The death of a fine journalist

IN Media Practice | 13/04/2015
Ram Prakash Meel was honest, well-informed, and could not be bought.
In mourning his death, RAJESH SINHA muses on the corruption that has entered the profession.
Wish he had been a presstitute.
Ram Prakash Meel died. I learnt about it a day after it happened, from a Facebook post by a Jaipur-based journalist commenting on three of his friends dying in quick succession. We had not been in touch, and nobody thought of telling me about it.
I remember him as a good and honest reporter, alive to, and connected with, social issues and concerns, and a reliable associate I could bank upon for any news or input from the Ganganagar region (not just the district) of Rajasthan. He was the man with information and he was the journalist who could put issues into perspective. Meel sa’ab (that’s how I addressed him) could provide background information that was verifiable and point out the social or political links in a story - something lacking even in many journalists now going around with the “editor” tag. 
I was the guy in the headquarters and Meel sa’ab was the one in the field. I happened to be his “boss”, the guy who sits in the HQ and doesn’t move his butt but relies on better informed persons in the field for information about “the state of the nation”. After I returned to Delhi from Rajasthan in 2004, our interaction became increasingly infrequent as our concerns diverged. 
Until I was a newspaper reporter, I continued to speak to him once in a while for inputs about border issues and was rarely let down. If he himself did not have information, he provided some ‘lead’, or source, or contact to a source. Then my time with daily, regular, news reporting ended and I lost touch with many people.
I hadn’t heard from him for a long time. How, or why, did he die? He was probably just about 50 years old. A family person, he didn’t smoke or drink. How could he have died? I asked around. Fellow journalists tell me he was not keeping good health. He was suffering from some stomach ailment and some blood disease (not cancer) and had become weak. 
The strain of poor finances was also taking its toll. I heard Meel sa’ab had been jobless for perhaps a couple of years. Several Hindi newspapers have an edition from Sri Ganganagar but it seemed he got no work, probably managing with occasional, part-time work even though he was superbly well-informed about workers’ and farmers’ issues, pesticides, water contamination, smuggling, and human trafficking. 
He was probably not “presstitute” enough to be employed in a news organisation. And, as you advance in years, job opportunities diminish. In a small town, they can become non-existent.  I hear he came to Jaipur looking for an elusive opportunity, a “break”. I am told he didn’t eat much that day. He was restless, but he had been that way for a long time. In the evening, he was by himself, pacing up and down on the roof when seen last. Then, they say, he simply collapsed. 
Had he been a different kind of journalist, the kind who promotes ‘development’ and industry, helps media houses earn more revenue and befriends the rich and powerful rather than focussing on ordinary people’s concerns, his children might been better off. In the words of General V. K. Singh, he didn’t become a successful “presstitute” since no pimp of a corporate house would hire him.
This notion of journalists being corrupt, how and why has this come about? Not so long ago, actually about three decades ago, when I joined the profession, we were some sort of custodians of public morality and constituted a fourth pillar of democracy. Relatively speaking, there was much more scope for honest, professional journalism.
Things changed, especially after ‘liberalisation’ which, in India, brought in crony capitalism. Corporate houses and political power joined hands and the media became a tool both to further their interests. I can recall several of my own stories being “killed” for no apparent reason despite my having proof for stories involving either a large number of people,  large sums of money or important people.  
There are reporters with much better sources and networks than I have. We hear about lots of valid stories that do not appear anywhere.We can see what is missing from the news. Little comes out. Is the corporate lobby that owns the press and is in cahoots with politicians stifling stories? 
Journalism is failing in its role as a pillar of democracy and not because of journalists, but because of the conditions in which they work and live. It is now just another job, not a mission, not a service. If a journalist needs income, he had better fall in line or be sacked. 
There’s little difference between the work conditions of a domestic help and a journalist in India. A journalist celebrated as a star reporter today can be termed incompetent tomorrow and sacked forthwith, as soon as the boss or the government changes. It has happened on a mass scale as well: hundreds of journalists have been sacked in one go by newspapers or TV news channels but few know about it because no media organisation reports such things. Because they are all in it together.
Journalists do not get a hearing. There is no forum to tell their story. Meel died. Yes, he was sick and had been ailing for a long time. His body had become wasted. How, I keep asking myself? I remember him as a lively chap. From stress? From not being able to do enough for his children? From not being able to figure out where he went wrong? Regretting the way he was made? He was foolish to believe that journalism is about people. He paid for it. 
He didn’t commit suicide. Even if he had, would difference would it have made? Who is bothered about a bloody presstitute? 

(Rajesh Sinha has been a journalist for 29 years, and has worked for Delhi Press, The Sun Weekly, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times (Jaipur), The Outlook, DNA and was last employed with The Bengal Post which packed up with the Saradha chit fund scam.) 
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