If I was offered a meeting with Hafiz Saeed, head of the Lashkar e-Toiba, what would be my reaction? I would seize the opportunity with glee. Any self-respecting journalist should be delighted to get such a scoop.
Yet when Ved Prakash Vaidik, a senior Hindi journalist, met Saeed in Pakistan, Indian politicians and TV anchors went into a frenzy of jingoistic hysteria. Some actually demanded Vaidik’s arrest, as though it is criminal for journalists to meet terrorists. Sorry, but professional ethics globally require journalists to meet the worst villains. Journalists are communicators, not judges or executioners. To meet bad characters is their professional duty. They can of course decline it if sounds dangerous.
Hafiz Saeed is a terrorist and killer. Even the US has put a price on his head. But Saeed’s sins pale in comparison with the mass murders of Hitler and Stalin, Suharto and Idi Amin, Pinochet and Mobutu.
Did journalists boycott these mass murderers? No, they tried hard to secure interviews with the biggest killers in history: that was their professional duty.
Some critics may say it is okay to meet mass killers who are political leaders, but not terrorists.
I find that morally repugnant. How can mass murder be morally okay and professionally acceptable for those who are in power but not for those still seeking power?
But whatever the distinctions between killer in power or out of power, they have no bearing on journalistic ethics. Journalists the world over have always tried to interview terrorists, taking grave risks.
Within India, Maoists have over the years killed more people than the Lashkar-e-Toiba. But do journalists refuse to meet Naxalites? No. Are meetings of journalists with Naxalites denounced as sedition or crimes meriting arrest? Not at all. On the contrary, Arundhati Roy happily goes on a guided tour of Maoist territory and comes back with glowing reports on how fabulous the killers are, and how they are really Gandhians with guns.
Other journalists condemn the Maoists even while being willing to interview them.
Some critics may argue that Indian Maoists do not threaten our sovereignty, but a Pakistani like Saeed does. That’s rubbish. Maoists seek the overthrow of the state, and jeer at notions of sovereignty. The most famous Naxalite of all, Charu Mazumdar, started the uprising in Naxalbari in the 1960s.
He declared, famously, that “China’s Chairman is our Chairman.“ He contemptuously dismissed notions of patriotism or Indian nationhood as bourgeois values that needed vivisection. But did Indian politicians or TV critics say it was impermissible or criminal for journalists to try and meet Mazumdar and his fellow ideologues? Not at all, it was the holy grail for some journalists.
Nevertheless, say some critics, terrorism across borders is different from terrorism within a country.
Whatever these differences, they don’t change journalistic ethics, or the journalistic duty to try and meet villains. Indian journalists were often egged on to meet leaders of sundry Tamil terrorist groups in Sri Lanka. It’s truly hypocritical to be soft on “our terrorists“ and hard on “your terrorists“.
Yasser Arafat had a long phase of terrorism when he hijacked planes and ships, and blew up buildings.
Did that put him out of bounds for journalists? Not at all. The Irish Republican Army killed and maimed the British for almost a century, yet journalists from all over the world sought to meet IRA leaders. They also sought to meet terrorist leaders of the Shining Path in Peru, and ETA in Spain’s Basque territory.
Nevertheless, some critics insist that it’s morally disgraceful and seditious to meet a killer of one’s own people. Really? Why then did British journalists seek to meet IRA leaders who killed hundreds of Britons?
This point is best driven home through the example of Daniel Pearl. An American reporter, he sought to contact the arch enemy of the US, the associates of Al Qaeda. He was trapped, kidnapped, and brutally executed.
Did any TV anchor or politician in the US condemn Pearl as a disgrace or traitor for seeking to meet Islamic killers of Americans? On the contrary, they admired Pearl for his initiative and courage in seeking out the enemy. Did any US politicians demand the arrest of Pearl (or any other US reporters) for trying to meet the enemy? No, and they would have condemned such demands as crazy violations of press freedom and journalistic ethics.
Alas, many Indian politicians and journalists are guilty of exactly such crazy violation. Daniel Pearl will cry out from his grave that the true Indian enemies of freedom and journalistic ethics are Vaidik’s critics, not the man himself.