The Power & Influence of Journalism [speech transcrtipt]
By Jennifer Arul
Over the past year since the last conference of Christians in journalism so much has happened in India and around the world; so much that has tested the faith of many Christian journalists. My colleagues who, like me, are privileged to be here tonight will know what I am referring to.
An Australian missionary, Graham Staines and his two young sons, were barbarously burned to death in their vehicle in Orissa. Nuns were raped in that same state, while in Gujarat, another state in India, churches and schools were razed to the ground. There has been violence against religious institutions in Kerala and Karnataka and, nearer home in Tamil Nadu where I come from, there have been incidents of persecution of different kinds.
Persecution is not merely persecution of Christians, but of anyone subjected to any form of discrimination. A woman targeted for standing up for what she believes in, a group of people ill-treated because of the community or caste they belong to.
Every story that involves any form of oppression tests me as it does every dedicated person of the print or the visual media gathered here tonight. Everyone of us who is involved in telling the story just the way it is tested in this way.
I am frightened whenever I pause to think of the awesome task we have chosen to carry out. It would be convenient, and appreciated by the powers that be, to brush these stories of dishonesty and oppression aside, but then, you and I would have to live with memories of the eyes of desperate, terrified human beings and with our own inconvenient consciences.
As journalists we are often only focused on the news value of a story we are reporting. A few weeks ago, I reported a dowry death in Pondicherry, a town three hours away from Chennai, the city in which I live. Let me tell you about it.
Two years after her marriage, Parvati’s parents and family continued to be pressured for further amounts of dowry by her in-laws. When this was not forthcoming, they made her life miserable. One night she was raped and murdered by her brother-in-law, in her in-laws’ home where she lived with her husband in a joint family. Her husband and father-in-law were not in the house on that terrible night.
After the 26-year-old Parvati was raped, when she tried to phone for help she was stabbed repeatedly. She dragged herself from room to room seeking help but was prevented from contacting anyone. The horror of the crime was added to by the fact that Parvati’s mother-in-law was actively involved in the murder. Her brothers were hastily summoned only when Parvati was taken to hospital. Sadly she died on the way. The brother-in-law was himself admitted into another hospital with wounds that later proved to be self-inflicted. He claimed they were both attacked by an intruder who had, according to him, committed the ghastly murder.
The media coverage of this story led to a public outcry which forced the authorities to act. Parvati’s brother-in-law and his mother confessed to the crime and are now in jail. Their trial is due to start shortly. These details are no doubt uncomfortable at dinnertime. As a journalist the dramatic developments in the days following this crime were totally absorbing.
Yet, I stand guilty of ignoring the very core of this story. We, in India call this ghastly crime a ‘dowry death’. As media persons we report the story but we seldom expose the reasons, the mind-set, the inequalities that make such inhumanity possible. We are often guilty — indeed, I often am — of seeing the trees and not the forest. Only now after 23 years of being in broadcasting I pause to ask myself, as I ask of you, are we doing enough to instill any kind of values in the thousands and sometimes millions of people who read and view our work?
It is quite awesome and humbling to know that it is in our power to make changes, even in a small way, in the manner in which people perceive and think. It is not an easy task because, as we all know too well, the alternative is much simpler and, definitely, far more lucrative!
The comfortable way is “don’t get involved!”
The mention of human values reminds me of another recent report I did. A Catholic priest in the suburbs of Madurai City was severely beaten by a group of hoodlums as he stood outside his church after mass one Sunday evening not long ago.
Rushed to the hospital he barely survived the attack. He knew the people who had attacked and the reason for it. It was apparently a dispute over land that surrounded the church. The priest told the police everything he knew yet he asked that the problem be solved in an amicable way. The priest I talk about is 74 years old. Was it fear for his life or is this the way of Christ? Is this an example of forgiving one’s enemies? Could I be that charitable or forgiving, I wondered? Yet the more I thought about it, the more I felt that reporting it was, for me at least, an indirect way of influencing my viewers. What better opportunity could I ask for?
