The Crusader of Truth

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There are two kinds of people who get into the field of journalism   one who writes to make a living and the other who lives to write to make others life better. Life of a journalist is not as simple as it seems to be. No two days for a journalist are ever the same.  It’s just not about  covering breaking news, researching for stories or interviewing people, it’s much beyond what we get to see. These days, journalism has turned into a life threatening profession. A UNESCO report stated that the number of journalists killed all over the world has seen a sharp rise in five years, with 530 such deaths — 18 of them in India — being reported from 2012 to 2016-end.  One of the distinguished journalist of Odisha, Shri Pradosh Patnaik exclusively spoke to Team Coffee Bytes about his journalistic journey.

You are one of the eminent journalist of the state. Please take us through your journey so far.

After doing my M.A. in Political Science from Utkal University, I went to study journalism at Pune University as in those days there were no journalism courses in Odisha. When I returned from Pune in 1972, I was invited by Dr. Harekrushna Mahatab,  renowned freedom fighter, former Chief Minister of the state, and founder of a major daily Prajatantra, to join his paper immediately as a correspondent, as there was scarcity of trained young journalists  in those days.

A few write ups of mine in Prajatantra caught attention of Dr. Radhananth Rath, a renowned freedom fighter and editor of  The Samaj who invited me to join his paper. I did so as The Samaj, started by revered Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das, was a veritable institution which was a young journalist’s dream in those times. I worked at The Samaj till retirement.

After retirement, I continued to write columns for several news daily and magazines, and have also been helping a new newspaper Odisha Bhaskar as its Chief Editor in an honorary capacity.

Did you always aspire to be a journalist?

Yes, I had developed a passion for journalism since my childhood. My mother, who had been a freedom fighter had a deep literary interest, would ask me to read The Samaj aloud while she would be cooking in the morning. I came to learn about the world, to savour the written word, and be fascinated by journalism from those days. I never thought of any other profession but wanted to be a journalist. In fact for me it was not a career option but an exciting life-choice.

How was your early phase as a journalist?

There were only a handful of journalists in those days and they were highly respected for their knowledge and integrity and indeed the profession itself, had developed as part of the freedom struggle. In Bhubaneswar I was the youngest in the profession and was thrown among stalwarts. But they treated me with great affection and generosity, took me under their wings literally. Radhanath Babu always had great love for me, used to ring me from Cuttack every morning to have long discussions, and valued my opinions. He gave me complete freedom to write what I liked and was full of encouragement. The atmosphere was more like that of a family than that of a hierarchical organization. It was a sheer pleasure to be a part of that family.

With your long journey as a journalist, what has been the highlight in your career? Any interesting incidents to share with us?

All through my career as a journalist I have tried to remain truthful and unbiased, which is one reason why I have no enemies despite being critical of many prominent political figures. When Biju Patnaik was the Chief Minister of Odisha, I was the Chief correspondent of The Samaj in Bhubaneswer and I used to ensure that he got proper coverage. He himself noticed this fact and asked one of his aides to find out how he managed to get such coverage in the paper despite his strained relations with Radhanath Babu. When he was told that it was because of me, he would always look for me at every press conference and even ask whenever I was late or absent: “where is that boy”? Similarly on the other side, despite J.B.Patnaik being a family friend, I did not hesitate to highlight certain misdemeanors that occurred during his tenure as Chief Minister, for which I even got several threatening anonymous telephone calls. I derive great satisfaction from the fact that I remained true to my principles.

Share something about your family.

Both my parents were freedom fighters. My father Prananath Patnaik had left college to join the Civil Disobedience Movement at Gandhiji’s call. After being released from jail he had gone to Kashi Vidyapeeth, started by Gandhiji for all those who had left their colleges to join the movement. The head of that institution at the time was Acharya Narendra Dev the renowned socialist leader, and it was a lively place for Left intellectual activity. Upon his return from Benares my father joined the Congress Socialist Party whose first conference in Odisha was presided over by him, and then the Communist Party of which he was one of the founders in the state. As a Congressman and a Communist he had been imprisoned ten times in his life.

My mother was a person of indomitable courage and refined literary taste who brought up six sons including myself in back-breaking poverty. Notwithstanding poverty however, we children were exposed to intense intellectual discussions on political issues and world affairs: the Soviet Union, the Korean War, the Rosenbergs (I remember my mother crying when they were executed), Churchill, the Telengana Armed Struggle, African liberation etc. The one thing I learned from my parents was never to compromise on principles.

What is your take on the freedom of press?

Freedom of the press is an absolutely essential feature of democracy. No doubt, such freedom may be misused in various ways, but the barrier against such misuse should be two-fold: first, the law of the land, which for instance can be invoked against willful defamation or the spread of hatred between communities; and second, mechanisms and institutions within the media itself, such as the Press Council, which if necessary, should be strengthened. The government must have no role in curbing the press in the name of the so-called “common good” and the press must play a socially responsible role, not just in upholding our Constitutional values but also in accurately reporting about the conditions of the people.

