was making my way out, a large mob of the militant MQM (Mohajir Quami Mahaz) had laid siege to the Dawn building, because they had taken offence to some story the paper had done on their supremo, the now-exiled Altaf Husain.

I wasn’t to be deterred, and my accomplice was Zafar Abbas, who then worked with the Dawn Group’s formidable news-magazine Herald. He later built himself a fantastic reputation with the BBC and as one of the finest reporters in the subcontinent. He’s now the editor of the venerable daily, Dawn.

We decided to escape by scaling the boundary wall that abutted a mosque in the rear. I had just jumped, when the crowd spotted us. They let me go, a guest from India. But they caught hold of Zafar: “Zafar saheb, you, you are doing this even though you are a Mohajir (a migrant Muslim from India).” Zafar, landed on his feet quite literally, asked them if he could be so dishonourable as not to help a fellow Indian reporter. The crowd nodded and let us both go.

Any Indian journalist who travelled to Pakistan picked our counterparts’ brains for ideas, stories and, most of all, access. In nearly two dozen visits, I do not remember anybody hesitating. Then, with the story in the bag, we also stormed their offices to sit and write, and even transmit our stories. Much of the same happened when Pakistani journalists came visiting India.

My only regret was that somehow we were never able to spoil them as much as we were when we went there. I have, therefore, always joked with friends made in the Pakistani media in my reporting years that this, their warmth, hospitality and generosity, is probably the reason why so many of them have meanwhile become vazir, safeer or mushir (minister, ambassador or adviser) while I have remained a sahafi (journalist).

Some of the most notable examples here are Mushahid Hussain, who became a minister and contested as the PML(Q) candidate for president of Pakistan, and Maleeha Lodhi, who served as her country’s envoy to London and Washington. She is now Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN. I met them both for the first time in the newsroom of The Muslim, from where I filed many stories. And then the one and only Husain Haqqani, career journalist who was given ministerial rank, represented Pakistan in Washington, now runs Hudson Institute in exile in Washington. He is also among ThePrint’s most read columnists. However high their office, they wore it lightly when an Indian journalist called.

That is why I was so surprised and disappointed with the tone I heard from Pakistani news channels that called, either for a live discussion, or a “beeper”, which is the Pakistani media’s name for sound-bite. More often than not, the questioning was rude, accusatory, and on the lines of, so what do you have to say about this? Or, why does India keep saying this or that? That’s the kind of tone journalists reserve for politicians, not for fellow journalists.

This has only got worse in nine years. Pakistani anchors turn abusively rude and expect you to retaliate, as if we were rival soldiers on the LoC. In one notable discussion, the anchor was first bemused, then angry and then interrupted to chide me and Mushahid Hussain since we were being so “ridiculously” polite to each other, even “laughing as if we were friends”. Both of us said we could be polite and friendly in disagreement. The anchor fumed. Since then, I say no to calls from Pakistani channels, except from about four anchors who I know to be civil and professional.

In all fairness, also listen to the questioning on some of the Indian channels. You find the same accusation and lack of civility. I was shocked, for example, to see how Mushahid Hussain, on a brief visit to India after 26/11, was pounced upon and nearly pilloried on many talk shows, not by guests but by anchors. Frankly, even where he was treated well by the anchor (as on NDTV’s ‘We the People’), the audience targeted him as the lone Pakistani, forgetting that he belongs to a party that stood in opposition to both the ruling coalition and the main opposition then.

Of course Mushahid speaks for Pakistan and we can, and mostly will, differ with him. But could we show disagreement with some decency? Over the past nine years, you have seen some of the most sensible, modern and moderate Pakistani media people being pushed around so brutally by warlike Indian commando-comic anchors that they even stopped accepting the role of their terrorists in 26/11 although their own papers and channels may have done a brilliant job of exposing them.

It was not the first time India and Pakistan have been in a war-like situation. Since Exercise Brasstacks in 1987, we have come close to war at least six times and on five occasions (unlike in 2008) the tension was much greater with the two armies mobilising. But never was there any hint of hostility between the two press corps. What 26/11 changed is that, even if the armies decide to stay put in the barracks, the media on both sides will go to war anyway.

This probably came about because, unlike the past crises, 26/11 unfolded in an environment where both countries had several competing 24-hour channels. In today’s polarised mood, audiences want to see and hear action in the studio if not on the real battle-front.

This hostility must end and senior media people on both sides, particularly editors, need to intervene before this great professional bond starts to fray. Journalists are of course citizens of their countries, but are never to be held accountable for their governments’ policies. They neither frame state policies, nor are their spokesmen. Certainly, we can’t be waging wars, and thank God for all that. On this ninth 26/11 anniversary, a reminder that media institutions and senior editors from both sides need to intervene and ensure their troops are recalled to the barracks.

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1 COMMENT

  1. What Shekhar Gupta probably means is to devlop an”Ummah” like bonding and fraternity among journalists community on the lines of the Islamists,which transcends national boundaries and does not acknowledge commitments between nations states.

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