Journalists of Bastar are often exposed to serious security threats by Maoists who want to release a statement or by the police who want to gather information

Sometime in the early summer of 2013, while preparing for a motorbike ride in the forests of Bastar, the State administration came up with a request to this correspondent — to mediate with left-wing rebels to recover the body of a Greyhound soldier (of the elite, anti-Maoist force) who had been killed in an encounter with the rebels. The forces were apprehensive of entering an area, which was controlled by Maoist fighters and expecting a recovery mission. A journalist from Bijapur, a few traders and this correspondent took a 100-kilometre bike ride in search of the soldier’s body. While the journey was worthy of an essay in itself, the events that transpired form a curious interpretation of the pressure on journalists in the hostile territories of south Chhattisgarh (Bastar division).

Once the police were informed about the exact location of the body, a separate set of requests emerged. This time, they were more demanding — to take a tractor to recover the body. “You shouldn’t touch the body since Maoists may have mined it. The villagers who accompany you, will recover it,” said a senior officer who was overseeing the recovery operation from Bhadrachalam in Andhra Pradesh.

Editorial trainers and journalists have spoken in unison about a journalist’s responsibility in such situations, while there is a surprising absence of any national or international guidelines to deal with such requests.

“If you are working with a media organisation, you cannot help any side in a conflict. In this case, recovering the body makes no sense because the person is already dead and you are not helping to save lives. Additionally, you may lose credibility and risk your own life by trying to recover a dead soldier,” said Elva Narcia, former editorial trainer with the BBC and adviser with Internews, the international media development non-governmental organisation, in Afghanistan.

Soon after the incident, The Guardian’sSouth Asian correspondent, Jason Burke, shared similar views in an e-mailed communication. “I don’t believe journalists should become involved in any conflict in any role whatsoever, whether intermediary or otherwise. Unless there is absolutely no other option and lives may be saved or injuries prevented,” he said. The editorial limitations were cited to the police to avert their request.

But the local journalist, a brilliant, young correspondent from a Hindi daily in Bijapur, had to oblige. He did go in and while no rebels were sighted, the villagers handed over the body to him. He returned safely, raising a few questions in the process. Can a journalist in a conflict area, whose security and career depends on his relationship with the local police, afford to turn down such a request on the basis of journalistic ethics?

Threats to journalists

With little risk assessment, journalists of Bastar are often exposed to serious security threats by national and international standards. For example, they are often summoned into forest areas by the Maoists to receive a press statement. On other occasions they are called upon for a casual conversation with the intention of gathering intelligence. The police also try to gather information about specific villages and individuals. By obliging any one or both, journalists subject themselves to several risks including threat to their lives.

Besides, it is an open secret that the journalists raise money from big industries, small traders and the local administration in parts of India. South Chhattisgarh is no exception. Public relations officers of mining companies, district collectors and police superintendents routinely pay local journalists and media houses. Journalists meet both public and private sector mining companies and government officials exclusively to raise funds especially around big festivals. While these practices are commonplace in rural India, it does raise risks, as these sponsors in areas like Bastar are most often diametrically opposed to the Maoists.

Perhaps the dilemma is a bit difficult to understand in an urban space where a journalist may not be pushed beyond a point to divulge additional information or forced to accept a favour for reporting. However in Bastar the compulsions are different. “If we do not divulge information or take money we will be suspected of taking favours from the rebels,” said a senior journalist from Narayanpur, on condition of anonymity.

There are other compulsions why journalists have little choice but to share information with the rival forces, raise funds, pick up bodies or act as a conduit cum human shield when a collector goes missing. At the condolence meeting of slain journalist Sai Reddy the journalists of south Chhattisgarh highlighted the most critical professional compulsion. “Bastar journalists are not paid properly and exploited by their respective organisations. So they have to arrange for their living by raising money from private parties, which put them at risk … they have to oblige all sides while doing so,” said Anil Mishra, a senior journalist from Raipur.

The financial survival of a journalist in rural India, especially in Bastar, depends directly on outside interests as his/her own newspaper or news channel rarely pays a fixed salary. Nearly every Hindi media journalist receives a 15 per cent commission on advertising sales, a small commission on circulation but bizarrely no fixed salary for reporting.

Moreover, a young journalist from Jagdalpur, Sanjay Thakur, who is also a member of the Bastar Journalists’ Association revealed that when a newspaper or channel is launched, the media house appoints an agency and asks for “fifty thousand and above” to look after its ad-sales, circulation and reporting.

“The highest bidder, no matter how corrupt, usually gets the agency. This includes criminals, corrupt politicians or mining mafias,” said Mr. Thakur. “Sometimes journalists buy these agencies (franchises of well-known papers or news channels) with a hefty loan from the local mafia or politicians and become their mouthpieces,” he said.

The distinction between editorial and ad-sales is waning in the conflict zones of Bastar and is also severely threatening the existence of journalists. A former reporter in Sukma district explained how he was threatened by rebels for working both as a salesman and a reporter for the same paper.

“If a journalist recovers revenue from the market, it is unethical but not risky in an urban set-up. In Bastar one could be easily killed for that,” said the journalist in Sukma. The Maoists once summoned him to explain paper’s revenue model.

“They (the Maoists) said (to the reporter), your paper is funded by the mining mafia of Jagdalpur, you raise advertisement from the local administration and work as a hawker cum reporter … how can we expect any neutral reporting from you? I said ‘no they should not’ and decided to leave the job,” said the middle-aged journalist.

No journalists’ organisation or even the Press Council of India seems to be seeking any understanding of how the distinction between editorial line and marketing policies is increasingly getting blurred in Bastar. Perhaps it is quite late to clarify this demarcation to protect the interests of journalists and journalism in the conflict areas of south Chhattisgarh.

suvojit.bagchi@thehindu.co.in

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