Sohini C. – Journalism in Asia Today
What is your day-to-day task in your publication/organisation?
I work independently. I research stories and ideas, pitch them, write them, and also edit them. I work in the print and online space for Indian publications, and some foreign publications like the South China Morning Post, VICE and Guardian. Recently, some of my work has been translated into German.
Like most print journalists today, I am expected to take photographs (for most assignments) as well. Another important part of my work is fact-checking and research. Though I mentioned research earlier, I add this separately because there is a lack of editors and resources to check the work of writers and reporters in the online space.
What is the greatest challenge in journalism today in this region?
In India, the threat is from the government – which is very hostile to questioning and criticism. Journalists are being murdered, threatened by huge lawsuits, trolled and shamed by thousands online. They are censured by management and raided on absurd charges by the government. Every possible kind of harassment is being used to make the press toe the government line. I have written about this for the South China Morning Post and the German press.
How important is journalism in Asia?
It should be very important – as it is anywhere else in the world. Perhaps, it is more important than other continents because Asia has a large number of developing economies, more than in North America and Europe.
But do we have good journalism? In India, the answer is no. When the press has been asked to bend, it is crawling. During my time at the Asia Journalism Fellowship (AJF), there is much to admire from the journalism in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. I hope we can learn from each other.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from another journalist in Asia?
There is merit and bravery in doing the stories no editor wants to commission. We have to believe in the worth of the story ourselves. Editors work under the commercial pressures of their managements. Being discouraged is easy, but we have to learn to overcome it and keep chipping away.
What do you think is the most important issue/story in your country and the region?
The story of jobs and work. Development projects are indeed taking place but we can argue about how quickly or slowly this is happening. But it is happening. However, such projects are eroding, sometimes gobbling up, older ways of work and livelihood. For instance, land is being taken away from small farmers. There is little opportunity for many traditional craftsmen. What will happen to them in the changed landscape post development projects? The contemporary capitalist economy is driven by automation. Some of those displaced and disrupted by development will find work as migrant labour. But is there work for everyone? And will this work provide fulfilment and dignity?
What are you most optimistic about as a journalist in Asia?
In truth, I am not optimistic. Things have slid from bad to worse in India in the last 5 years. I think the conversations opened up by social media have forced citizens, the legacy media and the political establishment to question many things. The #MeToo campaign following the Weinstein scandal, for instance: sexual harassment by people in powerful positions has never been questioned in the way it is being done today. This is thanks to the conversation opened up by social media.
In India, one response to #MeToo is a crowdsourced list of harassers in academia. This is enormously contested: how can persons be 'named and shamed' like this, without due process of law? But law and justice processes have failed so many people, this is what #TheList is bringing into the open. Social media is forcing us to re-examine our views.
What does it mean to be a journalist in Asia, as compared to the rest of the world?
I have had the privilege of taking part in journalism fellowships in Germany, the UK, and Singapore. I know that journalists are accorded prestige in Germany and the UK, more than I have seen at home in India. Of course, there is anger against tabloid journalists. But journalism in its essence is understood to be worthy and important. You are expected to question the establishment – be it government, powerful corporates or cultural magnates.
In India, journalism is seen as a form of communication between the powerful and the rest. Journalists are expected to dutifully report the messages of the powerful. This is why when we question anyone – corporates, government – people are annoyed. Why are they acting smart? Are journalists experts? Are they academics? Good journalism is ridiculed. Who are you to ask this, we are told.
Sohini Chattopadhyay (India) works as an independent journalist, who enjoys long-form reportage. She won the Bala Kailasam citation for reporting on the web in 2017, the Ramnath Goenka award for feature writing in 2015 and the 2014 International Red Cross and Press Institute of India prize for humanitarian reporting. Her writing has been commissioned by the Guardian, the South China Morning Post, VICE and many leading publications.
Journalism in Asia is a collection of portraits and interviews from influential journalists in Asia presented every Monday morning.