The International Federation of Journalists released a situation report on the challenges facing journalists in areas of India affected by a long-running Maoist insurgency. The report is the outcome of consultations with and inputs received from working journalists in three states of special concern: Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa.
The report reflects a broad consensus among journalists from these three states that the hazards for journalists have been mounting in recent years, with levels of violence increasing and the demands from the Maoist cadre for favourable and uncritical coverage becoming unrelenting.
Splits within the Maoist ranks and the tendency for security agencies to make strategic use of one faction against another, also presents an additional element of hazard for journalists.
There is widespread suspicion among journalists in these three states that their phones are constantly tapped because Maoist cadres often call them on their cell-phones to provide updates and opinions.
Also, since journalists generally encounter little problem in accessing Maoist operational areas, police personnel have on occasion been known to use media identities to infiltrate these areas for intelligence gathering. This makes journalists liable to acts of retribution by the Maoists.
Maintaining a sense of proportion is a constant challenge since every Maoist action is magnified in its impact by the prevailing atmosphere of fear. A general strike call for instance, could emanate from operationally weak quarters of the Maoist insurgency, but would paralyse life in large parts of these states, even if featured as a small news story in the local media.
The insurgency has also skewed the system of rewards and incentives for journalists. A journalist who reports on sensational stories from the Maoist operational areas would gain recognition while another reporting on the general state of poverty, deprivation and the poor state of social services, which are the background conditions in which the Maoist rebellion has taken root, would gain little recognition.
Police personnel in these states are also known to use the special powers they have been conferred to crack down on critical journalists, often using the most draconian provisions of the law such as those pertaining to sedition.
Apart from these hazards, journalists work in conditions of negligible professional security. Few of them have letters of appointment and they mostly work at salary levels well below the subsistence minimum. Most of them are required to multi-task and perform the function of mobilising advertisements for their media, severely impairing their independence and ability to take a critical stance towards administrative officials and local notables with substantial ad budgets at their disposal.
The system of issuing press credentials in these states remains opaque and unprofessional. Media owners are known to dominate the process and to corner available quotas in the issue of official press accreditation cards, which enable quick access to official spaces.
At a meeting held in August to discuss the main findings of inquiries in the three states, journalists adopted a campaign that put forward a set of specific demands, including insurance cover for all journalists assigned to work in districts of active Maoist insurgency, and special credentials for media personnel, including if necessary district-level accreditation for these individuals.
It was proposed that journalists’ unions in these states should launch a campaign to generate public awareness on the need for the media to work in an environment free of fear. To this end, they would seek to secure a public declaration from all sides in the conflict, that media would be granted unfettered access to all sites of news importance.
A safety code suitable to local situations would evolve and coordination between editorial departments and the reporters in the field would improve to ensure that news headlines, layouts and presentation do not misrepresent realities and create avoidable risks.
Finally, unions in all these states have resolved to expand their membership and to provide unrepresented journalists a platform. Until such time that issues of accreditation are resolved, the unions have undertaken to campaign strongly to ensure that the identity cards they issue are accepted by all sides as adequate proof of media credentials.
The IFJ extends its full support to this campaign. The IFJ urges that conflicts in these states be resolved through an assertion of basic democratic norms and recognition of the role that journalists play as facilitators of the democratic right to know.
The report can be found here.
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