These are strange times. Wrong becomes right and evil becomes virtue. September 11 is, of course, terrorism, but killing people in Afghanistan who have no responsibility for what happened then, is not terrorism, just "unfortunate" deaths in pursuit of a just cause. After all, the government of the United States of America does not intend to kill civilians though it does intend to carry out actions which it knows will kill civilians and even rationalizes this away beforehand.

Whatever happened to that elementary principle of justice whereby it is not permissible to endanger or kill innocents in pursuit of those who are guilty, let alone those simply suspected of being guilty? Political terrorism is, at the very minimum, the pursuit of political interests through actions that threaten to kill or actually kill civilians and therefore describes the behaviour of the US state as well as of al Qaida. But the attempt at double standards does not stop here. The US remains unpunished for, and unrepentant about, using nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has the worst record of most frequently resorting to attempted nuclear blackmail against non-nuclear states. It has built an "overkill" stockpile that no sane notion of nuclear deterrence can possibly justify. It now wishes to nuclearize and militarize space through a new Star Wars programme.

It refuses to specifically outlaw the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan (indeed rightwing congressmen are calling for its actual use to set a precedent) and feels free to prepare contingency plans for knocking out another country's nuclear arsenal on the grounds of suspected "irrationality" of its opponents. But, it seems, the US is somehow a responsible nuclear power unlike fundamentalist Islamic groups who might come to power in Pakistan. On the whole, with the exception of a small dissident minority, the electronic and print media in the democracies have promoted, rather than contested, such double standards. The CNN's top hierarchy not only censors the pictures from the al Jazeera network but tells its newscasters to slant their messages by restricting coverage of civilian deaths and pushing the blame for this not on American bombings which do the actual killings, but on the taliban who are supposed to be responsible for September 11 and thereby for all evil that happens in its aftermath.

Even if evidence about links between certain taliban leaders and the culprits behind the September 11 attacks were provided, it would still not justify these attacks on a sovereign country. But even this evidence hasn't been provided and still nobody is raising any embarrassing queries about the illegality or arbitrariness of the US reaction. Number 10, Downing Street in the United Kingdom calls a meeting of newspaper and broadcasting executives asking them not to print or voice statements by Osama bin Laden and not to show pictures of dead or wounded civilians in Afghanistan. A few media workers are appalled at this attempted censorship but most are prepared to go along. This is a disgraceful state of affairs.

However, there is always the tried and tested "relativist" formula for deflecting criticism and condemnation on this score - after all, the Western democracies still have the freest press compared to all other countries. But the fact is that mainstream journalism (which is overwhelmingly the dominant form of public discourse) even in the democracies, remains decisively shaped by the powers that be. When the most crucial tests of integrity are posed by world events, the vast majority of media professionals/workers adopt the role of the faithful servitors of power, not of speaking truth to power. In this respect they are no different from the bulk of the intelligentsia, something that we are constantly reminded of by Noam Chomsky, currently in India and soon to visit Calcutta. The fundamental, if often unspoken, rationale for adopting this posture is the presumption that when the chips are down the media must, above all, serve the "national interest". We do not have to go far afield to find confirmation of this. Look at our own media. The English language dailies can never seriously influence voting patterns but they enjoy a very significant and disproportionate influence at two levels. First, the Central government recognizes their impact on the Indian elite and therefore takes them very seriously when it comes to seeking legitimization and endorsement of policies. Second, the non-English language press sees this "national" media as the source of the most serious and sophisticated discussion on issues of national and international import, which then shapes its own editorial perspectives and discursive output. In this context, what three editors of English language dailies and a former editor-turned-government minister have had to say on television and in print about the US's war on Afghanistan and about the general role and responsibility of journalists and journalism become both important and revealing. One such editor in his weekly Sunday column insists that the US war is just and contemptuously dismisses views to the contrary. But he provides no support for his position in terms of international law, evidentiary arguments pertaining to the culpability of those responsible for the September 11 actions, nor serious moral reasoning. Another editor refers on television to the unavoidable "collateral damage" that will have to accompany the just retribution being meted out by the US. The minister talked admiringly of how the journalists of a superpower like the US were showing such solid support for its actions. In other words, they were not raising uncomfortable objections to its human rights record. If only Indian journalists would show a similar sense of nationalism.

It hardly comes as a surprise that this same minister should also publicly support the prevention of terrorism ordinance as a way to establishing a strong state. The state is no longer meant to preserve or strengthen democracy but democratic rights must be sacrificed to serve the state.

When the TV anchorperson suggested to the minister that the journalist's primary responsibility could not be "national loyalty" but accuracy and balance in reportage and analysis, the editor with him came to the rescue. He stated that there was no such conflict and that one could be both patriotic and accurately fulfil one's professional responsibilities. Indeed, in crunch situations, such as a war like Kargil, when Indians are dying, patriotism must guide one's journalistic responsibilities. By that token we can expect the journalists belonging to nations in conflict between themselves tailor their accounts of the same war to support their respective governments. So where do we go from here? There is a central issue raised by war for journalists and journalism. Can there be an objective position from which one seeks to report and analyse such situations? The answer to this is no. In the very selection of facts and in their presentation there will always be an interpretive framework which shows bias. But if complete absence of bias is never possible it is also vital to understand that not all biases are equal, that there is more and less error, more and less objectivity, even if there can never be perfect objectivity. What then is the interpretive framework that must guide the journalist?

The finest, most honourable tradition of democratic, honest journalism demands that the premier commitment of journalists be to universal principles of human rights and justice which by their very nature must cut across all national loyalties. If this basic injunction of the classical Enlightenment concept of journalism and of the role of the intelligentsia was being observed, what we would be reading, seeing and hearing about September 11 and its aftermath would have been very different indeed from what we have had and are likely to continue having.

The author has recently co-authored the book, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament