Reporting Under Fire: Tales of Women Journalists in India

With no practical training, no funding & rusty equipment, Indian journalists depend on instinct in a conflict zone.

Updated
India
5 min read
Unlike in the West and even in the Middle East, safety training in the Indian Media is a utopian concept. (Photo: iStock)

On my very first day as a reporter on 2 March 2013, I was attacked. I had gone to a New Delhi suburb after a seven-year-old girl had been raped inside a school. Outside the hospital, a mob of men pelted stones, vandalised shops and attacked TV broadcasting vans. My cameraperson and I were surrounded, beaten and abused. Over the course of that evening, I became the story.

It’s a pretty obvious rule of journalism and it’s worth repeating – a journalist covering a story should not become the story.

This is the argument that journalist Abeer Saady made in New Delhi at an event by International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT). Saady is a well-known Egyptian journalist who imparts safety training to reporters working in hostile areas. In 2011, while covering the Egypt revolution, she lost a colleague.

Safety training has become essential for every journalist nowadays, because every event can turn violent. India is not an exception, especially with the political and social activities that involve protests and rallies.
— Abeer Saady, Journalist

Egyptian journalist Abeer Saady conducting a training session for women journalists in New Delhi. (Photo: The Quint)
Egyptian journalist Abeer Saady conducting a training session for women journalists in New Delhi. (Photo: The Quint)

Every Zone Is a Potential War Zone

The definition of conflict is not just war. It includes protests, rallies and angry mobs. Being in harm’s way is an occupational hazard for a journalist.

The Quint spoke to several Indian women journalists. They all agree that the ground realities have changed dramatically over the last decade and that journalists have emerged as targets.

Maya Mirchandani, Senior Editor, NDTV has over two decades of experience as a field reporter. In 1999, when she stopped to ask President Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka a question, a bomb exploded 15 feet away, injuring both of them. She says one doesn’t need to be covering a war to be a target.

A protest at India Gate can be more dangerous than a war zone. Honestly, in a war zone, gender is less of a handicap, it is harder to protect yourself in a civilian environment.
Maya Mirchandani, Senior Editor, NDTV

Maya Mirchandani reporting for NDTV in Syria, 2011. (Photo: Facebook/mayamirchandani)
Maya Mirchandani reporting for NDTV in Syria, 2011. (Photo: Facebook/mayamirchandani)

Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Affairs Editor at The Hindu has reported on conflicts in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Tibet. In 2000, while reporting from Kashmir, she was injured when a car bomb exploded.

Over a decade ago, when I covered Libya or the separatist movement in Kashmir, I was welcomed and even protected. Now there are radicalised groups like ISIS plugging extreme Islam. Journalists are now specific targets of terror groups.
Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic and Strategic Affairs Editor, The Hindu

Suhasini Haidar reporting for CNN International during the 2004 tsunami. (Photo: Facebook/suhasinihaidar)
Suhasini Haidar reporting for CNN International during the 2004 tsunami. (Photo: Facebook/suhasinihaidar)

Are Women Reporters More Vulnerable?

Saady insists that women journalists face a double danger – danger of being in a conflict zone shared equally with their male counterparts and also the danger of being sexually exploited. However, vulnerability is situational and can be gender neutral too. There are situations where women are spared or even protected by virtue of being women.

Preeti Choudhry reporting from the BJP Office in Nagpur. (Photo: Twitter/preetichoudhry)
Preeti Choudhry reporting from the BJP Office in Nagpur. (Photo: Twitter/preetichoudhry)

Preeti Choudhry, Deputy Editor, India Today, has reported from the interiors of rural India on a wide range of issues. She has covered election rallies across the country, reported on violent mob situations and civilian protests.

Being a woman has sometimes worked in my favour in mob-like situations wherein my male colleagues have been beaten up and I have been spared. However, in a perfectly crowd-controlled situation, I have been inappropriately touched. In a country like India, the best safeguard for a journalist is presence of mind and common sense, which are both gender neutral.
Preeti Choudhary, Deputy Editor, India Today

Indian Media Has No Concept of Ground Training

Political rallies and civilian protests are also included in the definition of conflict zones. (Photo: Jaskirat Singh Bawa)
Political rallies and civilian protests are also included in the definition of conflict zones. (Photo: Jaskirat Singh Bawa)

Irrespective of gender, situation and common sense, Indian journalists, unlike their foreign counterparts in the West, are not given any practical training. Even the most basic first aid techniques are not taught. There is no rule book and no mentoring. Equipment is old, rusty and practices redundant.

The first time I was subject to tear gas, I had no idea what to do, the first time I was in a bomb blast, I thought I would die. Indian journalists are ill-prepared to deal with any conflict and there is no mentoring, no benefit of experience.
Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic and Strategic Affairs Editor, The Hindu

At Sierra Leone, there was a gun held to my temple. At Tahrir Square, Egypt when the media hotel was under attack I had to argue with my cameraperson during evacuation to just carry the camera and leave the equipment behind. Our bulletproof vests are heavy and uncomfortable. So, there is a handicap, both as far as practical training and equipment is concerned.
Maya Mirchandani, Senior Editor, NDTV

The compulsions of a competitive media in India have also forced journalists to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations. There is a thin line between bravado and stupidity. Often, journalists being beaten or injured or even killed becomes the story. Saady insists that lives are more important and good journalists should report the story and try not to be the story. The media is competitive world over. But the problem in India is chronic. Haidar and Mirchandani agree that there is far more sophisticated training provided to their counterparts in the West. In India, practical training is a gaping black hole. There is no room, time, awareness or funding for it.

I worked with CNN international for about 10 years and underwent the most stringent training. There was serious preparation, we were taught first aid, given practical ground training and even subject to mock kidnappings. Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic and Strategic Affairs Editor, The Hindu

In Britain, my foreign counterparts have been trained by none other than the Special Forces. In India, we don’t even get basic life insurance. There is no awareness or funding for training.
Maya Mirchandani, Senior Editor, NDTV

There is no risk assessment. The mad media frenzy and demands from the desk have forced journalists on the ground to push the boundaries. While many have achieved the impossible and raised the bar, they have exposed themselves to avoidable risks calling it inevitable.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Is Rampant

Many journalists suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but it is not diagnosed or treated. (Photo: Facebook/mayamirchandani)
Many journalists suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but it is not diagnosed or treated. (Photo: Facebook/mayamirchandani)

While there are no preventive safety and security measures, there is no counselling after covering a traumatic event. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among even ‘thick-skinned’ journalists is common and untreated.

PTSD is not accounted for. Counselling should be made compulsory. I couldn’t eat for days after returning from covering the Tsunami. I have been in the profession for 20 years, we at least got a break between challenging assignments. Today’s generation of reporters doesn’t even have that luxury.
Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic and Strategic Affairs Editor, The Hindu

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