Negotiating an increasingly intolerant Mumbai

In Mumbai, this is a shocker. A young journalist working on a shooting assignment at an abandoned textile mill in the heart of Mumbai is dragged away by a gang of hoodlums and gang-raped till she falls unconscious. It was not very late hour. Possibly 6.30-7.00 pm, when she and her colleague thought they could get the soft light for capturing the archways of the mysterious, crumbling Shakti Mills. The end result of the shooting assignment was not romantic. It was horrific. 

Mumbai has slowly but surely lost its liberal, industrial culture. There was a time when women production journalists from Times of India and Indian Express caught the last train home at 1.00 am after they had put the edition to bed. By the mid-nineties, a couple of cases of suburban auto-drivers making passes at late night commuters changed all that. The Times of India started a dormitory for women working late; other media groups arranged car drops for those who worked late.

Working conditions for journalists in the field have gradually become tougher and more risk-prone. This has also come with the advent of television where the heavy, visible gear of TV cameras and OB vans has often made them the target of irate crowds. A fire in Dadar a couple of years ago, for instance, resulted in angry residents turning on a couple of camera crews when the fire tenders did not arrive on time. Petty power brokers and politicians too have increasingly bludgeoned journalists in retaliation when exposed.

The police have not made the streets any safer, and have worked in cahoots with petty criminals and thugs. For instance, for the last few years the decrepit Shakti Mills, lying abandoned by the owners over development disputes, had become the happy hunting grounds for drug distributors, illegal hooch and other criminal elements. The N M Joshi Marg police station, less than a kilometre away, was well aware of what was happening, but did precious little to ensure the management secure the mill’s boundaries.

In these circumstances, journalists, especially those new to the profession have to tread with caution. There is no routine to the job, and there is a new assignment everyday which takes them to new and strange localities. The Mumbaikar still treats media representatives with respect; but with the increase in lumpen and criminal elements, security and safety is definitely an issue. Keeping the office posted of when and where the scribe is venturing, avoiding late hours and working in pairs of photographer-reporter combinations definitely helps.

Again, discretion is the better part of valour, and it may not be advisable to leap into a highly explosive situation — like a communal clash or a police-community fracas without contacts or cover. As discussed, frustrated groups or mobs often turn their ire on a TV unit or a reporter if they perceive the media is not treating them fairly. A poor IBN-Lokmat channel reporter was beaten black and blue a little over a year ago by a mob of women in a village near Alibaug after they were incited by the village sarpanch that she was ‘reporting’ against the village.

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the media companies to ensure the safety and security of its team. Sending reporters on foot and alone in emotionally charged situations or risk-prone areas must be replaced by assigning vehicles and trained drivers-cum-escorts to ensure reporters leave the scene in time in case danger is sensed. Assigning the coverage of derelict sites to the young women journalist and a photographer by the lifestyle magazine without proper backup was obviously not such a good idea.

In a meeting on Friday evening with journalist organisations, Maharashtra’s Home Minister R R Patil has proposed that media teams working in risk-prone areas will be provided police escorts on request. The proposal is worth considering; but it is a clumsy alternative when reporters have to move fast and anonymously for rapidly-developing stories.

Ultimately, a good survival instinct, common-sense precautions and strong back up by the media organisation will stand the reporter in good stead. And hopefully, this city will once again embrace its tolerant past soon.

-- The author is President, Press Club, Mumbai 

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