Conflict reporting in India: Worth risking lives without prior training?

Be it conflict zones or places outside them, attacks on journalists are nothing new and have often been targeted, injured or even murdered because of their profession.

Published: 05th November 2021 11:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th November 2021 11:55 AM   |  A+A-

Late photo journalist and Pulitzer winner Danish Siddiqui (L) and Slain senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari (Photos | Facebook, Twitter)

Express News Service

NEW DELHI: Eminent photo journalist and Pulitzer winner Danish Siddiqui’s killing in Afghanistan while on reporting duty came as a shock to everyone. While Siddiqui’s employer Reuters continues to investigate reasons behind his murder by the Taliban, journalists in India said they risk their lives while on conflict reporting.

Kashmir, the insurgency-hit Northeast region and the states falling under the influence of Left Wing Extremism are the three major zones of conflict reporting in India. Many journalists have often been targeted, injured or even murdered because of their profession — journalism.

Be it conflict zones or places outside them, attacks on journalists are nothing new. According to a study conducted by Thakur Family Foundation, atleast 198 serious attacks were recorded on reporters between 2014 to 2019 — of 36 which happened in 2019 alone — in India. In 40 cases, journalists were killed with 21 of them for their journalistic work, according to the study published last year.

In Kashmir, the challenges are more given the ground situation.  As recent as 2018, Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar. Last year, photojournalist Kamran Yousuf claimed that he was injured near an encounter site in Pulwama district.

Journalists said that often many of them get injured during the stone pelting between residents and the forces.

Yusuf Jameel, a senior journalist from Kashmir, said that after 1989, altogether different challenges cropped up for reporters to do their work. “Everyday is becoming difficult for us, so many things are happening. Large scale killing started taking place, and the whole thing changed. Information accessibility has become zero, entry to many places are banned. Attempts to suppress information have started.” 

Jameel is not alone. A journalist working with an international news spoke about his experience on the condition that his identity remains anonymous claiming otherwise it would bring in ‘unnecessary troubles’ to him and his family. “There is a constant threat while reporting on ground and this threat comes from both the sides. It has increased now over the past few years. Media persons, especially those working independently, are more vulnerable,” he said. "The advantage of reporting about Kashmir from Kashmir is my ethnicity and knowledge of the area, but these factors are also my biggest disadvantage which comes in a package on being a Kashmiri."

Life risks while reporting:

Back in 1995, Jameel recalled how he and two other men were attacked while working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) at Srinagar. 

“I didn't fear for life as such but I have faced a number of allegations of glorifying militants, being their hand. I was called an Indian agent by the militant groups. I faced six attacks. In one of the attacks which was a parcel bomb blast in Srinagar office in 1995. I along with another fellow journalist were injured while the third succumbed,” he noted.

The experience of others outside Kashmir is also not pleasant. 

A former journalist associated with a reputed English daily said that he was asked not to visit riot areas during its peak owing to his religion. “My editor forbade me from going to the spot when the riot started. He didn't allow me because I was Muslim. It's as simple as that. He feared a mob would attack me. I did that to raise my concerns. I actually demanded to be sent. That's why I was sent so late when violence had largely subsided.”

During the Delhi riots, the former journalist recollected how he had a close shave.

“Friday it was. I, my colleague and a photographer went to the mosque which had a saffron flag unfurled. A small mob was present to make sure no Muslim came to pray. When we asked them why they said they won't let Muslims come back, one of them said that newspapers are not showing the truth. One of them grabbed my arm and asked my name. My photographer promptly said ‘Ashish’. My other colleague was also Muslim. Her fake name was ‘Anamika’. Thankfully, they didn't asked for my card. We told our editor about this. They refused to mention this in the papers,” he said.

Some of the journalists this writer spoke to have covered atleast one conflict zone but they disclosed that they were neither trained before being dispatched to the spot nor were handed any safety tool kit.

“While covering the Delhi riots, I borrowed a biker helmet from a local so that I could atleast protect my head. Otherwise, I had no protective gear, nothing provided by the organisation. To be on the safer side, I stuck with the forces thinking even if I am injured, they can atleast take me to the hospital,” said a woman multimedia journalist.

Back in Kashmir, journalist said that colleagues who are mostly locals take cover with the public whenever stone pelting or conflicts break out. "They don’t cover their faces. They are not doing anything wrong by covering the story. However, during encounters or stone pelting, they need to wear face shields. But usually the journalists, mostly photographers, have no access to the kits and often are injured,” the journalist who writes for an international media house said.

