22 October 2013

The making of an Indian expert


‘Indian Expert’ can mean an Indian who is an expert on some subject or someone who is an expert on India.  It is the latter tribe that is relevant to this story.  

Earlier this month the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), along with the A J Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamila Millia Islamia and the Nelson Mandela Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, organized a conference of senior editors in the South Asian region.  The topic was ‘Violence and Conflict reporting: The media debates its role’.  The inaugural session saw representatives of the respective organizations offering introductory cum welcome comments.  There was also a special presentation by Adam Roberts, South Asia correspondent for The Economist, based in Delhi, where he is said to oversee political and general coverage from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, among other countries.

Roberts’ comments were interesting.  Although based in a country birthed and engulfed in conflict, Roberts picked up examples almost exclusively from Sri Lanka to make some points, pertinent points of course.  He did not elaborate and indeed he could not, since this was not a comprehensive presentation on the subject.  He did not contextualize either, again for the same reasons, one would like to think.  However, if someone were to report on the opening session, what would come out would be cursory and de-contextualized remarks which of course would acquire lives of their own thereafter.  Therein lies the irresponsibility (there were no caveats from Roberts).

Roberts’, correctly, questioned the term ‘post-conflict’, which assumes conflict-end.  For some, the absence of fire-exchange implies conflict-end, for others the clash of arms is but one expression of conflict.  Roberts’ said that someone he had spoken to in the Northern Province had complained about ‘military presence’.  That’s evidence of persisting conflict. Agreed. 

What Roberts did not state was the context.  Context includes sabre-rattling by pro-LTTE sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates, terrorism-glorification from Tamil Nadu, and hero-worshipping of Prabhakaran by TNA politicians.  No Government entrusted with national security in a country that has suffered conflict the way Sri Lanka has can be faulted for erring on the side of caution.  Roberts’ comment was therefore flippant, misleading and irresponsible. 

He spoke also of Prabhakaran’s little son, Balachandran, being shot dead.   The circumstances of the ‘how’ are at best contested, but even if the confident finger-pointing that Roberts indulged in drew from uncontestable evidence, ethical comment demands at least mention of context, even in a ‘issue-flagging’ exercise.  There were children that age who were sent to ‘Receiving Centres’ by the LTTE clothed in suicide jackets.  Prabhakaran slaughtered children his son’s age, abducted and forced into fatigues hundreds of others, and thousands of children held hostage by him were rescued by the Army at great cost.  Roberts’ cannot be ignorant of all this. 

Several participants, in conversation, spoke about ‘journalists’ they knew from Sri Lanka.  More than one mentioned the ‘only one’ they knew: Sunanda Deshapriya.  Now if that is ‘source’, then it is not surprising that they utter comments that many in Sri Lanka would laugh at.  A journalist from Switzerland mentioned a journalist (sic) called Francis Harrison by way of demonstrating ‘inside knowledge’.  Shamindra Ferdinando of The Island, who was attending the conference had this to say to this journalist:

‘Frances Harrison, in early 2009, said that the LTTE had a strategy to push back the Army.  Sri Lanka cannot be expected to design policy to prove Francis Harrison right.’ 
QED. 

All this is symptomatic of a deep malaise that compromises journalistic worth.  Roberts is no fly-by-night accidental tourist doing some freelance work as a side business.  He was making some points, tendentious for sure but in the context of flagging issues for discussion eminently permissible.  The issue is that there are many Roberts flying in and out of Sri Lanka or seated in some cubicle elsewhere writing ‘stories’ (!) as though they are experts.  So they sound their friends, many of whom are considered (mis)informants.  No cross-checking, no substantiation solicited or offered, no consideration of source-reliability all add up to irresponsible reporting. 

Most people who referred to Sri Lanka are intelligent journalists without political agenda and yet many were regurgitating the ‘truths’ that the likes of Roberts have drawn from dubious sources or else conjured up from cursory observation.  There’s a picture that gets painted and which they’ve glanced at.  And that’s the ‘Sri Lanka’ they believe exists. 

This writer spent less than four days in Delhi, moving between airport, hotel and conference hall with a couple of hours at a shopping center.  Considering all of the above, if Adam Roberts and others who consider Sunanda Deshapriya a journalist are experts on Sri Lanka, this writer has all the credentials necessary to warrant the tag ‘Indian Expert’.  That should say something.  

msenevira@gmail.com

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