Journalists reporting from the frontlines in the North East recount the hurdles they face

Is a journalist who reports from a conflict zone a conduit that provides information to the public or is s/he being used as a ‘force multiplier’? How is broadcasting news from regions such as the North East (NE) and Kashmir Valley different from reporting from a mainland metropolitan city? What happens when a Delhi based reporter paratroops to cover a blockade in Imphal and whether it fundamentally differs from how local journalists cover the event?

These were some of the issues raised by journalists, activists and academics gathered to discuss ‘From the Frontlines: Reporting and Reflections on Life and Death in the North East’ in the Capital recently.

Unlike a war zone where military combatants exchange fire arms, the fault lines in a long drawn conflict zone are different. “Much of the time nothing happens and though ‘conflict zone’ sounds dramatic, it may get pretty boring,” says journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee, formerly with NDTV in the NE. The region from where thousands of men have gone missing, widows have formed committees for survival and there is great civil pressure to remove the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), has been the hotbed of unrest for more than half a century now. Attempts at media manipulation are common where information or suppression of information becomes a tool for strife, putting civilians’ liberty to talk of human rights at stake.

Voicing the despair of women from the region, who are incessantly in the line of fire of various assaults including sexual, Rosemary Dvichu of the Nagaland Teachers Association says, “You are branded as anti-national the moment you talk of human rights, women’s rights or about the army. And if you are the widow of an insurgent then no sympathy or help will ever come your way.”

Sensitive sources

Subir Bhaumik, former BBC journalist who has reported from the area for much of his life, is of the opinion that whoever provides reporters with access to sources, wants them to report in a certain way.

“If you don’t, then next time, you will not be flown on the helicopter that travels to the field of occurrence, somebody else will get the news. All actors in the conflict zone, be it the government, the security personnel, the rebels or the underground, want to use the media as force multipliers to enhance their political clout or whatever.” Adding emphasis, he asks whether a reporter is a postman supposed to carry letters.

Esha Roy with Indian Express in Manipur says that she chose to report from the region as she felt it did not get much visibility in mainstream press and most news about NE was about North Easterners living in metropolitan cities of the country. Reporting about a place that one knows nothing about also exposes the region to misinformation and misinterpretation. Citing a commonplace example, she says, “The perception of people from mainland India about NE is totally skewed. Whoever comes to visit me wants to try the local cuisine and asks for momos. But momos are not Manipuri at all, they are Tibetan!” On a serious note, she feels that one cannot report on everything that one comes across in the region but it is important to provide the right perspective. Her recent story on Army personnel who carry out “encounters” and are decorated with gallantry awards by the highest echelons of political powers at the Centre was one such story. “Gallantry awards are awarded based on the number of insurgents you kill. Sixty awards were given out last year. An award leads to promotions, raises and more money,” she says.

Training required

But when high pitched journalists rush in to cover conflict, they stand the danger of becoming liabilities, says Kishalay. In many ways journalists are the first responders to conflict as they reach the scene before either the police or the paramedics arrive. But unfortunately they are not technically equipped to deal with the situation efficiently.

“No technical training whatsoever is given to us before we go in. BBC correspondents are trained in first aid and cannot go without their helmets and jackets. They have to fill up 14 pages of high risk assessment forms to go into hostile environments. But the rest of us pretty much learn on the job, which is not a good thing.”

In such a scenario, the reporter has to use her/his own best judgment.

It is important to not get emotional and to avoid the tendency to exaggerate.

“Nobody in a conflict zone contradicts you and so one can easily get away with exaggeration, which is why it is dangerous. None is going to challenge you if you say a 100 died instead of two,” he says.

Chairing the session, Prof Sanjoy Hazarika Director Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia pointed out that most of the local journalists in the region work for very little pay and no insurance. It becomes important to provide safety to reporters who put a lot at risk to work hard on putting out correct information from the field.