The media’s penchant for the immediate incident often obscures the larger story.
Questions are being asked about the photograph of a child sitting on his grandfather’s dead body in Sopore, Kashmir. It was released on social media on July 1 after a gunfight between security forces and militants in the town. The security forces insist the man was killed by militants, while his family point out that there are no bullet marks on his car and that the image shows him lying on the ground next to it.
The human rights group Amnesty International has asked why the name of the minor was revealed and why his face was not blurred in the picture as required by the Juvenile Justice Act.
Another question: who clicked the picture? There were no journalists at the site of the killing. The picture was not taken by a professional photographer.
If a security forces personnel took the picture with his phone, why was it released on social media with details such as the child’s name? Who released it? We know that the Bharatiya Janata Party's IT Cell made full use of it on Twitter. In the context of Kashmir, many believe this is part of a propaganda war that is being waged even as shootings and killings continue.
For us in the media, clear lines have to be drawn. A picture provided by someone who aims to use it for propaganda and not a professional journalist cannot and should not be used. Most English language newspapers haven’t used it this morning, although they have carried reports on the killing.
But I can think of several instances in the past where the mainstream media has used such pictures without raising questions. Remember the 2004 picture of the body of Ishrat Jahan and three associates lying on a road near Ahmedabad? The police claimed they were "terrorists" on their way to assassinate Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat.
This is a longer debate that we in the media must engage in. But the picture from Sopore frames several issues for the media. First, the obvious need to check the source of a picture before using it. Second, unless we have permission to do so, we should always obscure the image of a civilian, especially a minor, in respect for the dead and the living. Third, particularly in a conflict situation such as in Kashmir when life itself is precarious, the choice of pictures used requires greater sensitivity.
The debate over this picture from Kashmir illustrates some other points that I make in this column.
A casualty of times such as these, when one or two issues dominate news cycles, is that other equally important subjects are either overlooked entirely, or covered in passing.
The media takes its eyes off these subjects because the immediate is always more compelling than the long-term.
Environmental issues have immediacy but also long-term consequences. The event – such as an accident, or a natural disaster – gets covered, especially when there is loss of human life. But the main story lies in the before, and the after. And this is often not pursued.
There was a time when space and time were given to researching the past and following up such stories. Beginning in the mid-1980s, major newspapers had full-time environment correspondents whose job it was to do precisely this. The aftermath of a disaster and what preceded it, the stories of negligence, of delay, of callous disregard for human life, of the conditions of the displaced, the injured, whether medical relief had reached them in time – these were as much a part of the story as the actual disaster. Such information couldn’t be marshalled in a few days. It required months of diligent follow-up, something that was actively encouraged by editors.
The environmental disaster that triggered an interest and investment in this kind of reporting was likely the Bhopal gas tragedy. On the night of December 3, 1984, nearly 60 tonnes of the deadly methyl isocyanate escaped from a tank in the Union Carbide plant, killing thousands of people and impairing many more. It’s still regarded as one of the worst industrial accidents in the world.
The story didn’t end in a day. It continued for years. It also resulted in a whole slew of environmental laws culminating in the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
The Bhopal gas tragedy also generated interest in environmental reporting and led to the emergence of many dedicated journalists who followed up on such stories. In the late 1980s, I remember, younger journalists were so fired up that they were willing to spend their own money to investigate environmental stories such as monitoring hazardous industries in the vicinity of urban centres, even if their newspapers did not back them.
Take the May 7 styrene leak at the LG Polymer plant outside Visakhapatnam. Twelve people died and several hundred took ill. More than 2,000 people were evacuated from the adjoining RR Venkatapuram village.
In the immediate aftermath, partly because the plant is close to an urban centre, all media covered the accident. But there is a before and after here that's equally important because it tells us how environmental laws are routinely flouted.
When the National Green Tribunal took suo moto notice of the accident, it emerged that the plant, owned by the South Korean LG Chem, had been operating without the requisite environmental clearance from 1997 to 2019, a full 23 years. And this was no fly-by-night operator. It is the biggest chemical company in South Korea.
Also, while the original plant, established in 1961, had hardly any population in its vicinity, Visakhapatnam has since grown and spread like other cities leading to an estimated 40,000 people living near a plant that uses hazardous chemicals, something that runs contrary to environmental regulations detailed in this story in the Hindu.
The parallels to Bhopal are striking. The Union Carbide plant was established in an area that had few houses nearby. By the time the accident occurred, there was a densely populated settlement literally outside its gates. Most who lived there couldn’t escape the deadly gas that night and either died or suffered from chronic health problems. Even today, 36 years after the tragedy, there are reports that the survivors have been affected disproportionately by Covid-19 because their lungs were permanently damaged by inhaling the hazardous chemical.
The bigger industrial accidents are reported, especially when there is loss of life. But if you monitor the media closely, you find every now and then reports about some gas leak, boiler explosion, chemicals dumped in water bodies that disappear from view after the first report.
For instance, on July 1, a boiler exploded at the Neyveli Lignite Corporation’s thermal power plant in Neyveli, Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu. At the time of writing, six workers had died and 17 were injured.
Yet, on May 7, when the media had turned the spotlight on the LG Polymer plant in Visakhapatnam, a boiler blast had taken place at this same NLC thermal plant, leading to eight workers being injured. Is this a coincidence or is there a deeper story here that needs to be pursued? In this instance, it probably will be because disruption in power supply affects cities where the media is located. But had this plant been in a remote area, and not so big, one wonders if this too would have been buried after some time.
Another example of this is the leak leading to a fire at the Oil India Limited gas well in Baghjan in Assam on June 9. The backstory, documented here, tells us yet again of how environmental regulations were flouted. And the follow up stories are what happens now to the people who were displaced, to the biodiversity damaged as the operations were taking place within a 10 km radius of a national park, and whether any corrective measures will be taken in the future.
This kind of reporting will be an even greater challenge in the emerging media scene in India. Media houses are laying off scores of journalists as this article documents. Newspapers have shrunk in size and their print versions are almost unrecognisable from what they were just three months ago. Most of them are now running with a skeleton staff, all of whom are doing multiple stories. There is no room for specialisation, leave alone the kind of investigative follow-up that these kinds of stories need.
Newspapers, it was once said, were “the first rough draft of history". Unfortunately, when the environmental history of this period in India is written, there will be many gaps that perhaps will never be filled.
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