Tarun Sehrawat’s death raises uncomfortable questions. What’s more important - Getting the story? Or getting out alive?
Much has been said about the death of Tehelka photojournalist Tarun Sehrawat, after he contracted falciparum malaria, typhoid and jaundice on his return from an assignment in Abhujmarh, Chhattisgarh. Questions have been raised about whether he as a journalist should have taken more precautions or not, or whether Tehelka as the organisation he worked for should have ensured that he and his colleague were informed and trained about the terrain they were entering. And even whether this level of disregard for preparing journalists is par for the course for the media in India.
Sehrawat died on June 15, 2012. Journalist Tusha Mittal who was also on the same assignment to Abhujhmarh in Chhattisgarh, suffered from high fever for weeks and is now reportedly recovering. According to Managing Editor, Shoma Chaudhury’s accounts in Tehelka, a frustrated Sehrawat had at one point drunk water straight from a stream. The team had also slept in the open, with no protection from insects. It seems they hadn’t taken malaria prophylactics nor were they carrying chlorine tablets for water. Both of which are very easy to carry. (Chaudhury didn’t reply to our email for this article).
Journalists who have spent time in Chhattisgarh have expressed surprise at how unprepared the two seem to have been. Open’s Associate Editor, Rahul Pandita wrote in his article, Abujhmaad is not Alibaug, that “there is no glory in saying that you slept in the open in the jungles of Chhattisgarh when it can result in something really dangerous entering your liver”.
“Journalists are not equipped or trained properly for conflict reporting. Foreign organisations send experienced professionals in such areas. Our standards for who should do such stories are the same as doing a story on Delhi Jal Board”, he told newslaundry.
The Hindu’s correspondent in Chhattisgarh, Aman Sethi wrote in an obituary that “Tarun and Tusha were not scatterbrained tourists… They weren’t foolhardy adventurers either; the thought that they could contract a fatal illness simply didn’t occur to them or, it seems, their editors”.
The fact that it “simply didn’t occur to them” is something that has resonance with photojournalist Ishan Tankha. He came back from the brink of death when he too suffered from falciparum malaria, typhoid and jaundice in 2008 after 10 days in Bastar on an assignment. He says his fever was so high that doctors at AIIMS, where he spent two weeks, had to place towels soaked in ice water on him under a fan in the January cold of Delhi.
“I was very enthusiastic about it and just rushed into the assignment without thinking much about it”, he says about his trip. He insists that “it’s not bravado”, just that it didn’t occur to him, even while admitting that malaria is endemic to the Maoist areas and more people are lost to mosquitoes than bullets there. The stark fact is that the majority of Indian media organisations don’t invest much in formal training for reporters entering conflict zones or difficult terrains.
Tankha says that he is aware that his friends who are with international wire agencies are required by their employers to take proper training courses before going into warzones. Jean Fievit, a journalist with the ABC News undertook such a course around 2006 where he learnt, among other things, “staying calm during a crisis and assessing the situation carefully”. In a story carried on the ABC News website Fievit says, “It (the course) certainly brought home the risks involved with reporting in hostile environments”. According to the story, ABC News sends its staff for a five-day course called Hostile Environments and First Aid Training or Hefta. It is either held in the US or UK. “The course teaches people to identify and evaluate risks to their safety and security, whether the danger stems from disease and faulty hygiene, or land mines”.
Another journalist who has undergone the Hefta course is Neville Lazarus of Sky News who has reported from areas such as Afghanistan, Bahrain and Libya. He says that the training course, run by ex-military men, familiarises them with the difficult scenarios they could face, such as kidnapping and so on. Medical health also plays an important role in this course.
Sky News has its own security department which takes care of the medical packs of its staff going into conflict zones. The pack includes bandages, medicines for burns and a personal first-aid kit. Lazarus also says that his team members know each other’s blood groups and their medical allergies, so that they are prepared for any eventuality.
“No major news network will send (journalists) without precaution, especially after the deaths of so many journalists”, says Lazarus. However, as Paul Greeves of BBC points outs in a report by the London School of Economics, those who are able to take such courses “tend to be those working for news outlets with deep pockets”.
The situation in the Indian media scenario is still stuck at the basics. In a list of 20 deadliest countries put up by the Committee to Protect Journalists, India comes in at number 8, two numbers above Afghanistan. In fact, flak jackets have only now begun to be provided by some TV news organizations. Neha Dixit, who previously worked with Tehelka, wrote about her personal experiences about working with Tarun Sehrawat in a piece in The Hoot and also about what she calls the “callousness” of media organisations towards the well-being of their reporters.
“Let’s face it, there is no briefing on the medical risks or others, whatsoever, when a report from difficult terrains or conflict zones is commissioned. At least, not in a systematic manner at an organisational level”, she wrote in her article – “Let’s go to the crushing zone!”
The Hoot’s Sevanti Ninan points out that when one is going to Chhattisgarh it is the Naxal threat that is foremost. “But what one journalist has learned on location then needs to go into an institutional briefing module for others who will go to the same region”, she adds.
The International News Safety Institute in Brussels has a code called “Surviving the Story” which lays down pointers for the safety of people working in news gathering. Its very first point reads, “The preservation of life and safety is paramount… News organisations are urged to consider safety first, before competitive advantage, for journalists in hostile environments”.
(INSI Safety Code – http://www.newssafety.org/page.php?page=165)
Terry Anderson, the former Middle East correspondent for Associated Press was held hostage in Beirut for nearly seven years. He had written in CPJ’s first journalist security guide published in March 1993 that “always, constantly, constantly, every minute, weigh the benefits against the risks. And as soon as you come to the point where you feel uncomfortable with that equation, get out, go, leave. It’s not worth it”.
However, as Neha Dixit tells newslaundry, “When you go out and don’t come back with a story you’re losing money and there’s a lot of answering to do”.
Nobody disagrees that journalism is a dangerous job, neither can anyone stop individuals and organisations from being driven to land that “exclusive”. In such a case, having what Ninan calls “an institutional briefing module” might help lower the collective risk to reporters in conflict zones so that they could come out with a story instead of becoming one themselves.