Courage in journalism, Part II: RIP, Habibi

sarmad2A few months ago, my friend and colleague Lateef Mungin died quite suddenly. This morning, more shocking news awaited me.

CNN photojournalist Sarmad Qaseera passed away. He was 42.

Here’s the thing. Like Lateef, Sarmad was always smiling, always cracking jokes. His joy in life was infectious. I never heard him get bitter like so many other journalists in the war zone.

He came to America from his native Iraq and lived here in Atlanta. He told me how he lived with his ailing mother and was her primary caregiver.

He traveled constantly for work. He survived war zones, riots and disasters. But a long life was not to be his. It’s something a lot of my CNN friends are grappling with today.

I salute Sarmad for his courage and talent in journalism. I salute him for being the very best of humanity.

You are gone from us too soon, Sarmoudi, Habibi. It is a terrible, terrible loss for the world.

Check out this video of Sarmad talking about being a cameraman in dangerous situations: http://cnn.it/1uarHEB

Courage in journalism

foleyHonoring the courage and fortitude of James Foley today. Rest in peace.

I had intended to write more about him but words are failing me now. So I am posting a few links for you. I hope you will think about how so many journalists put themselves in harm’s way so that you may know the truth about our sometimes vicious world.

The Committee to Protect Journalists: 1,070 journalists killed since 1992.

The Free James Foley Facebook page has posts from his family and friends.

A brave and tireless journalist.

Friends remember.

 

Sad news from Afghanistan

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 9.21.02 AMWe lost another amazing journalist today.

Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an acclaimed photographer for the Associated Press, died instantly after an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan, the AP said. Correspondent Kathy Gannon was wounded and is in stable condition in hospital.

“Anja and Kathy together have spent years in Afghanistan covering the conflict and the people there. Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss,” said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll.

Two days ago, Niedringhaus had tweeted about a tribute to another journalist, Sardar Ahmed, who was killed March 21 in the attack on the Serena Hotel.

I did not know Niedringhaus, though I am familiar with her incredible body of work. But I can imagine what kind of woman she was. Her fortitude. Her courage. Her convictions.

Just yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the University of Georgia about reporting on trauma. There was some discussion there about journalists in conflict zones. One student asked me how journalists deal with fear.

I did not have a good answer for her because the fear never goes away. It’s a matter of not dwelling on it and getting on with your work. But then, when news of tragedy comes, like today’s from Afghanistan, it’s difficult to remain composed.

Here’s to all my colleagues working at this very moment in places near and far where they are in harm’s way. They make me proud of my profession.

With Malice Toward One and All. A legendary writer is silenced

Khushwant Singh was 99.

Khushwant Singh spared no one in his newspaper columns.

When I first started out in my career as a reporter, most of the journalists I admired were from America or Europe. There were very few English-language journalists in my homeland who really stood out. Khushwant Singh was an exception.

Singh died Thursday at his home in Delhi. He was 99 and by all accounts, he’d led an incredibly full life. Still, he will be missed in so many ways.

Singh was undeniably India’s most prolific writer. From countless newspaper columns to more than 100 books, Singh penned words that people remembered. He was uninhibited in his writing. Witty. Funny. Acerbic. His column was called “With Malice Toward One and All” and he made a reputation of sparing no one. He also was known for his love of poetry, something that endeared him to me.

Singh served as editor of several publications including The Hindustan Times in the early 1980s. They were positions that kept him surrounded by controversy. He was close to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi but that relationship soured after she instituted a state of emergency in India in 1975 and censored the press.

Singh even served in parliament — he was a member of the Rajya Sabha or upper house. But as a Sikh, he was deeply affected by the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He received many honors, among them the prestigious Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India, which he later returned in protest of the Indian Army’s siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

On Twitter Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Khushwant Singh “a gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend.. He lived a truly creative life.”

Writer and politician Shashi Tharoor tweeted this: “Mourning the passing of the irrepressible, inimitable Mr Original himself. A great loss for the world of ideas&letters.”

The letter Khushwant Singh wrote to Harmeet.

The letter Khushwant Singh wrote to Harmeet.

Singh was mourned by millions in India. Even Bollywood stars came out Thursday to say  Singh had made their lives richer.

I never had a chance to meet Singh. I wish I had. But I wanted to share with you something my friend Harmeet Shah Singh posted on his Facebook page today.

Harmeet, now a producer in CNN’s Delhi bureau, was an up and coming journalist in 1998. He was looking for a break, took a chance and called Khushwant Singh. The latter took the time to write him back.

“He didn’t know me but wrote back to a cold call on this sweet 15-paise postcard,” Harmeet said.

That to me was so telling of Khushwant Singh’s greatness. That even after all those years, after establishing himself as India’s top journalist, he took the time to respond to a young man just starting out in the business. Believe me, this sort of stuff rarely happens in India.

