Prima facie, this piece is a reflection on the book – “Making News, Breaking News – Her way” edited by Latika Padgaonkar and Shubha Singh which chronicles the narratives of women media persons who have won the prestigious Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Women Media persons. In reality though, this is a tribute to journalists, particularly women journalists who take the work of civil society, and by telling a story to breathe life into it. It is also a tribute to some of my own female journalist friends, most too young to have won the award yet but who have picked up thankless social causes and run with it. But why am I even reading such a book and why do I go perhaps a bit out of the way even to identify and befriend journalists with a social conscience?
The fight to secure justice for those who ordinarily are not likely to get it is a long and arduous one and needs allies. And quite early in my journey, I discovered that the media could be a useful and powerful ally. Now the word “media” today has got some rather nasty connotations. Corporatization of the media, the diminishing clout of Editors, Paid news have all done their damage. But while media houses in many cases may be compromised, there are plenty of individual journalists who still see their vocation as a calling, haven’t sold their souls and are helpful and passionate collaborators to the obscure plodding of civil society who lack the skills and tools to amplify their work. “ This review of the book – Making News, Breaking News”, a collection of essays and reflections by socially aware women journalists s about the lives and work of some of the most outstanding women journalists of our time who redefined and gave a whole new meaning to what constitutes news, in terms of values and themes. The groundbreaking work done by these journalists from across the north, south, east and west of India, in different languages, these intrepid women have exposed corruption, child labour and caste massacres ,uncovered financial scams, fought against atrocities committed against women, championed human rights and celebrated when their stories have been catalysts for change.
The list of awardees is long. Some are familiar names like Barkha Dutt , her mother Prabha Dutt, Anita Pratap of TIME, Neerja Chowdhury ( Neerja Chowdhury vs State of Madhya Pradesh) is a landmark case, Teesta Setalvad , Patricia Mukhim. Others are relatively obscure (at least to me), but their stories are none the less inspiring. Reading through the stories, one realizes that in the work of addressing injustice and inequity doesn’t need labels. One can be a journalist, a social worker, an activist and the lines are often blurred. Neerja Chowdhury a journalist took on the anomaly of Bonded Labour existing in Madhya Pradesh that led to a judgment by Justice P. N. Bhagwati in the Supreme Court that is still cited. Listening to Teesta Setalvad tell her story of being a chronicler of the rise and spread of communalism in India, one is unclear as to if one is listening to an activist or a journalist. Patricia Mukhim, the Editor of the Shillong Times and a veteran warrior against separatism and exclusion in Meghalaya, openly describes herself as an activist.
Does such heroic work make a difference? At least one journalist in the book recalls with a tinge of sorrow the price she paid – a broken marriage, no kids, indifferent health. I am sure that others in this compilation carry their own scars. So why? In the words of Anita Pratap, the journalist formerly with Time and CNN “ The cream of journalists in my generation was composed of men and women who wanted to represent the underdog, to be the voice and face of the millions of dispossessed Indians. We believed that the rich could hire PR agencies; the poor had only us. That’s why I became a journalist. I wanted to contribute my bit to make the world a better place. Truth, justice, equality, good governance – these were the big issues that motivated me. For over a quarter of a century, much beyond the call of duty, I risked life and limb to achieve this.” Anita goes on to lament that all the terrible issues she and her kind exposed – corruption, injustice, disparity have become worse in India and the region and that her work is perhaps in vain. But she toils on and so do many others, including my young journalist friends knowing that in a long march, a setback is not a failure. A face full of scars because you fought for something is far better than a flawless face because there was nothing worth fighting for that one could see.
By Shantanu Dutta
Shantanu Dutta is a former Air Force Doctor and now works in the NGO sector.