South Asia: Where perils await the pen!

In his column Media Mantras, Annurag Batra talks about the perils of reporting in South Asia today, one of the most dangerous regions for journalists in the world

07 Apr, 2014 by admin

Ultras in Afghanistan seem to have found a new set of victims to shower bullets upon, as seen with the assassination-style killings of forty-year-old Sardar Ahmad – staff reporter at the Agence France- Presse – and fifty-one-year-old Swedish- British journalist Nils Horner in separate incidents in Afghanistan’s capital last month. Four gunmen with pistols hidden in their socks slipped through several layers of security at the Serena Hotel – a venue favored by foreign visitors to Kabul – and killed nine persons, including Sardar, his wife and two of their three children on March 20. A week earlier, Nils fell to an assassination-style attack in broad daylight, in the up-market district of Kabul.


On March 27, a 30-year-old woman journalist was sexually assaulted by two persons in a moving car in Vindhyachal area of Uttar Pradesh, while on assignment for a newspaper.


South Asia continues to be one of the most dangerous regions for journalists, with India and Pakistan closing in on each other for notoriety. The London based International News Safety Institute (INSI) report – Killing the Messenger – in February pegged India as the fifth most dangerous place with 13 journalists killed in the line of duty, and nine killed in Pakistan. Little seems to have changed in a decade and according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) report in 2005, 19 media workers died in targeted attacks the previous year.


While the numbers vary from source to source, governments of countries in this region seem to be doing precious little to ensure journalists are given the environment to ply their trade safely. According to Bhutan Observer, South Asia in 2013 was not a safe place for journalists. The daily said “despite UN Security Council Resolution 1738 on the safety of journalists and several international resolutions on the protection of journalists, 22 South Asian journalists were killed in the line of duty – 10 in Pakistan, 8 in India, 3 in Afghanistan, 1 in Bangladesh”.


The newspaper also observed that the South Asian Media Monitor Report 2013 said that “Pakistan and India have made “it to the shameful club of the world’s five deadliest countries for the media”.


Across South Asia – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – at least two journalists die or fall victim to excesses or social evils each week. This is not only because most of them have not received adequate safety training, but also because the demand to cater to the 24-hour news wheel entails rushing to the scene with scant assessment of the risks they are likely to face. Deaths, in such cases – according to Hannah Storm, Director, INSI – are because “more often than not, the killers of journalists evade justice”.


Further, one must take into account ineffective judicial systems, corrupt practices in South Asia and unscrupulous authorities, and of course, the pressure of population – so what if another life is lost in these over populous parts-psyche – have further multiplied the risks for journalists. According to Storm, “Impunity like this is one of the biggest enemies of press freedom.”


The United Nations has in place an interagency plan focused on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. But the plan can only work if the diverse agencies of the UN, its member states and regional bodies have actionable, viable items to eradicate the threats to press freedom and to journalism safety.


At the same time, journalists must understand their own responsibility in dealing with the dangers of the profession, and such a strategy needs to come from newsrooms straight to news scenes, along with a better understanding and implementation of humanitarian laws.


In 2003 for example, INSI began working towards providing safety training and advice to journalists working in difficult and dangerous places. This paved the way for the UN Security Council Resolution 1738, which was ultimately passed, to reflect the sheer scale of journalists’ deaths during the Iraq conflict.


However, more journalists have died even after the resolution was passed. One cannot deny that the ‘hot’ and ‘timeless’ pursuit of 24-hour news and the flood of young and inexperienced, but overtly-enthusiastic and often untrained people into journalism has multiplied the threats. Also, journalists get no safety training in South Asian countries to give them an understanding of the perils associated with working in dangerous environments. Journalists actually go into news-gathering mode without adequate preparation or skill-sets to assess risk, or know what to do in a worst-case scenario; and it’s not rare to see TV journalists reporting from conflict zones without a helmet or body armour.


Flirting with danger comes along with the profession – perhaps more so for women – and it’s not just a phenomenon in countries in South Asia. In 2012, British journalist Natasha Smith was at Cairo’s Tahrir Square where thousands of Egyptians had gathered to celebrate the nation’s presidential election results.


She was stripped naked and violently and brutally sexually assaulted before rescuers whisked her away dressed in men’s clothes and a burka. Journalists – and not just in South Asia – need to heed what Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in the Syrian city of Homs in 2012, said in 2010: “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”



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