In a first, Ramnath Goenka Awards removes ‘conflict reporting’ category

The category used to recognise reporting from Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, and Chhattisgarh.

WrittenBy:Nidhi Suresh
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The Ramnath Goenka Foundation, which hosts the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards, has made a call for entries to recognise journalism in 2019. First hosted in 2006, the awards have recognised journalists for the past 14 years across various categories like sports, rural, investigative, environmental, and more.

However, conspicuous by its absence this year is the category to recognise conflict reporting — a category that was formerly regional awards for reporting from Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast.

Every year the foundation reorganises, renames or removes some of its categories. For example, after 10 years, the category of “On the Spot Reporting” was removed in 2018. Similarly, “Feature Reporting” appeared for five years, the “Commentary and Interpretative Writing” category surfaced on and off intermittently, and 2018, 2017 and 2008 had “Civic Reporting”.

In response to the queries sent by Newslaundry, the foundation said: “Regularly, we review and refresh RNG award categories based on response, number and quality of entries received. Based on that, we merge or expand some, add or discontinue others. “

But the omission of conflict reporting this year is startling, since the foundation has always retained a separate category to felicitate journalists from the Northeast and the erstwhile state. In 2005 and 2006, for example, the categories were “Regional Award - Jammu and Kashmir” and “Regional Award - Northeast”. In 2007, it was renamed “Reporting from J&K and the Northeast”. Chhattisgarh was added in 2018 and the category was renamed again as “Reporting from Conflict Zones Broadcast”.

When contacted, the foundation cited “consistently” fewer entries as to why the category was discontinued, “too low to sustain a valid competition”.

“Indeed, the regions you refer to — Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and the Northeast — always underline the need for more, rather than less, quality journalism,” the response said. “In fact, we are pleased to see that entries are coming in from these regions across categories.”

Kashmir: The category was an acknowledgement of the conflict

The foundation must have had a reason to create the special category in the first place, said Kashmiri journalist Zaffar Iqbal, so why remove it when not much has changed on the ground in Kashmir?

Iqbal won the award twice, first in 2006 and then in 2017, in the category “Reporting from J&K and the Northeast - Broadcast”.

The erstwhile state has had a difficult year since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. There’s been a significant fall in tourism, 4g internet has not been restored, the unemployment rate crossed 20 percent, and the Jammu and Kashmir economy suffered a loss of Rs 18,878 crore.

Importantly, there’s been an increase in recruitment of local militants and cross-border infiltration attempts, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act remains in effect. Journalists here have been threatened, intimidated and booked by the police for doing their jobs.

As a result, journalist Riyaz Wani pointed out, it’s “very unfair” for the Ramnath Goenka Foundation to club Kashmir with other Indian states.

“Risks taken by journalists here are larger. Many have cases slapped against them for simply doing their job, and some have been to jail for their work,” said Wani, a former recipient of the award. “These are reporters from conflict areas and they need that special recognition.”

Iqbal said platforms like the Ramnath Goenka Awards offer hope of recognition to young reporters in Kashmir, who don’t otherwise have much incentive to work apart from their personal drive.

Calling the Indian media an extension of the Indian government, Qazi Zaid, editor of Free Press Kashmir, said the foundation’s decision is “just another form of media crackdown in Kashmir”. To him, the existence of the category was an acknowledgement of the conflict.

“This government has been in complete denial about there being any conflict in Kashmir,” Zaid said, referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party. “Once you remove the category, you’re simply saying that there is no conflict here and everything is normal. That’s exactly what the government wants, isn’t it?”

Journalists that Newslaundry spoke to also brought up one word in the context of journalism in the erstwhile state: Pulitzer. In May, three journalists from Jammu and Kashmir won the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography.

That wasn’t the only international award: In June, Masrat Zahra won the Anja Niedringhaus Courage In Photojournalism Award instituted by the International Women’s Media Foundation. Last year, journalist Aasif Sultan won the Press Freedom Award instituted by the American National Press Club. Sultan has been imprisoned for the last two years, charged under the UAPA.

As Riyaz Wani said, “How is it that we get international awards for reporting in conflict zones but do not qualify for national awards?”

Generalising Northeast India as a ‘conflict zone’

Pradip Phanjoubam, author and editor of Imphal Free Press based in Manipur, said national awards often tend to look at everything through the lens of national impact.

“A lot of reporters here write stories that impact the lives of local people but this is not considered ‘impactful’ for the national audience,” he said. According to him, “if the RNG foundation is serious about looking for good journalism, they need to think beyond what Delhi reads”.

Phanjoubam echod the thoughts of Monalisa Changkija, founding editor and publisher of the daily newspaper Nagaland Page, when she said that while calling for submissions, it is important to have the category.

“Like reporters in Jammu and Kashmir, journalists here work in most of the most challenging terrains. It is important to acknowledge the risks they take and have a separate category,” Changkija said. “But once you receive the entries and if you feel like they’re not good enough, it is okay to dismiss the category. After all, it is only fair the awards remain based on merit and nothing else.”

Freelance reporter Makepeace Sitlhou pointed out that until last year, the award category was “Reporting from J&K and the Northeast”, and not “Conflict Reporting”.

“If you look at the kind of stories that received awards, they qualified because it was simply from the region, not specifically because of reporting on conflict,” she said. She believes that the awards should have a non-region specific category for conflict reporting.

“This would have democratised and opened up the definition of conflict itself,” she said. “Internal conflict reporting like those from other places like Maharashtra and Kerala and other states in the so-called Maoist belt, other than Chhattisgarh, could have been considered.”

But can Northeast India, as an entity, be considered a “conflict zone” anyway? This is problematic, said journalist Samrat Choudhary. AFSPA was revoked in Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh in 2018, though its imposition continues in parts of Assam and Nagaland.

While the newly enacted Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens process might fuel conflict, Choudhary said: “Nagaland has been engaged in peace talks. Assam has become subdued; in fact, many militants have joined the BJP now. The kind of conflict that used to exist here no longer prevails in terms of the Northeast. I think it’s justified that they removed the category.”

Sitlhou reiterated that Northeast India can be “removed” from the category of conflict, “but don’t remove the conflict category itself”.

In this context, it’s important to remember the man for whom the awards are named. Ramnath Goenka was the founder of the Indian Express, vividly remembered for fearlessly taking on the British Raj and aggressively questioning Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The awards were instituted to “celebrate excellence in journalism, recognise courage, and commitment and showcase outstanding contributions and individuals every year”.

And yet, this year, one major category that celebrated fearless journalism stands removed.

Update: This piece has been updated with more details on how categories are changed every year, and with quotes from Pradip Phanjoubam and Monalisa Changkija.

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