Subhabrata’s Weblog

April 19, 2009

Shoes: The latest weapon in a journalist’s arsenal?

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Opinion, Politics — genomewarrior @ 5:53 am

We all sniggered and grinned when Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at the then US President George Bush during his press conference in Baghdad last year. A lot of the people who watched the video on Youtube thought Bush got what he deserved. After all, he was the architect of Iraq’s current misfortunes, the man who pushed America into a needless, and mutually devastating conflict. Lost in the cacophony of jubilation and support for Mr. Zaidi from the Iraqi people and Mr. Bush’s critics in the west, and indignation from more “patriotic” of the Americans at the act of national insult perpetrated on a sitting president of the United States of America was a more fundamental question. That same question also seems to have been lost in the controversy generated recently when Mr. Zaidi’s feat was repeated in India by Mr. Jarnail Singh, a journalist with the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran. Mr Singh was angry at the CBI’s clean chit to Jagdish Tytler in the anti-Sikh riots that raged in the country in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

The issues that drove the two journalists to act like they did, and the collective anger that they represent is understandable. The US occupation of Iraq has been a disaster. The high handed tactics in dealing with extremists, the ignorance about the Middle East of those who were making policies back in Washington, the people’s realization that the reasons for attacking Iraq were fabricated by the US, all contributed to the seething anger within Iraqi society against the Americans. Mr. Zaidi was simply a representative of that anger. So was Mr. Jarnail Singh. The merciless killing of Sikhs during nation-wide riots following the assassination of the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi on October 31st 1984. Delhi saw some of worst riots of that period. In all, more than 3,500 Sikhs were killed in 3 days of rioting. 25 years later, justice is still elusive. The people who orchestrated the riots are roaming free. The 13 convictions in this case have been of people who were simply carrying out orders from above. Those who planned and co-ordinated the carnage are still to be brought to justice. The anger and frustration of the people, particularly the Sikhs is understandable and justified. Mr Tytler, considered to be one of masterminds of the riots in Delhi, and whose involvement was strongly indicated in the findings of the Nanavati Commission’s investigation of the riots, has been given a clean chit by the CBI. His party has allowed him to file his nomination for this year’s Lok Sabha elections. People have every right to ask why the Congress has allowed him to fight elections this year, and whether the Congress-led government had influenced the CBI in exonerating Mr. Tytler from responsibility in the riots. Mr Jarnail Singh did just that. He was given a standard reply denying the Government’s involvement in the investigation and told that the CBI’s report was for the court to accept or reject. Mr. Singh was also asked not to argue on this point further. It was then that he probably got frustrated and flung his shoe at the Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram. The resulting media and political storm has taken a rather predictable course. Most sections of the media, the Sikh organizations and the Congress party’s opponents in this year’s elections justify the act and hail it as a symbolic protest against the Government’s apparent bid to cover up the matter and protect the influential politicians who organized the 1984 riots. The BJP has jumped on this opportunity to score political points on this issue while the Congress has been forced on the back foot and is reported to be reconsidering the nominations of Tytler as well as Sajjan Singh.

The question that sticks out in my mind about this whole issue, however has nothing to do with the history and the circumstances behind the way the journalists decided to vent their anger. My problem has to do with journalistic ethics. There are three “official” pillars of the Indian democracy, the Judiciary, the Executive and the Legislature. Though not mentioned specifically in any Social Science textbook, the Press forms the fourth pillar. A free, vibrant press is essential to the very existence of a modern democracy. Fortunately, in India, the press enjoys a relatively (though not nearly enough) high degree of freedom. We have a vibrant journalistic tradition that by and large takes its job seriously. Journalists in this country enjoy a range of privileges that other citizens do not have. The Press Card entitles the holder access to people and places that normally are not accessible to other citizens. In all this, there is an implicit trust that the holder of a Press Card will conduct himself/herself as befitting a member of the Fourth Estate.  And what conduct befits a member of the Fourth Estate? For starters, the realization that a journalist’s job is to convey information to people as faithfully and clearly as possible. A journalist may have opinions about issues, and he/she should convey those opinions through his/her medium. Secondly, a journalist’s pen (or keyboard, or microphone as the case may be) is his/her only weapon. If a journalist has a strong opinion about an issue, he is entitled to use only his pen as a weapon. Throwing shoes at people is not a brave act, it is the result of bad judgment. It is irresponsible behavior. There can be no justification no matter how grave the provocation for such an act on the part of a journalist. The freedoms enjoyed by the press in this country also comes with its set of responsibilities that journalists need to recognize and unprofessional behavior condemned or censured where ever possible. I feel that Mr Jarnail Singh, and his supporters in the press have set a bad example in terms of journalistic ethics.

Contrast this with the conduct acceptable in a private citizen. The recent incident where a slipper was thrown at Mr. L.K. Advani by a former BJP worker in Katni is not as grave from a purely ethical viewpoint. The perpetrator, Mr Pawas Agrawal, a former district president of the BJP was a private citizen who did not enjoy the privileges afforded by the Press Card, he had a political grudge that he wanted to settle and he used the only means he could think of to vent his frustration and get some media attention in the process. He was probably inspired by Mr Singh’s action, but we do not know that. The point I have been trying to make in this article is: Ours is not a just society. It is not a completely free society either. It is the journalist’s job to educate the people about what is going on around us, to act as a mirror in which we see our collective failures and triumphs. A journalist’s only weapon is, and should always be his writing. Let the bomb/shoe/rotten egg/tomato be left for the more crass elements of society.



  1. Mr Pal,
    Astute description of ideal situations is fine till writing.Conversely, neither democracies nor journalism functions the way they should, at least in the worlds largest democracy they do not.Plainly, the most accepted things are those which work and the shoe throwing act too did.It should not be concluded that i am supporting it, but it did its job.The congress party was “forced” to reconsider its decision due to the media and public attention the shoe throwing act got.Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Titler lost their seats.
    If Jarnail Singh would not have done that; the sins of Sajjan kumar and Titler also would have faded away along with many other sins of Congress party against the Nation.So sometimes acts which you consider as “crass elements ” work, .

    Comment by kiran — April 19, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  2. correction in the last sentence:- So sometimes the acts which should be left to the crass elements do work.Our Democracy needs it…

    Comment by kiran — April 19, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

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