Report of NWMI's 12th National Meet 4

SATURDAY, 12 November 2016, 11.30 am-1 pm

Working Session 3: Reporting from Conflict Areas

Conflict reporting panel

Panellists Linda Chhakchhuak, Malini Subramaniam, Rohini Mohan and Nishita Jha

Chair of the session, Malini Subramaniam, contributor to the news website, who was hounded out of her home in Bastar district (Chhattisgarh) earlier in 2016, began by acknowledging how reassuring the NWMI’s letter of solidarity was to her during that stressful period. According to her, the widespread support she received emboldened her to continue to uncover the truth in an atmosphere where distorted facts often passed as news. She said the present times were the best times ever for investigative journalism which was grounded in facts and at the same time analytical. She also warned that while dissenting voices could be a ‘badge of honour’ they also involve risk, given the prevailing political polarisation in the country. She questioned the impunity enjoyed those who encourage and perpetrate crimes against journalists, and highlighted the growing tendency towards labelling journalists and others as desh drohis (traitors) and pitting them against desh bhakts (patriots).

Bangalore-based journalist and writer Rohini Mohan said that journalism was an act of defiance. She spoke about working on her book on post-war Sri Lanka, The Seasons of Trouble, and flagged three markers that were significant while covering an identity-based conflict: being an outsider, being a freelancer and being a woman. As an outsider, she was always acutely aware of the power imbalance that created a charged atmosphere. “I knew I was trying to tell a story but would not face the consequences like a local might,” she said. Rohini said she never used the help of local journalists, because she did not want to tell a story that was already told, and did not want to endanger those who had to continue to live in the area while she had the luxury of leaving. The other issue was that of credit: why should the local journalist not get credit for the same work?

She also spoke about the presumption that she could not “get” it, and that this criticism had to be taken on board, to be able to report with empathy. In practical terms, it meant incorporating local usage in interviews – for example, saying ‘movement’ rather than ‘militancy’; knowing the emotional difference between ‘Indian Occupied Kashmir’ and ‘Indian Administered Kashmir’; researching rigorously to understand nuances; and trying to break stereotypes. While reporting from Kandhamal, Odisha, it meant understanding the nuances of not only Christian and Hindu identities, but also the underlying influence of socio-economic competition over reservation benefits for SCs and STs that were lost if they converted to Islam or Christianity.

 As a freelancer, she spoke about issues of pay, security and the difficulty of not having an editor on speed dial. She mentioned practical tips to ensure safety while reporting in an unfamiliar area – for instance, identifying oneself as a journalist could protect or provoke, depending on the situation. Using a press card while covering stone pelting in the Kashmir Valley might invite more hostility, she pointed out.

 A woman journalist in a conflict zone needs to do more than just interview women, Rohini felt. A feminist perspective must inform all reporting. The portrayal of women as victims is common, and the symbolism of pregnant women being subjected to atrocities was a standard way to reiterate injustice, but we need to question that, she said, and find other ways to include female perspectives. She ended by remarking that she had an issue with the term ‘conflict journalism’ which somehow reeked of machismo and adventurism. With more women covering conflict, perhaps that term could become less masculine, and conflict itself less seductive.

Nishita Jha, Assistant Features Editor at, took issue with women journalists being called ‘brave’ if they report on conflicts. “It’s like people are surprised at the fact that you showed up in a place where you do not belong as a woman, to function as a journalist,” she said. She went on to talk about an issue seldom brought up by journalists covering conflict: fear. While reporting from the border villages of Punjab after the recent shelling triggered the mass evacuation of villages and the displacement of large numbers of people, she said she was helped by all she had learned covering the most widespread and oldest conflict in the world: gender. When she travelled through a village devoid of women near the Line of Control (LoC) between Pakistan and India late at night, with a car full of men she had met just a few hours before, one of the most palpable but also most familiar feelings was fear. The men accompanying her had said, “If something happens to you, we are not responsible.” The words stayed in her head all night. There is little that is glamorous about the war zone, or the conflict beat, she said – it only seems that way when journalists return home, are safe and exchanging “war stories”.

She pointed out that when she pitched the story her male editor’s response was: “Great story, go for it!” On the other hand, her female boss asked, “How do you feel about it?” That question made it clear that it was all right to “feel” fear or any other emotion. It also made her realise that no story is worth risking your life for, even though as women we push ourselves to chase certain stories harder, and not let fear dictate our actions. The key point she made was that it was important to acknowledge the fear – it is natural. According to her, while she was immensely grateful for the kindness of strangers, she was most thankful for fear, because it can guide you to be more empathetic to the fear of others, find where the stories are and where the voices are.