I have told you of incidents of mindless violence and physical intimidation. But what about the subtle, indirect and yet more lasting forms of intimidation of the spirit?
From government-approved school text books in the state of Gujarat we learn that, and I quote: “The priests of the Catholic church had accumulated plenty of wealth through unjust taxes, illegal fees, and owning large tracts of land.” “The Pope who was the head of the church was himself a big landlord.” “The pope, bishops and priests lost their heads, forgot their duties, and lived a life of luxury and sensual pleasures.” These are extracts from text books which were printed published and taught in schools for more than a decade. Only now are these being evaluated and addressed by Christian action groups.
How does one operate in an atmosphere of hostility? It’s not done openly, but for sure it exists. Often the fourth estate, the watchdog of democracy and harmony, can hardly bark, let alone bite. The burning of a missionary, the rape of nuns, the destruction of churches, the assault of a priest are ominous signals to Christians of all denominations. Contributions rendered over the years in the fields of education, nursing, social service are simply not taken into account.
How many perpetrators against the Christian community in India have been brought to book? Commissions of inquiry are appointed but very little comes out of them. Action? Seldom! A true picture or a distorted, engineered report?
Against this backdrop we are expected to report objectively and dispassionately, to be correct and impartial. It is no wonder that those who try to do their Christian duty are branded as activists.
Talking of activists, three days before I left Chennai I met John Dayal, the editor of the mid-day newspaper, based in Delhi. He has involved himself in the United Christian Council which is, currently involved in telling Christians about various anti-Christian activities around India, activities which, as a journalist, he obviously is privy to. We are due to have our general elections during the month of September and, the information he gave at that meeting was most valuable. I heard him and I also saw the reaction from the 600 organisations that were represented.
I stood back and realised what a valuable contribution this journalist was making. A committed Catholic, all John was doing was parting with inside information on atrocities that are committed against fellow Christians. Everything he said was backed up by hard, cold facts!
In the past twelve months I have had three different families come into our office in deep distress. Parents of one young woman were distraught. Their young daughter had been murdered by her in-laws, in much the same way as Parvati, whom I spoke about earlier. Well I told the story and then went over to the police authorities who had, until then, totally neglected the whole case. We went to the girls’ in-laws and, as usually happens, they denied everything. We kept at it and the sum total is that there has been a conviction.
Gradually, at least in Chennai city, the incidents of sexual harassment, or “Eve-teasing” — the word that we often use — have begun to come down. Since the start of this year there have been 560 cases as against 1,200 for the same period last year. Women and their issues are important to me as a Christian.
But there are also the stories of hope that we can tell, the stories that speak of honesty and goodness, qualities that seem to be vanishing before our very yes. I recently met a 99-year-old bishop. We interviewed him about his life, and, sitting right up, next to him with the camera registering every line on his face, I saw his eyes fill with tears. He was saying how he still felt strong enough to work. “What work would you do, Your Grace?” I prodded him. He answered me, in utmost simplicity. “Anything…anything..anything for God. I feel strong enough to do even manual work.” This from an old man who was shuffling around his room and needed help much of the time.
I for one, strongly believe that although I call this my chosen profession, I believe it is also my calling. No matter how dark or gloomy the path may seem at times, it is my duty to light a candle of commitment to the truth of what I report. We, who work for organisations that give us the power to report the story, and to report it truthfully and without bias, must be persistent and dedicated enough to delve, to drive and dig deep into the issues that threaten any of our fellow human beings or any community.
Instead of merely scratching the surface, we need to mine for the truth, so that we can awaken a movement for truth. A movement that will generate the triumph of the spirit. We need no charter. All that we need is a solemn personal affirmation that each in his or her own way will function as unfettered ambassadors of truth so that, at the end of the day, we will make our contribution to influence a beginning for change. I know it’s not easy, but I sincerely want to keep trying. I am ready. Are you ready too? Christian media persons like ourselves have to use the power we have to influence. We have to light a candle. No, let all of us together light a fire!