First things first. Like millions of other Indians, I am a huge fan of Mohammed Zubair and Pratik Sinha – the feisty duo whose fact-checking website AltNews.com does a commendable job busting fake news that floods our information system on a daily basis.
Given what the two do — displaying rare courage and courting personal risks while calling out deliberate disinformation campaigns by those in power — the pair has been permanently in the news, including when Zubair was clearly persecuted by powerful politicians and jailed for a while a few months ago.
The duo was in the headlines again this week once reports surfaced that the two had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Also read: AltNews’ Mohammed Zubair, Pratik Sinha among favourites to win Nobel Peace: Report
The prize eluded them though, finally going to a Belarusian activist and two human rights organisations. But the hype the news of the nomination of Zubair and Sinha generated was more proof of how shrill and polarised the Indian media has become.
Over the top reaction
The publicity that followed the news of their nomination was way over the top and clearly bereft of any context.
For one, almost anyone can be nominated for the Nobel by someone, as long as they fulfil some very vague criteria. Under the rules, elected representatives or even professors can forward nominations that the Nobel committee may or may not heed.
We would not know who nominated Zubair and Sinha for the prize this year, just as we normally do not get to know the other Indians who are rather routinely nominated almost ritualistically every year.
The Nobel committee would also not tell us officially who this year’s nominees were or who nominated them. According to rules and custom, the names can be officially shared only after 50 years have lapsed.
But these bothersome details were given the short shrift once a foreign publication reported that Zubair and Sinha were among the favourites for this year’s prize.
What followed was a renewed display of shrill partisanship that has come to define the Indian media landscape.
While news outlets – mostly digital – devoted space to the news of the nomination with what could be described as undue prominence, it was social media where things clearly went overboard.
Fawning fans of Zubair and Sinha lavished fulsome praise on them, hailing them as warriors battling to save the embattled noble profession of journalism from a freefall in ethics, morals and scruples.
As always, there were critics too who added to the cacophony. Clearly aligned with the party in power, they found in the Nobel committee a global plot to undermine democracies such as India at the very hint of an award for the duo who they surely dubbed as Urban Naxals.
The reactions on both sides to the news of the nomination – which we know is unverified – were extreme, exaggerated and excessive.
Those who built up this frenzy hoping that Zubair and Sinha would get the Nobel have every reason to be disappointed. But then they shouldn’t have dreamt of it in the first place.
Earning the award
Without belittling Zubair and Sinha, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Nobel normally goes to people with sizeable stature and substantive body of work. If it doesn’t, it dilutes the sheen and significance of the award.
Journalists certainly qualify for it, and only last year, two of them – Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia – were the deserving recipients of it.
Of course, both Zubair and Sinha do a phenomenal job calling out fake news. But have they really earned what is presumably the most coveted award on the earth as yet?
Those rooting for the two might cite that fact-checking is risky business and Zubair in particular has shown exemplary courage in carrying out what he does. He after all was arrested in June and jailed for weeks for what can be best described as his persecution by those in power.
But could his arrest have justified the Nobel? Unlikely. For any nomination to be valid, according to rules, it must be submitted no later than January 31. So, whoever nominated the two would have nominated them months before Zubair faced the brute force of the state.
Together with Sinha, Zubair surely has set high professional standards and are doing the Indian media a world of good by bravely calling out fake news. But we wouldn’t know – for the next 50 years – who else made up the 343 nominees for this year, except the three finally awarded.
I would have been thrilled if Zubair and Sinha had been awarded instead. But now that they haven’t, I am not disappointed either since the hype over their nomination was misplaced in the first place.
Media taking sides
Rightly or wrongly, the duo has come to be regarded as anti-Modi and anti-BJP and it was primarily those who ranged against the current establishment who were behind the hype over the nomination. The media in India is blatantly taking sides and this was yet another example of personal bias overtaking professional balance and neutrality.
Also read: Meet Nobel Peace Prize winners: Jailed Belarusian activist; two rights groups
Sadly, we spare no effort in deifying those we see as our allies and demonising our adversaries. Zubair and Sinha should do well to stay out of these pitfalls and stay focused on the job at hand; that is to cleanse the media of disinformation and misinformation. They are guaranteed our gratitude as a reward.
(Ruben Banerjee is former Group Editor-in-Chief of Outlook magazine. He is the author of ‘Editor Missing’)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)