Putting one's life on the line
Last weekend’s tragic death of a gifted young photographer has helped to focus attention on risks and responsibilities.
Indian journalism in parts may be on par with the best, but news organization culture in terms of equipping, insuring and briefing journalists lags far behind, says SEVANTI NINAN
Thursday, Jun 21 07:47:32, 2012
This is a slightly expanded version of a column that appeared on June 21 in Mint.
India can be a rough country if you are practicing something other than soft journalism. Last weekend’s tragic death from malaria and resulting complications, of a gifted young photographer, has helped to focus attention on risks and responsibilities.
Tarun Sehrawat worked for Tehelka, his death following an assignment in Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh has had colleagues in the profession raising issues of safety on the job, and institutional structures that even the English language media has not put in place. The rougher things get in India, the more those covering the news will be at risk. They are the ones at the cutting edge of both big city and district level corruption, naxalism, insurgency, and much else.
Because it is an increasingly lawless country and because media competition pushes those who are sent to get the story to try harder, the risks are greater than before. Sehrawat’s death has drawn attention, that of Chandrika Rai, a mofussil journalist in Madhya Pradesh in March this year with his entire family, has not. Looking at attacks so far this year, shows in just how many ways the tribe is vulnerable.
April alone saw three assaults on journalists and two attacks on media property. A Chattisgarh journalist was attacked for exposing illegal forest felling, Nirmal Baba’s supporters attacked journalists in Delhi, Railway staff manhandled a Navbharat Times reporter in Mumbai for clicking pictures of an illegal activity. In March lawyers attacked journalists in Bangalore, and in February a journalist in Cachar district was attacked for exposing corruption in NREGA works. In January Manipur journalists were on a pen down strike to protest continuous threats by militants. How do even begin to protect such people?
Health hazards then are the last things anybody was looking at. As both Tehelka editor Shoma Chaudhury, CNN IBN managing editor Vinay Tewari point out, when you are sending a journalist on assignment to Chhattisgarh it is the Naxal threat that you are briefing them on. Its only on location that they will learn that malaria is equally a hazard. But what one journalist has learned on location then needs to go into an institutional briefing module for others who will go to the same region.
Media may be a flourishing industry, but once you begin to look closer, particularly at the armies of news gatherers in the regional media, it becomes clear that it is an unorganised and exploitative one. In a country where the bulk of small town journalists are unlikely to get proper appointment letters expecting health and risk protection for this category of workers is a pipe dream. The highest circulated newspaper in the country says it employs around 5000 journalists and 7000 odd stringers. Can the latter, who don’t even get salaries expect any kind of hazard protection?
Journalism can be a safe profession or a dangerous one depending on the kind of journalism you do. Tehelka has come in for criticism following this tragedy but Shoma Chaudhury says you have to take a call based on the reasonable risk doctrine. “Anyone pushing the line a bit on what journalism is will run a risk.” Can Indian news organizations prepare their staff better? She says no Delhi editor can assess adequately the risks associated with the local terrain but Tehelka will now look at issuing standing instructions on reporters making contact with a local doctor and local reporters. It will also look at the issue of insurance for its journalists.
In terms of equipping, insuring and briefing journalists the first world –third world gap is huge. Indian journalism in parts may be on par with the best, but news organization culture in this respect lags far behind. The BBC’s high risk policy runs into 14 pages. It has a high risk team which can brief teams going out on hazards in different parts of the world. But, says Chaudhury, “this was not some other part of the world. This is our backyard. We thought we knew it.”
Hindu editor Siddharth Varadarajan says its clear that Indian media will have to institutionalize safe practices of different kinds. His paper gives open ended medical insurance, CNN IBN says it provides bullet proof jackets to its entire bureau in Srinagar, including outdoor broadcasting engineers, and video journalists. It has insurance for all newsroom staff and a corpus to cover news staff when accidents occur. But even so, CNN International is on another planet. They had an armoured personnel carrier for their journalists in Iraq!
When the war is in your backyard and you don’t have UK or US budgets, you do other things. Varadarajan says that when the local police made things hot for their Chhattisgarh correspondent , he had to take up the matter with the chief minister. Both he and Tewari are also clear that safety comes before risk. The latter says CNN-IBN tells reporters to eschew the romanticism of capturing a face-covered Naxal on camera, because the risk may not be worth it. But, and here’s the final point, a driven reporter is often more committed to the pursuit of a story than the editor. In the interests of safety, he/she has to be reined in.