October 15, 2004
The photograph is blown up to the size of a cinemascope screen. A blasted foreground, broken bricks, boulders stretch far into a battered building, bombed and burning. Silhouetted against the fading light is a soldier, like a sentry keeping watch on desolation. This is Grozny, capital of Chechnya.
It is a strange photograph to dominate a well appointed restaurant off Paddington tube station in London. But then, the restaurant is part of an unusual institution — the Frontline Club whose members are journalists from the frontline, like Grozny. Photographs like this one — from Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq — are all gifts to the club by cameramen, photographers, reporters “who have been there”.
There are three other floors. On the third are rooms for journalists (members) to stay. The second is for conferences, seminars, discussions with “frontline” journalists and screenings of films like Fahrenheit 9/11.
The first floor is the club-house, heart of the building. At the entrance are photographs of eight journalists, all members of the club, killed in recent wars. “At last count, 53 journalists including interpreters have been killed in Iraq, making it the dealiest war in history for our profession,” says Vaughan Smith, founder of the club. His friend, Pranvera Shema from Kosovo (she is also the club manager), says the club aims to remember all journalists, worldwide, who have been killed in the line of duty.
Members are veterans of many frontlines — John Pilger, Philip Knightley — with as many stories.
In a sense, the club gives clues to the evolution of a new kind of outdoors reporting following the conflicts that erupted at the time the Soviet Union began to collapse. It all began as Frontline TV news in 1989, when first pictures appeared of the Soviet departure from Afghanistan. Technology helped. The professional handicam arrived in the market, facilitating the one-man reporter-cameraman to reach the frontlines, unencumbered with too much baggage. The independent, freelance journalist was in the vanguard, providing footage networks and news agencies otherwise had no access to. Many of these “one-man-bands” as Vaughan Smith describes these freelancers, had an army background with a smattering of local languages.
Frontline TV news flourished until 1996. Thereafter, networks began to have their own “line” on events in Gaza, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. News was tailored to serve the national purpose. Freelancers would “blow the whistle” if their footage was subjected to tendentious editing. The day of the “embedded” journalist had arrived.
But as conflicts became more vicious, insurance companies hiked up their rates. Under the watchful eyes of penny-pinching proprietors, editors again fell back on under insured freelancers and local stringers. The old dictum has been brought into play: staffers die in wars, stringers in insurgencies.
Away from all this upheaval, secure in the Indian land-mass, is the Indian journalist. He is covering a great story, of course, because I truly believe the 21st century will in large part be India’s story. But the great Indian drama is taking place in a regional and a global context. The Indian story will not make sense unless it is seen as part of complex global linkages. If our journalism is focused exclusively on India, who will inform us about Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Israel? Since we’re now engaging the eastern flank, where are our networks in Yangon, Bangkok, Jakarta, even Dhaka?
FICCI has brought a high powered business delegation to the UK. Businessmen have been interacting with their British counterparts and think tanks like Chatham House. British sources speak positively of the discussions. But these days Americans, British, Europeans are all riveted on Iraq — to a lesser extent Israel, Afghanistan, Sudan. To hold their attention for any length of time we would do well to have informed views on these subjects based on our exclusive sources of information. But how can we make credible conversation on these issues when all we can do is to echo what we have watched on BBC and CNN? We have no other sources.
The depth of our democracy, satisfactory economic growth, well equipped armed forces will have multipliers attached to them if we have a global TV-radio network to inform us about the world and inform the world about us. Vested interests pulverise us with the cant that the task is too big.
Public spirited entrepreneurs could take up the project provided they are willing to be guided not by the market for “tamasha” but the requirements of serious journalism. They will make more money than they imagine. Such a network should ideally be part of our public service broadcasting, which requires Prasar Bharati to be truly independent, not the half hatched egg it is today. Our frontline journalists are waiting for such opportunities.
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