2020 Worst Year for Journalism says Seema Mustafa. New Editors Guild Head Hopes Media Will Change

Seema Mustafa,u journalist, Editors Guild

Earlier this week on October 17, senior award-winning journalist Seema Mustafa became the first-ever elected President of the Editors Guild of India, in succession to Shekhar Gupta. She will take office alongside Sanjay Kapoor (Gen-Sec) and Anant Nath (Treasurer) to lead the Guild. As mentioned in the official statement issued by the body, these are the “results of an online election held on October 16,” a historical first. Founded in 1978, the Guild takes responsibility for “protecting press freedom and for raising the standards of editorial leadership of newspapers and magazines” in India.

Mustafa is the Founding Editor of The Citizen, an independent digital newspaper incepted in 2014. Adept in the field and well-known for bringing quality reports on politics and conflict to the forefront, she has previously been associated with print publications The Pioneer, The Telegraph, Indian Express, and Asian Age, among other communication channels. Her memoir titled Azadi’s Daughter: Being a Secular Muslim in India tracks her life as a Muslim woman in India and a journalist reporting from the ground through communal tensions in 1984 to the Kargil War in 1999, and life in the country.

In the event of her election as President of the Guild, SheThePeople spoke to Mustafa on her new leadership position, the state of Indian media today, and how the new editorial body will try to renovate it.

On Being A Woman In Indian Journalism

That in its very first year of conducting elections for the Guild, in a deviation from the standard of appointing the board via consensus, a woman has been elected is being touted by many as a big win in the field. But Mustafa knows better than to make this sharp distinction. “I don’t think posts empower us. Our body of work does. This could have happened, or might not have. It was an election after all, and the first election in the EGI. I don’t think I have become the President because of being a woman since EGI is a body of equals,” she says.

“But no one can take away the work I have done, the stories I have covered, the reporting of conflicts, of strife, of politics. A journalist’s power – woman or man – lies in our ability to fearlessly report for the most oppressed and the marginalised, and our ability to resist those who would like to control us. Be it fellow journalists (men), or politicians, or mafias, or governments.”

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To give some context to her opinions, she recalls her early days as a woman in the cutthroat, male-dominated world of journalism in India. At a time when women were pushed to cover “feminine” bases, like beauty pageants and soft news, Mustafa resisted, to stay abreast the beats that interested her. “When I joined the profession there were hardly any women. I worked first in the newsroom of The Patriot where there were no women at all. They had to quickly convert a washroom for my use. Since then I have always resisted efforts to brand myself as a woman and told them that journalists – male or female – were supposed to have the sensitivity and the skills to speak to all and feel for all sections of people.”

“I remember my sense of satisfaction when I became a crime reporter, a male bastion of those times. Gender should not define what a journalist should cover or not cover. It took some doing, but we did it.”

On Media-Run Propaganda In Recent Times

Journalists from all walks of the field seem to have collectively dismissed 2020 as the year of poor, destructive journalism. Read a detailed interview here. Media, chiefly broadcast media, has been running on exclusive hate fuel powered by the death cases of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the Hathras gangrape survivor. What indicates Indian television media’s plunge towards rock-bottom is that agenda and misinformation is no longer covert, and instead are the main drivers of sensationalist reporting fed to audiences.

Ethics, objectivity, authenticity seem to be lost terms as TV anchors are laying their hands on anything – pictures of Rajput’s dead body or WhatsApp chats of Deepika Padukone or phone records of journalist Tanushree Pandey – in the dogfight for maximum TRPs.

On how 2020 fares on the scale of good journalism, Mustafa says, “I think probably one of the worst. The propagandist media has just been at below zero levels, hysterical, nasty, inhuman, and certainly not in line with the tenets of sound journalism. Working journalists have felt the pressure instead, with trolls, cops, authorities, politicians coming in the way of their functioning. The media itself is badly divided and unable to withstand even small pressures.”

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This period in Indian media may not be the first bad one but is seeming to definitely be the worst yet. Mustafa echoes the sentiment, saying, “This is not to say that this did not happen before, particularly when there is this trigger happy response amongst our societies to shoot the messenger. But it is happening now with greater ease as the institutions of democracy fall or stand by as mute spectators. Dog is eating dog with far more ferocity now.”

“It is imperative for us to remind ourselves of the tenets of journalism, of responsibilities, of accountability, and the sheer importance of honest and courageous journalism.”

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Will Media Reform Under The New Guild’s Wing?

Owing to the turbulence of media reporting in recent months, several public personalities dissented against television news channels targeting them, going so far as to seek legal remedy. Bollywood associations, production houses, the Producers Guild – all legally appealed for media to stop besmirching them on false grounds. They didn’t pursue gag orders, but simply sought to tighten the screws on responsible media coverage What does that indicate? Does it indicate the need for a strengthening of guidelines that India media runs on? Or does it indicate that the onus to resolve the messy tangles of biased reporting lays solely on news anchors as they understand it?

Seema Mustafa feels that media should definitely be kept away from the impositions of governmental regulations, which is why “bodies like the Editors Guild of India become so important, to usher in ethics, and accountability while standing up for media rights.”

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Will the newly appointed Guild leaders take any corrective measures in the direction of ensuring objectivity in the field? Mustafa expresses, “First, all of us office bearers are volunteers and in place to represent the editors in the Guild and journalism at large. We are democratic, and no special power is vested in the President. And should not be. We have an executive committee that is being set up, and we plan to actually make the functioning even more transparent and democratic. Journalism is a profession that thrives on democracy and transparency, and so will the Guild.”

Is there a message she would like to relay from her seat as the Guild’s President? To the journalists out and about in the field, she says, “Be ethical, united, responsible and fearless.” And to those on the verge of stepping into it, she says, “This is the best profession in the world. Provided you do not take it for personal gains, or for stardom. We are not celebrities. We are messengers whose job is to check the establishment, to act as a watchdog, and to bring the voice of the poor and the oppressed to the corridors of power. We are not the story, the story is the people of India. The excitement lies there.”

Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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