Journalism and nationalism are antithetical as concepts and mutually incompatible, but “good journalism is the highest form of nationalism,” said Krishna Prasad, former editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, at the eleventh Editors’ Conclave organised by the CR Irani Foundation in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) at the Fortune Park Panchwati, Howrah, being held on 25 to 27 November. Welcoming the participants, Ravindra Kumar, editor of The Statesman and trustee of C R Irani Foundation, said that in journalism as much as in public life, any kind of criticism is seen as an absence of nationalism.

Hans Christian Winkler, head of Press and Information Department and spokesperson of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, New Delhi, said that a journalist does not take any side. But in the present scenario, journalists are under pressure from fringe groups, government as well as corporate entities. To cope with globalisation, journalists play the important part of safeguarding a free nation. Peter Rimmele, resident representative of KAS, New Delhi, said that media in India has been struggling. This requires closer scrutiny because, in a democratic system, journalists serve the role of checks and balances to the elected authorities.

India and Germany can learn from each other through an enhanced relationship. To pursue this, the two countries need active participation. He said that for journalists, criticism is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism. Referring to authors, scientists as well as former judges of the Indian Supreme Court, Krishna Prasad said that journalism has been in conflict with nationalistic fervour except during India’s preindependence days.However, the current wave of nationalism is more “hyper-nationalism” which contradicts all the values of good journalism.

Prasad alluded to an incident where a retired Supreme Court judge, in all his wisdom, said that the Constitution required every citizen to be “nationalistic”, when he meant “patriotic”. On the other hand, a vocal Indian television news-anchor declares that being a nationalist is a prerequisite to being a journalist. Nationalism today is infused with religion and majoritarian sentiments, a convenient cover to destroy and divert attention from the inconvenient but real issues of the day.

“Fleet Street is far more welcoming of a subversive iconoclast than today’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg which would have branded dissenters as urban Naxals,” said Prasad on the changing dynamics of Indian journalism.Despite that, the principle remains: journalists should put journalism first, nationalism after. He left the audiences with the questions:Was it antinational to speak for the poor and the marginalised, the voiceless? Is it against the national interest not to expose killers and rapists in the name of nation? Is it against the national interest to expose corruption? Or is it serving national interest to elect and send a terror-accused to Parliament, and then include her in a parliamentary committee on the nation’s defence? Where does the “national interest” start and where does it stop?

During the panel discussion, Winkler said that journalism covers all spheres of society-political, economical and national. He drew a distinction between German and Indian media, and said that nationalism in journalism cannot exist in a multicultural society like India. The nation is too vibrant to be united on a common ground upon which nationalism is built. Prakash Dubey, group editor- in-chief, Dainik Bhaskar, said that 70 years have passed since the Constitution of India was adopted. But it did not recognise media or press as the fourth pillar of democracy like other countries, namely, the USA, Germany and Bangladesh. However, he was optimistic and said, “If we protect the Constitution, we protect the common people.”

Monideepa Banerjee, NDTV, quoted Charles de Gaulle: “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” She said that the fine distinction was lost when, after 9/11, George W Bush declared, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” In the aftermath of calamity, there is a tendency of media plunging into confusion about their role, as happened after 9/11 and the Pulwama attack in February last in India. She said that journalists should take a lesson from Mita Santra, widow of Babloo Santra, one of the 40 CRPF soldiers killed, who even at the moment of extreme grief refused to accept that war was the answer.

Anant Nath, editor of The Caravan, said that regional nationalism of south India coincided with the growth of regional language press in the early 1990s. Media invariably ends up, subconsciously, even unconsciously, creating an imagined idea. The only solution is “greater democratisation of newsroom,” he said. Veteran journalist Kalyani Shankar said that for a journalist, reporting on national interest, public interest and human interest is a delicate balancing act that is achieved from experience. She spoke about journalists reporting from conflict areas and said that India is yet to learn this well.

Shameek Sen, faculty at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, who moderated the first session, said that every establishment, including the judiciary, is riding with the government. The nation identifies the journalist mostly as the “other”. Ishan Joshi, editor of Asia News Network, said, “Journalists are not public representatives.” A journalist’s role is to inform. Conflicts in a nation fuel the problems journalists face in bridging the gap between nationalism and journalism.

A good journalist needs to imbibe humanitarian principles and common sense. Mahfuz Anam, editor-inchief of The Daily Star, Bangladesh, said that freedom of journalism is an institutionalised expression of freedom of speech and any codified method of thinking runs against journalism. With technological revolution, he said that the business model has altered as 40 per cent revenue of media in Bangladesh goes to Google and Facebook. Pana Janviroj, executive director, Asian News Network, said that countries like China, Japan and Korea are nationalistic in nature that is promoted primarily through media.

It is a reflection of the people in those countries who are generally averse to foreign media. He said it is easy to instigate, but journalists are supposed to be responsible. Abhik Roy, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, said that the times we live in are very dark, dismal and turbulent. But the journalists should have compassion and empathy as well as a critical mind. Nick Nugent, former BBC journalist, pointed out that jingoism is not restricted to journalism but other fields like sports.

Subrata Nag Choudhury, director, the Statesman Print Journalism School (SPJS), moderated the afternoon session.

(With inputs from SPJS students Madhumita Ghosh, Sanjana Podder, Ujjaini Ghosh,Disha Bhaumik,Rohit Bose, Paul Saikat Biswas, Pushpak Sen,Koustav Sen)