Journalism, Truth & India's Public Square

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FOR MANY YEARS of my career I worked in a broadcasting environment with strict controls. It was a Government TV Channel. It was the most frustrating period of my life. But there were, at that time, no other choices. When an option did emerge and India opened up its doors to private TV networks I quickly made a change.. and have never regretted that decision. In January this year I attended the Madras Conference and found that the other Christian journalists present there were faced with what I had always thought were my own singular problems with regard to telling the truth.

We’ve been invited here from every corner of the globe because we are Christian journalists. Like my friends from India, we work in an environment that is essentially non-Christian. In a nation where Christians are in a minority, the responsibility of telling the truth is much, much greater than if one is operating in a largely Christian framework. We find ourselves constantly up against our fellow reporters who can often, and frequently do, follow different paths when reporting issues …specifically major religious stories. I’d like to make an observation here… the private media organization I work with is totally free of Government controls…

My experiences in the area of news reporting have taken me into the most challenging and sometimes dangerous situations …. situations that, not so many years ago, would have been totally unthinkable:

It is 5 in the morning and I must wake up...I wish I could sleep for another hour, but the milkman is knocking impatiently at the door. And the coffee pot must be put on.

It is 5.30 in the morning and my little brother who is 7 years old has just left for the factory where he rolls thousands of beedis in return for a pittance. My second brother is also getting ready to leave, but I’m worried. Only last week our neighbor’s son died when he accidentally licked potassium cyanide at the electroplating unit where he works. What if something happens to him?

It’s 7 o’clock now. My Boss was wild because his shoes didn’t shine enough. What am I expected to do without polish? Lick the shoes clean? Madam was angry … .her saree wasn’t starched properly. And their
daughter who was my only friend threw a glass of hot milk at my face because I forgot to add in sugar.

It is 8.30 a.m. and all have left. I sit back and ponder, I am only 8 years old. What have I done to deserve this …Why can’t I study an play like other children? Why did my parents sell me? Where is my childhood? I want it back."

The above is an extract from notes made by an 8-year old whose parents, out of sheer poverty forced her into being a bonded domestic worker. In a tiny village just outside the City of Madras, where I live, little children, some even as young as 5, are forced, by circumstances, to enter into what we call bonded labor.

This is how it works… The family is too poor to make ends meet so the parents take a large loan from a rich loom owner. In exchange for getting that loan, their very young children go to work on the weaving
looms for little or no salary. The children have no choice but to work in the weaving sheds until their parents return the loan.

I have seen these little girls and boys work 12 hours a day on the handlooms in appalling conditions, weaving the finest silks you can imagine… silks that fetch a small fortune in stores around the country.

One young mother of three little girls sat with me on the floor of her home. But as she fed the children — aged 8, 10 and 12 — she told me her story and when I saw her eyes fill with tears I knew that this was the case study for my report.

When we tried to film the weaving unit where the children worked we were threatened and the owner refused to talk to me, accusing me, in the choicest language of distorting the facts. We went ahead and filmed the report (at great personal risk I might add) but what was our risk compared to those innocent lives caught in the web of bonded labor? The story ended up being one of the longest reports ever to be aired on our program and had a great impact. About a month after it was shown the State Government stepped in and settled the loans of 100 families in the village and over 150 kids quit working. Today they are in School, which is where they should have been in the first place.

THIS, to my mind, is the meaning of truth — that young mother has understood what it was to have her story told. We had only been a conduit, a means of telling that sorry story. As a Christian I don’t think God wants me to try and preach from the pulpit.

THIS is what I believe he wants me to do. He placed me in the right spot, in that little hut, and made use of me. One doesn’t always succeed I know, and indeed I haven’t on many an occasion, but can we
stop trying? Absolutely not!

There are many tempting options for a Christian journalist …and all of us here have been tempted I daresay… to cover the more exciting story, the more sensational one. But I find that when there is a choice my Catholic upbringing takes me towards the stories that few people look at or even care about. As unpleasant as it is to depict, the viewing public, or in this conference what we are calling the Public
Square, the Christian journalist has to bring a perspective to every story.

Last month I spent the whole day in the burns ward of a leading hospital talking to women who had suffered 98% burns … mainly as a result of domestic violence. The sight and smell of those patients
still linger in my mind. For days afterwards I was unable to eat or sleep. But stories must come out — the world must know what people undergo far away from the glare of the media.

Only two weeks ago a young woman in my city died in a bizarre incident of what the western world calls sexual harassment. Her parents, too distraught to speak on camera, nevertheless wanted people
to know what had happened. It was a shocking story but one that made people sit up and think.

Two reports later the Government enacted a law dealing offenders much harsher punishments than ever before and the young men involved are now charged with murder as a result of the unprecedented media
attention. This is the role of a Christian Journalist, to tell the Public Square what it should know and to tell it from a viewpoint that is ethical. Faith is not believing that God can but rather that God will. How many times I have felt that we have been taken to a location just in the nick of time? Just at the right moment when a corrupt politician is being hauled off to jail? To many of my fellow journalists it seemed coincidental, but I believe it was providential.

Sometimes one is accused of inciting violence and not promoting religious tolerance and I don’t know if there is anyone here who has been subjected to that. But if a Church is desecrated or nuns raped and
murdered can we, or rather should we remain silent? No indeed. We have a moral commitment to bring that story or issue to the surface, no matter what it takes.

Do we believe we are journalists first and foremost and only then does the Christian label get tagged on? Its a tricky question and one that needs thinking about. As for me I believe that being a Christian journalist puts me in a uniquely privileged position to bring the truth, as I see it, to my 375 million viewers who are of course the Public Square.

Asia, PoliticsJennifer Arul