Khushwant Singh, RIP. You are a man who was on the top of my list way back then. And you’ll always remain there.

Singh’s best books.

Read some of his columns in The Hindustan Times.

Farewell to a friend

Lateef: Always cool, but an understated cool. (Photo courtesy Tricia Escobedo)

Lateef: Always cool, but an understated cool. (Photo courtesy Tricia Escobedo)

My friend and colleague Lateef Mungin died Friday. He was only 41.

I was asked to write a tribute for CNN.com.

There are some assignments that I dread. But none like this one. I was so afraid I would fail him. I hope this gives you an idea of what a caring and wonderful man he was. He was so loved.

The story published today. You can read it here: A CNN journalist and a giant in humanity.

Here’s to you, ‘Teef. You were the best and I will miss you terribly.

On Thanksgiving

newalipurI’m at work today, on Thanksgiving, surrounded by news that projects mankind in the worst sort of way — war, murder, rape. But I am also heartened by the best of humanity.

I was especially reminded of that as I wrote a CNN story about a Holocaust survivor who met his Polish Catholic rescuer for the first time since the war ended. The survivor told me how grateful he was to the family who hid hid from the Nazis. Because of them, he was able to continue his family.

I am not with my family today but I am thinking of them. Some are still here in this world; others, including my mother and father, have passed away. They remain in my heart and fill it with love.

I am thinking today of two dear friends who each lost a parent this year, Valerie Boyd and Jan Winburn. I know this holiday season will be especially tough for them. But I know their mother and father’s spirit will warm their gatherings.

I looked through an old album last night and found this photograph of my father’s family. It was taken at my grandfather’s house, in the backyard, in Kolkata in 1970. I’m sitting in the front row, my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great aunt around me.

I wish we could all be together today. I am thankful for each and every one of them being a part of my life.

Tejpal, Tehelka and scandal

Tarun Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal. Tehelka.

Maybe my friends here in America have never heard those names. But in India, they stand synonymous with investigative journalism.

Tehelka has lived up to its name, which means sensation in Hindi, since it entered the Indian media scene in 2000. Early on, the startup almost brought down the Indian government by exposing bribery in defense deals. Tehelka got the story by engineering a videotaped sting operation.

Several years later, in 2007, Tehelka dropped its biggest bomb when it exposed bloody riots in the state of Gujarat not as Hindu backlash but the state-sanctioned killing of Muslims under the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, by the way, is now a prime ministerial contender.

The magazine did not always employ orthodox methods of investigation and came under fire for stretching the limits of the law by using secret cameras and false identities. It defended itself by saying that uncovering the darker side of India would otherwise not be possible.

With Tehelka’s success, Tejpal, the magazine’s editor, skyrocketed to stardom. He was called the rock star of Indian journalism; someone who set a new bar for media standards in the subcontinent. Charismatic. Terribly smart. Curious.

Now, all of it hangs in the balance.

Tejpal admitted “misconduct” against a fellow journalist this week and stepped down from his post as editor-in-chief of Tehelka for six months to “atone” for his sins. The journalist, according to media reports, is alleging Tejpal sexually assaulted her.

“A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for,” Tejpal said.

Some pointed out Tejpal’s language was inappropriate. It was almost as though he were writing about one of his fictional characters.

Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhary’s remarks didn’t go over well, either.

“There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months,” she said.

A statement from the Editors Guild of India said this: “There ought not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality.”

The Tehelka controversy has lit up Twitter and Facebook. That a media institution known for outing the worst of Indian society should be in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal is shocking to many. And Tejpal’s political enemies — he has many —  have come out with sharpened knives. Arun Jaitley, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused Tejpal and Chaudhary of “a private treaty” in what he called an attempt to suppress “a clear case of rape.”

Whoa. Let’s give Tejpal his due. We don’t know yet what the truth is here; whether Tejpal is guilty of his accuser’s actions.

I hope that if he is innocent, he will be reinstated and allowed to carry on with his journalistic endeavors, even though I believe his name will now forever be tainted.

But more than anything, I hope there is a fair and exhaustive investigation of what happened. Often in India, that does not happen.

And I hope that Tehelka will help lead the way in that effort. That is what the magazine stands for, after all — to do the right thing.

The Tejpal story hit a nerve with me for a number of reasons — CNN.com just published a story I reported from India in which I revealed my own rape. Sexual assault happens in all sectors of society. I have never worked full-time for an Indian media institution but I know from friends who have that abuse is widespread.

Reading about Tejpal all over the Indian media today, I came across an interview he gave to CNN-IBN in 2007, after the stinging story about Modi.

“It’s never personal, I keep saying that,” Tejpal said. “It’s not even finally about him. The story is about an extremely dangerous and poisonous school of thinking that is part of the national blood stream now.”

In this case, it is personal. Deeply so for the woman who alleges the assault. But it’s also the latter part of what Tejpal said.