If the oppression unleashed on the tribal population is not covered in the press while Lakme Fashion Week is, then the press is abdicating its social responsibility.

Social Media has taken over Print and Electronic Media. Your opinion on it?

The fact that social media has become so important is because the Print and Electronic Media have become pawns in the hands of the government and the corporates. They have abdicated their social responsibility. Let me give you an example. A doctor in U.P. paid out of his own pocket to buy medical supplies to a children’s hospital where several deaths had taken place for lack of such supplies. That doctor who happened to belong to the minority community was arrested and put in jail! The mainstream newspapers and TV channels did little about it while there was a vigorous campaign against his imprisonment in the social media, which ultimately led to his release after eight months of incarceration. Our Print and Electronic media, alas! have shown themselves to be utterly supine in the face of the fascist threat that is confronting the country, while the social media despite all the problems associated with that entity, has shown some courage. This is true elsewhere in the world as well. Its ability to stand up to government bullying is the main attraction of social media.

Is there any difference in journalistic approach then and now?

When I started, the shadow of the freedom movement still loomed over the country. Honesty, integrity, concern for the people, upholding secularism and democracy were values that were paramount. Even though newspapers were bought and sold every morning as commodities, as they have to be, there was no “commoditization” of the press, in the sense of things being done only for money. That is no longer true. Commoditization has gone far. Fake news for a consideration, ‘planted news’, paid news etc. have appeared on the scene in a big way. Journalistic ethics are being undermined not just by newspaper owners but alas even by many journalists themselves. Money in short rules the roost which was not the case earlier.

Opening up the newspaper in the morning we find the front page full of news about rapes, accidents, scandals etc. Don’t you think it creates a wrong image about society in young minds?

The question to ask is whether the increased reporting of such incidents is a correct picture of social trends. Is there an increase in the incidence of such events or is it just giving such news more prominence than earlier? There can be little doubt that there has been an increase in the incidence of such events. There has in other words been a “lumpenization” of society. Even in Kolkata where women moved about safely at night, they are no longer safe today. And if the incidence of such events has increased then it is important for society and for young people in particular to be informed about it and not to be kept in the dark, so that they can as responsible citizens in a democracy consider ways of combating the trend. Of course reporting such events has to be done carefully and not pruriently; there has to be a strict code of journalistic ethics on how such matters should be reported. The point however is not to close our eyes to such evils but to fight them; and journalism is part of this fight.

What are the true values of journalism? Does the new breed of journalists follow ethical responsibilities in journalism?

A journalist must speak the truth with responsibility. The journalist’s commitment is to the people, to improve the human condition. A journalist must pursue this commitment in a principled and courageous manner without any compromises or kowtowing to people in power. I have said earlier that commoditization of journalism with money power calling the shots has led to a decline in standards. But at the same time there were large numbers of idealistic and courageous young men and women who are drawn to this profession and attempt to maintain the high standards expected of them. So I would not just say – our times were better because journalists those days adhered to higher values. There were good people in the profession then and there are good people now as well; what has changed is the context in which they operate. It has become more difficult today, because of commoditization of journalism, to maintain journalistic standards.

You are associated with different organizations. Give us a brief about it.

My associations have been with cultural, educational and sports organizations. Among cultural organizations I have also been attached to organizations concerned with Cinema which is an extremely powerful modern medium. Culture and sports have always excited me. And as for education, my father was deeply involved with it and I am simply following in his footsteps. In the mofussil town where I was born, Jatni, my father had started the first school. And in nearby Khurda, the constituency from where he used to get elected to the legislature, he started a college with great effort by collecting donations from people. That college is now flourishing and I am fortunate to be associated with its activities. After retirement from full-time journalism I now devote more time to these organizations.

During 1984, there was no film critic organisation in odisha. Few young cine journalist  approached me as I was bureau chief of The Samaj to start a cine critic organisation. So we formed an organisation with me as the founding President. The organisation gives prestigious Odisha Cine Critic Awards. This organisation is the oldest and only body dedicated to film critics.

I am also proud to be associated with Rajdhani Foundation Day Celebration Committee which started in 1988. As President of the committee, we have been celebrating it since last 30 years. From a small function, it has turned into a big event in the Capital comprising cultural programmes, felicitations, civilian parade etc.

Furthermore, I am also associated with National Journalist Welfare Board (NJWB) right from its inception in 2002. As President of the body, we have started the pension and health insurance schemes for journalists. It is a non political and  non trade union organisation for welfare benefit of working journalists. Now, it has expanded to other states.

Any message for youngsters taking up journalism as a career?

My message is: do not lose heart; do not compromise on principles; and remember the people.

How do you spend your leisure time?

I mentioned the organizations with which I am associated. In addition I have a close group of friends with whom I meet regularly to discuss the socio-political situation in the country which today is characterized by a grave threat to democracy and secularism. I have also inherited my mother’s taste for reading. All these, together with my work as a journalist which still continues, keep me busy.

By Upagupt Mohanty

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