Those of us writing as opinion makers for Daily Times have a steady presence on these pages. Behind the scenes, we are part of a vibrant group who trade occasional opinions in our private e-mails. We also sustain careers and an academic presence outside the field of journalism. Our lives are busy and we write with the constraint of editorial deadlines. There is rich life experience amongst us. Brigadier Mehboob Qadir (retired) brings his prior military leadership and insight to bear in what he writes. Who can forget his 2012 article, ‘The deadly sand fly’ (Daily Times, August 1, 2012)? Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed continues to move within the academic world of well-known universities while steadily penning his books about Pakistan and its history. Dr Mohammad Taqi is equally constrained with his schedule. While not naming all who grace the page, I retain deep gratitude for walking in rank with such men and women. A professional journalism corps maintains a distinct discipline. This corps resides above the cacophony of temporary Twitter storm insanity and hidden agenda, beyond the grip of political manipulation. We stand in rank, to serve you.
My own posture has been one of ‘rest in peace’. I submit a commentary to the queue on Monday and it makes an appearance on the Friday page. Things changed in December. I could hardly contain my excitement! Daily Times got a new look and it is a nice one. The editorial staff also made the decision to enable comments for the articles, which we write. So now it is time for the journalists to ‘ride the dragon’. The freedom of expression, which each of you will engage on the page, creates the fire-breathing dragon, which we must now ride. And what a ride it will be both editors and journalists! Cheers all around!
But back to riding the dragon; let me use my first comment-enabled article as an example. ‘Devyani Khobragade: big world, small heart’ (Daily Times, December 20, 2013) generated comments beyond my initial expectations. The ride of the dragon actually began in my e-mail. A retired Indian military officer took his best shot at me. I received images of nude women and a sexually harassing message. The public comments for Daily Times are also quite spirited but here is the deal: as journalists, we carefully weigh comments and follow the passion and sentiment of what is written. We gulp hard when a comment is laden with poorly researched response and/or misinformation but we ride the dragon.
Yes, you can challenge us but do not claim a victory if we do not respond. Silence is not submission but neither does our silence denote arrogance. A lack of response, the restraint to choose not to respond to our critics is the discipline of seasoned journalists. Reactionary casting of ourselves into the midst of every argument degrades the very freedom of expression, which we embrace as a human right. And so it is, that we ride the dragon.
With a decade of journalism under my belt what I have discovered still astonishes me. I have found that the very act of freedom of expression generates moderation and health. As readers begin to comment on articles, other readers will come alongside and moderate comments, which are too far off the beaten path. Mere words begin to change shape. Words aggregate and transform themselves into concepts. Concepts then give birth to creativity and viable solutions. All is well when freedom of expression moves with a natural flow across the page of news organisations. Things are not well when voices are silenced. So it is, that this journalist has learned to ride the dragon. This does not mean that you are free of responsibility. Freedom of expression is like finely etched glass. It is beautiful to hold in the hand but it is also fragile and must be handled with care. Here are a few guidelines as you enter the comments section for the Daily Times’ articles.
Please stay on topic as much as possible. Individuals who stray off base too much can end up with comments, which read like a Mother Goose nursery rhyme. The rhymes can be rather entertaining but they are classically nonsensical. Do not put classical nonsense on the page. Write in plain English and make your point. The goal of communication is to, well, communicate! What you write does not have to be eloquent. Sometimes eloquence is bound up in a five-word response. Intellectual bandwidth can manifest in one short sentence but gross stupidity can be bound up in a five paragraph rant.
Limit yourself to one or two comments. Show digital restraint. Remarks should not look like a drive-by shooting. Rat-a-tat-tat! Five comments later, you have lost relevancy and credibility. Additional thoughts can certainly be sent to the e-mail of the correspondent. We welcome your private remarks. Freedom of expression should not leave a trail of corpses. It is more like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.
You can verbally attack the journalist — we ride the dragon. However, do not personally attack other people who enter the fray. This is bullying. If you do not agree with another reader deconstruct their argument or defend your own but there is no place for insult or name-calling. The goal is to encourage the words to continue to flow onto the page. Perhaps the person you just attacked is timid and it is the first time they have used their own freedom of expression in a public manner. Treat the process with respect, even if in disagreement with the remarks. I still remember the first time I saw my letter to the editor in print. It was an exhilarating moment. In the digital age, we can all share this emotion.
Write purposefully to add to the growing vortex of thought. Defend or deconstruct. Do write with passion. Make the dragon ride a fun one for the journalist but before you click ‘submit’, truncate your remarks, if possible. Freedom of expression is not about mud-slinging madness. It is more like the gentleman’s sport of fencing. Sharpen your swords!
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at email@example.com