Nishita also highlighted the importance of including multiple voices. A young boy’s feelings of embarrassment about urinating in public in a displaced people’s camp are part of the reality of their lives, even though one would not think of this as a story from a “conflict zone”.

Linda Chhakchhuak, independent journalist based in Shillong and member of the editorial collective that published the magazine Grassroots Options, began her talk saying, “The Northeast region of India is home to more than 200 different tribes and communities and one person cannot claim to represent that kind of diversity.” However, being the only person from that region at this conference, she said, she would try to present a view of the situations that journalists have to deal with while reporting news in the area. The first kind of conflict starts with the misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of the reporters about the reported. For example, there have been times when metro-based newspapers have made rudimentary mistakes like misplacing the capitals and states of the region in their reports, or misspelling them. These are very simple mistakes but they create a sense of rift, she pointed out.

There are a myriad conflicts in the region, she said, over boundaries, resources and identities but, in her view, the most significant one is what she termed the ‘cartographic conflict’ – i.e., the dispute over land, or who owns the land that many tribes call their homeland. Linda said reporting on the conflict between the Indian army and insurgent groups was relatively easy, with the lines quite clearly drawn. But reporting on inter-tribe conflicts was more difficult, since it was a challenge to describe what was really going on. In Manipur, for example, there are about 21 armed groups, and it is not always clear what exactly they are fighting for. Indeed, the national cause here is not the Narendra Modi brand, but the local ‘national’ cause, or each tribe’s struggle for nationhood.

Journalists, she said, should try to dig out the truth. But there is no one truth: there are multiple realities and multiple truths as people claim shared space and geography. “We need to become ‘explainers’ in a way that does not promote violence. The use of words, terms and concepts is very important in reporting any conflict, but especially in such cases, and can contribute to more understanding of the issues involved or raise further tensions. The media should not pour petrol into already burning fires, which are many in our region,” cautioned Linda.

She went on to share her thoughts on how the Northeast story can be reported. There are no new stories in the Northeast, said Linda, only old stories being rehashed and replayed. “Working for daily newspapers, I and several of my colleagues got to a point where we thought: there has to be a different kind of journalism that can do justice to the stories of the region, not just of the breaking news kind. That’s the thought that set us off to launch a magazine called Grassroots Options, the first magazine from the region on people, the environment and development. Through this publication we would concentrate not on spot reporting and sensationalised news, but on what we called ‘process reporting/journalism’. We were determined to always keep the context of the story and follow it up, in the kind of documentation which is direly needed.”

However, Grassroots Options, a purely journalistic enterprise fuelled by the passion to tell the story, soon ran out of money. After bringing out 27 editions purely as a labour of love by the team, with members of the collective working in other media houses for their bread and butter, they made it into an online publication since the financial burden would be less than for print editions. But they ran into problems there, too, with the site being hacked twice. Yet, according to her, there is no choice but to keep at it, since good reporting can change the world.

She invited members of the NWMI, with their experiences in working in conflict areas, to visit the region and pitch in with their perspectives, which may open up fresh ideas about how to deal with the issues involved.

In the discussion that followed, Delhi-based freelance journalist Urvashi Sarkar shared her experience of reporting from Palestine. She spoke about how identities blur: is one an activist or a journalist? In the West Bank, where there is no one left to document the devastation, Urvashi came across a ten-year-old girl who was functioning as a journalist: documenting what was happening to her people.

Delhi-based Divya Arya, journalist with the BBC, raised the issue of the differences between writing about something while living in and experiencing conflict in contrast with going in and reporting it. Aditi Bhaduri from the Bengal network, who has written extensively from Kashmir, emphasised the importance of maintaining contacts in order to carry out long-term follow-up.

5 Divya

Divya Arya

Responding to the question of what defences could be adopted to safeguard oneself in a place like Bastar, Malini said that as a resident of the area, she lived life like any ordinary person: going to the market or sending her daughter to school. Of course, living in the conflict zone gives one a deeper sense of what is unfolding, which is different from coming in from outside the region to report for a couple of days, which is perhaps what unnerved the authorities in her case, she suggested. As a resident, she was familiar with the place, took buses or self-transport to reach villages, stayed there during the day and returned only by late evening. She felt that as a journalist there was no need to hide behind anything, however, she took steps to ensure her safety. For example, she made her presence felt in security camps by registering her name, and she also ensure that she did not spend the night in the villages. She was grateful for the time and space she was provided by her editors, which enabled her to go back to ascertain facts without the pressure to file stories immediately.