A German in an Indian newsroom: At least the hate mails are common

When I speak to my colleagues here and how they deal with abusive e-mails, posts on Facebook, or comments on Twitter, it already feels a bit like home.

Written by Petra Sorge | New Delhi | Updated: November 4, 2016 9:31 pm
The Indian Express newsroom in New Delhi. (Express photo)

When I am asked how it is to work in an Indian media organisation as a German journalist, I often tell people about an encounter on the night of October 3, 2016. It was our national holiday and the German embassy in Delhi had invited to an outdoor reception. We had 31 degrees, 70 per cent humidity, a brass band in Lederhosen, and most diplomats kept wearing the coats of their Western formal suits, because those who didn’t had huge wet spots under the armpits of their shirts.

On this almost unbearable night, forking my pork liver loaf and Bavarian veal sausage, I came to talk to a businessman with an impeccable CV: MBA from the Oxford Business School, an Indian government job and now he’s the executive director of a financial group. When he heard that I was going to write for The Indian Express, his cheery mood swiftly altered.

He told me that he had cancelled his subscription with this newspaper a year ago. He recalled “irresponsible media reporting”, “campaigns” and an “agenda of blaming India’s Union Government”. What frustrated him was the coverage of the Coast Guard boat and of attacks on Christian churches: “If ‘Journalism of Courage’ impels you to report the truth even if it strengthens Pakistan, that’s your call”, he had written to the Express’ editor-in-chief in November 2015. “Some may differ on national interest, but that’s your call.”

Indeed, that’s the call. Reporting the truth is the essence of journalism – even if Prime Minister Modi thinks that the “unity of the country must be our priority”, as he stated in a speech delivered at the Ramnath Goenka Awards for Excellence in Journalism on Wednesday.

I understand that some Indian media prefer it more opinionated. I’m astonished at how much space news channels give to people calling for retaliation against Pakistan, or how a national newspaper explained the tactics of the “surgical strike” across the Line of Control in Kashmir, depicting computer-graphed soldiers in combat, guns pointed at the reader, proudly announcing that it had “read the signs (of a planned attack by the Indian army) first”. That’s counter-strike journalism.

However, I don’t think that this was the kind of criticism the acquaintance in the embassy was expressing. In his e-mail, he had added a link to a blog post that he recommended the Express editor-in-chief to read:

Turned out, it was written by a BJP Lok Sabha MP. First, I had to laugh, then it made me contemplate.

In Germany, I have received many hate mails. Readers threatened to unsubscribe if my editor-in-chief allowed me to continue writing. So far, I had always thought that the most furious critics were of the less intelligent sort. Now I see: Maybe I was mistaken.

When I speak to my colleagues here and how they deal with abusive e-mails, posts on Facebook, or comments on Twitter, it already feels a bit like home.

For journalists in India, there’s one space where they feel (maybe a little too) safe to communicate: Whatsapp. They not only use it to write officially or privately amongst each other, they also use this social messenger to reach out to their sources. A police commissioner, a head of state bureau, or government agent all shared their mobile numbers with me; and they’re on the green bubble app. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg considers India as the most promising country outside the US.

Whereas the relationship between journalists, readers and critics in both countries is similar, the one between journalists and their sources couldn’t be further apart. In Germany, the only thing you get from a public officer or CEO is their landline. VIPs communicate via their press officers, who have but a single job: to distort their boss’s quotes down to a bureaucratic legalese. Much of being a journalist back home means just getting past this press puppy.

In Germany, tech journos would resort to more secure, encrypted, non-US messengers like “Telegram” or “Threema”. And we are cautious with Facebook. Anyone can easily find my personal page, all my friends, the photos I was tagged in. You could say it’s hypocritical to depend on social media for research and promotion of my work on the one hand and to complain about privacy issues on the other hand. I say you have a point.

This German surveillance paranoia can only be understood coming from a country that had two totalitarian regimes in its recent past – the Nazi dictatorship and the communist regime in the East (under which I was born), whilst these considerations must seem utterly remote in a society where you get searched, scanned and screened every time you enter a mall, motel or metro. But sometimes, this Teutonic distance is actually quite comfortable.

That’s what I felt after covering an event of the radical right-wing group “Hindu Sena”. For all the updates, I had to add the guy on Whatsapp. Now he will not only see my “meditation in front of the Taj Mahal” or “traffic jam in Delhi” statuses, I also get his propaganda material up to six times a day: Before breakfast. At bedtime. Or on Saturday, a “Happy Diwali”.

I know I could be German and push the “mute” button.

But something is stopping me. I’m too curious about the next message: this fist-clenching and stomach-stinging that makes you realise that you’re actually alive. And then, there is this deep satisfaction. These radicals don’t only hate you because you are a journalist.

They also need you – because you are a journalist.

Petra Sorge is a fellow with the Bosch Foundation’s program “Media Ambassador India-Germany”.