How do we cover conflict/war? How should we cover it? This has been one of the longest unresolved dilemmas that journalists and news organisations have faced since the World War II when editors at the BBC asked themselves during the war whether ‘we should support our troops’ or ‘we shouldn’t be involved’ in it. The recent coverage of the Kashmir violence has thrown up some very tricky questions yet again of how we journalists cover conflict. In a television discussion in New Delhi, we tried to see how we have been covering such situations in the light of Jammu and Kashmir, the states of what we refer to as India’s Northeast as well as what has come to be known as the Maoist corridor.
My first response to this issue was that in India the conflict reporter is only an accidental tag and comes with absolutely no training in that beat. In the West, reporters have to go through a specialized course and adhere to extremely stringent guidelines to be able to even enter a conflict zone leave alone report from there.
Relationship Between Power and Media
Leaving aside the technicalities and logistical planning, the bigger issue here is who are we when we report conflict? So do we say ‘our army or ‘Indian Army’? If we are there as journalists then it must surely be ‘Indian Army’, a mistake very often committed by people on the ground. Semantics is a very important giveaway when it comes to reporting; are we using the government’s language or are we using our own? The relationship between power and media as Robert Fisk would say is about semantics and the use of words. Words can show the misuse of history and ignorance of it. He cites several examples like ‘peace process’ a term that has come from Israel Palestine talks and actually means nothing. Fisk even says that our editorials have increasingly started reading like press releases. We love using terms like ‘competing narratives’ because that sits well with the state. The state in some way morphs into us and we into the State.
But there are war/conflict reporters who have endured and stayed focused on how they report. The challenge often is not the danger of reporting from a place where there is no immunity and no friends but how the people perceive us. More than often it is with hostility.
When I report Kashmir, I am seen as an Indian. In Assam, I was often referred to a Bengali presenting Assam in poor light. In Nagaland, for example, I am a non-tribal who is not sympathetic to tribal rights. All my various identities are used to frame me as an ‘outsider’ who doesn’t care.
Unfortunately, we have brought this unto ourselves for insensitive and skewed reportage by many of our colleagues across the world. The parasitic relationship that many ‘honourable journalists’ have developed with the nexus of power has led to this mistrust. If the Supreme Court of India finds that the Indian Army must explain the 1500 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur alone over 20 years, what were the journalists doing? I ask what are they doing about it now? I had a book in 2015 that contained chilling descriptions on how these encounters were carried out in Assam, Manipur and Kashmir. I must say with great disappointment that hardly any news organisation cared to investigate into them despite having adequate leads.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a Delhi-based journalist and author