Has conflict reporting undergone changes in its way of presentation?

MR Narayanswamy, a former journalist who extensively covered the Sri Lankan civil war and also written books including ‘Inside an Elusive Mind Prabhakaran’, believes that except for the television journalism, nothing has changed when it comes to conflict reporting. 

“Conflicts are conflicts, internal and external. Hindu-Muslim riots or killings of innocent Sikhs in 1984, these are also conflict situations. Except for the Tv journalism, I don't think anything has changed — when it comes to basic reporting skills. Some journalists study and prepare well for a situation and it shows in their reporting. Others do a fly-by-night operation, that too shows in their writing,” he said.

Are journalists well trained in J-schools or in profession before sending for conflict reporting:

Indian Institute of Mass Communication, one of the premier Journalism schools under the I&B ministry, said students are taught conflict journalism as a module in the journalism courses.

“The module includes the process of reporting from conflict zones,” said Prof. Shashwati Goswami, Head, Dept. of Communication Research of the institute.

Sambit Pal, Associate Professor, MIT ADT University, Pune commented that conflict reporting has been part of the syllabus of most of the journalism schools in India. “I think the focus of the J-schools should be more on practical training and most importantly, not equate conflict reporting just with war. It has got a wider scope, and it needs to be explored,” he added.

Elaborating on reasons why the journalism students need to be taught about conflict reporting at an early stage, the former journalist said that these students would fail to do justice to the profession if he or she was not taught well on how to deal with these issues, what precautions they need to take and to keep in mind while covering them.

“Whether it is Afghanistan or Kashmir or Maoist insurgencies or political battles or NRC-CAA protests or farmers' protests, everything forms conflict in one way or another. Students will fail to do justice to the profession if not taught who are the stakeholders in every conflict, who they need to talk to and, most importantly, how they can contribute in resolving the conflicts. Otherwise, their reportage will be biased and encourage more conflicts. It takes a toll on good journalism as well as the mental health of the journalist. Of course, I am talking of an ideal situation where the media should actively resolve conflicts and not encourage them,” he stated.

However, the journalists who spoke to this writer said they were not properly trained or educated on how to take up the challenges of conflict reporting.

“Many come down from other cities to Kashmir but they don't have any experience of conflict reporting. They don't know anything about Kashmir, what people have gone through. Many young journalists land up in conflict areas without knowing the basics of reporting. And they are often injured because of a lack of training. They are not educated how to report from conflict zones,” maintained Jameel.

Restrictions in writing:

Naranswamy, who said that he took normal precautions while going into conflict zones despite facing no threats, commented that he worked on his own and no one tried to influence him.

In contrast, the reporter from the reputed daily said that he along with his colleagues were instructed to carry ‘balanced’ stories. “A brief was given to find human stories of loss and hope. Few days later, we were told to focus on communal amity stories. Despite the editorial control, I went out and found stories and did what I wanted to do,” the person said.

Should the media be an instrument of peace while reporting on conflict?

“I don't think the media creates a conflict or resolves a conflict. A journalist should do his job well, without being swayed by emotions or personal biases or prejudices. Good reporting cannot resolve a conflict but can help generate ideas which can in turn play a role in the ultimate resolution of conflicts,” said Narayanswamy.

Jameel also echoed a similar voice with an addition that the peace should not be disturbed and that the report should not be a 'trigger'. 

"In that way, yes, the media can be a peacemaker. As a reporter, it is their duty to report as they are but at times one has to be careful from conflict areas. Information can be misleading as well.  In the race of 'news breaking', we make so many mistakes, especially in television. One should report honestly, objectively. And then leave it to people to decide,” he mentioned.

Basics to follow from a conflict zone?

Jameel said conflict belts are always volatile and one has to be very careful and report as they are, as the incidents are unfolding.“It is very difficult to report from a conflict area. Two parties will have two different tales. One has to try to reach the bottom of the story and write the truth. The true picture of what's happening is the responsibility of the journalist to uphold to the readers.”

Narayanswamy is of the opinion that the simple home truth should be followed, adding “which is professional honesty and a deep commitment to human values. These two will make anyone a good journalist, conflict or no conflict."

(This article was supported by The UNESCO, Public Media Alliance, and Media Action Nepal Fellowship.)


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