IT may be clichéd to say a picture is worth a thousand words but the photographs taken by Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui were poignant and even more eloquent than that. He seemed to have the gift to capture the entire story, a phenomenon, even history in a single shot.
This last Thursday, the incredibly talented photo-journalist fell to a hail of bullets fired by the Taliban at an Afghan Special Forces squad he was embedded with as the militant group tried to retake parts of the border town of Spin Boldak on the Afghan side opposite Chaman.
He was born in 1983 in Delhi and that is where he, his wife and two young children lived. Two days before he was killed, Danish Siddiqui tweeted a dramatic series of photos of live exchange of fire between the special forces and the Taliban during a rescue mission to extract a besieged policeman in the Kandahar area.
The ace news photographer earned his spurs during the fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul and shared with the world staggering action shots; later he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Rohingya crisis after they faced organised state violence in Myanmar in 2018.
Danish Siddiqui represented the best in journalism at a time when all kinds of charlatans have invaded the profession.
Whether one saw his images of the shattered refugees arriving in Bangladesh or of the anti-Muslim violence that wracked the city of his birth in February 2020, in one frame he could fit the entire story. Some of his finest work was from held Kashmir when India revoked Article 370 in 2019.
This was followed by haunting aerial shots, probably from a drone-mounted camera, of dozens of funeral pyres burning along the Ganges, as the pandemic raged across India earlier this year. His Covid-19 photos, as well as the work of other journalists, has to have played a part in shaking the Modi government out of its slumber.
Please google Danish Siddiqui’s name and images to sense what I am referring to. Obviously, he had the ability to place himself wherever the action was. How else would he have been able to capture history in the making so comprehensively and poignantly?
And he fell, camera in hand, in the midst of action.
I felt compelled to write this short tribute because the 38-year-old man represented the best in journalism at a time when all kinds of charlatans have invaded the profession in not just India and Pakistan but also in the rest of the world.
Just a couple of very recent examples. Pakistan’s prime minister in Uzbekistan for a regional conference leaves one meeting room to head to another but stops and turns to answer a question by an ANI (an Indian news agency) reporter who pleads with him to ‘take one question’. The reporter asks his question which the prime minister answers, then walks away and the journalist who wanted to ask one question, follows him, shouting another about the Taliban. The PM’s team was clearly rushing him to the next appointment.
The ANI releases the clip with the headline saying that Pakistan prime minister ‘evaded’ the question on Pakistan’s alleged support to the Taliban, missing the point that nobody is obliged to respond to journalists’ impromptu questions.
And whether or not one agreed with Pakistan’s position on the issue, Mr Khan had spelt it out unequivocally, while addressing the conference. It was available to the media to be reported on. The Pakistan prime minister hadn’t called a news conference and then refused to take questions.
A niece sent a clip of an elderly man being stopped by a TV reporter on a Madrid street and asked a leading question about the government’s Covid strategy especially the role of the socialists’, left-leaning coalition partner Podemos. But the man refused to follow where the reporter was taking him.
He pointed out that the Covid response was mostly the responsibility of the Madrid local government headed by the right-wing Partido Popular and it was that party that made a hash of things. Then he said matter-of-factly: “You are too stupid to be a TV journalist.” It was a live segment.
The two examples cited neither fill me with joy nor a sense of superiority as, like you, I too occasionally inflict our television talk shows on myself. And if that were not enough, also sometimes watch YouTubers in action when friends recommend something for its comic value.
The farce being played out in front of huge audiences in the name of serious journalism fills me with immense shame. Lies, disinformation and God knows what else is being peddled by charlatans who have all but destroyed our media landscape.
I have a feeling that the ‘freedom’ to start a TV channel or launch a digital offer from the most basic YouTube channel to more elaborate set-ups, and the proliferation of such entities, was part of a deliberate, even sinister, policy to wreck the credibility of the media.
What is happening as we speak is a profusion of ‘we have alternative facts’, as former President Trump’s press secretary Kellyanne Conway described her and the president’s stance when questioned on the lack of truth, facts in their statements.
Complicit in this are dodgy ‘journalists’ and ‘media owners’ who seem to have entered the media industry primarily to safeguard their non-media commercial interests. They are amenable to pushing all kinds of ideas, ideologies etc provided these originate in powerful quarters that can jeopardise their cash cows.
What we are witnessing each evening is the result. Of course, this is not to say there aren’t upright journalists both in the mainstream media and on digital platforms but tragically they form a tiny minority as do owners whose mainstay is the media alone.
Against this backdrop, hats off to journalists and owners who continue to speak truth to power. Young Danish was a media practitioner par excellence and did this via his images. May he rest in peace and his family find solace, somehow.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2021