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Vivid: The Indian journalist’s conflict

01-April-2013
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Vivid: The Indian journalist’s conflict

All kinds of stories have emerged about Liyaqat Ali Shah, even as National Investigation Agency (NIA) is all set to probe the curious case of the Kashmiri militant. The latest being that the militant was entering India via the Nepal border to surrender; he was already cleared by the Centre on a 2012 recommendation by the Jammu and Kashmir government in 2012. Most of India media has done a credible job of covering the controversy – who’s trying to fool whom and who’s trying to take the credit?; and unravelled that Liyaqat had only come to surrender before the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir after the application of his family for his rehabilitation under the state government's policy was approved by authorities, only to be arrested.

The Indian Express on March 30 reported that Tritiya Prastuti Committee members shot surrendered Maoists and paraded their bodies before the security forces in the Chatra district of Jharkhand. Formed in 2002, the Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC) or the Third Preparatory Committee includes cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) in Jharkhand who deserted their parent outfit complaining of the domination of the Yadav caste in the decision-making process of CPI-Maoist. The TPC cadres were mostly from the Dalit Bhokta, Turi, Badai, Oraon, and Ghanju castes.  According to The Indian Express, the TPC "has since clashed repeatedly with the CPI (Maoist) and are widely believed to have the backing of the state security apparatus".

These two incidents bring us to the moot point that conflict reporting in India has seen a paradigm shift. These are far cries from the conflicts we have known till now – the terror attacks, the low-intensity warfare in Kashmir, the Northeast and the Maoist-infested regions. And it’s not as simple as reporting what one sees as an eyewitness, even going beyond the news and digging for the truth.

Now, how far do you look for the truth, to publish? To be more precise, how far does a journalist go to learn the truth, and having learned the truth, does he weigh whether to go out to the masses, or not. Or does he say the truth as it is, with scant regard to alarm among the gullible it may cause?

“The ethical dimensions of conflict coverage are many, as is the range of conflicts that has to be covered. In   addition to border wars, there are internal conflicts that a State wages with disaffected sections of its own people. There are terror strikes. There are   communal riots,” says Sevanti Ninan in her piece, “The Ethics of Conflict Coverage” published on her media-watch site, thehoot.org.

It is to be considered with some gravity and concern – blame it as being an unfortunate by-product of these inherent societal and communities complexities and sometimes, insensitivity of governmental policies transcending across states and region -- that today there no less than, according to South Asian Terrorism Portal, 177 terrorist, insurgent and extremist groups are functioning within India. Though each group's principal objective is to wage an armed struggle against the Government of India, all have their own history in ideologies, causes and manifestation.

Understandably, the range of conflicts have had the Indian media walking the fire of ethics each time a reporter goes to field to report. And it has been an uphill, most often failing task.

According to Chindu Sreedharan, a journalist who covered the Kashmir conflict for rediff.com from 1997 to 2003, his evaluation of conflict coverage, particularly in Kashmir, is that the media is not supportive of a solution. According to his analysis, the stress is on conflict, on violence.

He goes on to say that even when peace attempts were on, there is a strong indication that the media was on the lookout for 'conflict'. Understandably, conflict emerges as of much news value, something that always makes an article, report, opinion piece and edit ‘newsworthy’ – there is a definite draw in the business of hardselling news and there is readers’ interest too. We also need to understand that the journalist is someone who is part of the society, thus understands a conflict's 'value' well. And he plays along in a situation where even conflict reporting in a troubled state/region becomes state-led. There is always value in reporting the fight of ‘good’ against ‘evil’.

Journalism schools rarely teach more about reporting conflicts than not to name the communities involved; some have even added that one's terrorist might be another's freedom fighter. But rarely do they teach the journalist student how to weigh whether his conflict report would foment disturbance or not – that is left to a journalist's experience to fathom.

What the journalism schools also fail to teach to the would-be-journalists is that we need to approach conflicts with more care and sensitivity. Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary measures of responsibility from journalists, and they have to realise that. The journalist must understand that there is a lot of innovation that needs to be practiced at extraordinary times, where norms laid down in the textbooks may not work.

“Whether we agree or not, the basic tenets of conflict reporting are quite flawed in the Indian media. On the one hand, you have those who are accused of over-reporting throwing caution to the winds and risking the lives of armed forces’ personnel or exposing their positions; on the other, we have reports of the likes of Shubhranshu Choudhary (the founder-member of the citizens' journalism initiative in Chhattisgarh, cgnet.in) who wrote in 2009 of how journalists in Chhattisgarh were paid not to report stories critical of the powers-that-be, and the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum, which rights activists dubbed as a brutal state-created militia. The journalists of today are at pains to keep their morality intact, yet be able to tell their story as it is. I am sure their predicament is like nowhere else in the world,” says a senior journalist who preferred to remain anonymous.

So what’s to be done?

For one, a journalist must understand that his conscience is not to be sated with the fact that he has quoted both sides. As Sreedharan – he teaches journalism and communication at the Media School, Bournemouth University, and has researched on Indian and Pakistani media coverage of the Kashmir conflict at the Media School – suggests, they need to “look at alternative ways of reportage – as the peace journalism concept put forward by Johan Galtung, the ‘journalism of attachment’ practised by Martin Bell and others, even the expansive field of New Journalism promoted by Tom Wolfe in the 1970s. Perhaps an adaptation of these is what we need.

Perhaps what we need in such situations is not the pretence of objectivity, but what you could term 'informed subjectivity'... we need to show a willingness to question our own traditions and practices, show some flexibility. Without that, the responsibility that conflict situations demands of journalists – in reportage, in research, in gatekeeping – will not be possible.

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