You, the reader of this newspaper, deserve a full accounting and a thank you. For many months you may have noticed a unique byline in these pages.
“Gulam Jeelani” is not a common name in the U.S. It may have seemed unusual to see the name attached to news stories about a late winter storm or a school board investigation.
Let us explain: You were participants in an effort to lift up journalism around the world.
Both of us are from India, but one of us (Frank) left to pursue his dreams in America and has succeeded in business beyond his imagination; he has decided to give back by supporting journalism fellowships through the nonprofit Alfred Friendly Press Partners.
The other author of this piece (Jeelani) recently took a leave from the Hindustan Times, where he faced many challenges to a free press, to participate in a reporting fellowship in the Star Tribune newsroom.
While we have different life experiences, we are bound together by our desire to see the truth told through journalism in both the U.S. and India, the two largest democracies in the world.
It is a challenging time to have such beliefs. Even before President Donald Trump starting referring to unfavorable coverage as “fake news,” surveys found eroding confidence in the media.
Our belief is that public opinion ebbs and flows; the First Amendment and Supreme Court rulings ensure that the press here will always be free and robust.
But in today’s interconnected world, the real danger is what others take away from Americans showing disregard for an independent press. The U.S. is a world leader in diplomacy, in commerce and, yes, in journalism.
This is noticed in India, where the press faces serious challenges. A prominent news anchor says he quit after the channel’s owner told him not to discuss Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the air. This channel has also had to deal with unexplained blackouts and a loss of ads.
At least six Indian journalists have been murdered in the last two years because of their work. While the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, prosecutors have charged reporters with sedition; they face the possibility of life imprisonment if convicted. Some reporters have reacted by leaving out critical details in their coverage or just not pursuing stories.
It’s no wonder that last year India fell two spots on the World Press Freedom Index, to 136 out of 180 (the U.S. came in at number 45).
This explains why fellowships in U.S. newsrooms are so empowering. It builds confidence when an Indian journalist realizes an American journalist has the support of his bosses to camp outside a Minnesota politician’s home for hours until he gets the answers the public needs.
You, the reader, may have casually viewed the reporting from a journalism fellow without giving it much thought. But for the rest of the world, it added to the collective building and strengthening of journalism as an essential and worthy craft. Americans risk losing that premier role when they too easily listen to voices that want to distract them from reality.
Frank Islam is the president of the Frank Islam and Debbie Driesman Charitable Foundation; Gulam Jeelani is a special correspondent for Hindustan Times in New Delhi.