Journalism as adventure sport

Having seen death from close quarters and far, and I don’t mean the inevitable dying of the light that awaits us all at a certain point in our lives but gut-wrenching separation of body and soul, it’s only natural to be cynical about mortality. Maudlin sentiments are best left to those who haven’t had to wade through clotted blood and bloated lifeless bodies in fly-infested mortuaries where the stench of decaying flesh overwhelms the smell of formaldehyde, or write about the mangled remains of victims of a disaster with a certain detachment lest emotion tint the facts.

The limply hanging hand of a child at an accident site or a famished woman lying dead on a pavement in her own vomit and faeces or a disembowelled victim of a terrorist bombing make for a good photograph; nothing more, nothing less. Kevin Carter allowed himself to be tormented by memories of a vulture stalking a starving toddler in southern Sudan, a horrifying moment captured by him on camera. In the end, self-pity and self-loathing drove him to death. Sadly, his emotional response to a grim reality of life has not prevented vultures, real and metaphorical, from stalking the hungry and the dying.

Yet, much as one would argue in favour of cynicism, especially when it comes to journalism, there is something profoundly distressing about the death of a young journalist with a promising future. Tarun Sehrawat, a photographer, and Tusha Mittal, a reporter, spent a week travelling through Abujhmad in Chhattisgarh to gather material for a special report for Tehelka. Apparently they had visited the place earlier too. This time they returned with worrisome symptoms of illness; both were diagnosed as suffering from cerebral malaria; Tarun suffered multiple organ failure and died; Tusha is recovering at a slow pace.

Much has been written about this tragic loss. Commentaries have been penned about the responsibility of media organisations to follow guidelines for the protection of journalists out in the field. Understandably, there’s palpable anger among Tarun’s peer group. Activists, forever looking for a cause, have seized upon the tragedy to play spiteful blame-games.

As for the journal, in a highfalutin sanctimonious homily, it has praised the courage and dedication of Tarun and Tusha. Its editors would have done well to admit that this needless death and trauma could have been avoided had they not been given to cutting corners with editorial responsibilities. But more on that later.

Abujhmad is a sprawling 4,000 sq km expanse of dense forest straddling Chhattisgarh and spilling into Maharashtra. It is sparsely populated with 237 villages where tribes live far removed from modernity. According to folklore, there are stretches where the forest is so dense that sunlight does not reach the ground, hence the name Abujhmad.

Legend has it that Akbar tried to conduct a survey of Abujhmad but abandoned the project when his men were confronted with the daunting task of traversing the forest. Five centuries later, an aerial survey was conducted between 2006 and 2008, which has provided some idea of the size of the forest and its inhabitants.

All these years the forest has been left alone, so have been its dwellers. It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been no ‘development’ as we know it. To attempt implementing development schemes now is near impossible on account of Maoists who have a free run of Abujhmad. All this and more is known.

What, then, is the story to be reported out of Abujhmad that can shock and awe readers? That there’s abject poverty? That there is no potable water supply? That there are no modern health facilities? That Maoists are yet to be driven out by security forces? But all this has been reported over and over again.

Yet, these two young journalists were sent into Abujhmad with no more than some bottles of water, packets of cookies and tubes of mosquito repellents to get an “exclusive story”. This is how journalism is reduced to adventure sport with disastrous consequences. Reporting from the field does not require courage and dedication alone, it also needs maturity and skills to skirt danger.

More importantly, journalists foraying into danger and conflict zones should be aware of the multiple hazards awaiting them — from getting caught in a deadly cross-fire to being held hostage to picking up bugs. Tarun and Tusha clearly had no idea of what they were letting themselves into, or else they would have gone armed with malaria prophylaxis, mosquito nets and water purifiers.

They may have erred, but their editors should have been more alert to the dangers they would be exposed to. Instead, they let the two journalists to embark on what could be described as a misadventure. Hearing the grasshoppers sing after night descends on Bastar is the fevered imagination of a crafty wordsmith who claims to have marched with the comrades. Only the naïve would believe such tripe.

— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist 

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