By B. Raman
Four Indian women journalists — Barkha Dutt and Maya Mirchandani of the well-known NDTV, Suhasini Haider of the equally well-known CNN-IBN and Anjali Kamat of the US-based “Democracy Now” — have distinguished themselves in covering the current on-going conflict situations in Egypt and Libya.
The NDTV and the CNN-IBN are well known in India. It is, therefore, not necessary for me to give their background. “Democracy Now”, while well known in the US, is not that well known in India. Its web site says as follows : “Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 900 television and radio stations in North America. Time Magazine named Democracy Now! its “Pick of the Podcasts,” along with NBC’s Meet the Press. ”
Barkha, Maya and Suhasini are well-known to audiences in the sub-continent and hence need no introduction. While Anjali is becoming well-known, there may still be people in India who are not yet acquainted with her background. For their benefit, I am giving herewith her bio as taken from the web site of “Democracy Now” : “Anjali is an independent radio and print journalist from south India. She has lived in Egypt and Jordan and reported on movements for justice across the Middle East and South Asia. Her work has appeared in Corpwatch, Left Turn, and Samar magazine, and national newspapers in India and Egypt (The Hindu, Frontline, Outlook, and Al-Ahram Weekly). In addition to producing Democracy Now!, she co-hosts and co-produces a weekly radio show on WBAI called Global Movements Urban Struggles. Anjali is also the managing editor of the book review section of Arab Studies Journal, a peer-reviewed independent publication. She has an MA in Near Eastern Studies from NYU and a post-graduate diploma from the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.”
Many men journalists from the Indian print and TV media—‘The Hindu”, “Headlines Today”, “News x” and “Times Now”— had also covered the massive protest movement in Egypt and some are now covering the civil war in Libya. I am focusing on the coverage of the four women journalists from India not because it was International Women’s Day on March 8, but because in my view the coverage by the four women journalists stood apart from the coverage of their male counterparts—-barring Atul Aneja of “The Hindu”, who covered Egypt on the spot, but has been covering Libya from his field headquarters in Dubai. The coverage by the four women journalists was professional and substantial and of high quality. I had a feeling—I may be subjective—that the coverage by their male colleagues has tended to be more drama than substance barring the exception of Atul.
It would be unfair to compare the performance of our journalists in conflict situations in foreign territory with that of their counterparts from foreign media outlets such as the “Guardian” of the UK, the “New York Times” and the “Washington Post” of the US, the CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The kind of material and human resources which journalists of such foreign media outlets can mobilise are not within reach of Indian journalists — men or women.Foreign media outlets have a long tradition of foreign news coverage and have a permanent presence in many countries of the world. This is of great advantage to their journalists from headquarters venturing out into foreign territory to cover conflicts. The local staff do the spade work and then the journalists from headquarters follow. We saw that even in East Libya. Some of the Western journalists to reach the conflict area first were from their Cairo offices or from their offices located in the Middle East. Others based in the headquarters followed them later.
Journalists of Indian media outlets—excepting possibly “The Hindu” and the “Times of India” — do not have this advantage. This is particularly so in the case of the TV media. None of them, to my knowledge, has any permanent presence abroad staffed by people from their homeland. They just can’t afford them. So, when a conflict as in Egypt and Libya suddenly breaks out journalists such as Barkha, Maya and Suhasini have to literally grope their way in from New Delhi without the advantage of any spadework having been done by others based in the field. This requires tremendous courage and initiative for which we must salute them instead of indulging in petty-minded snide remarks.
Some of my readers have asked me: Your focus is mostly on the coverage of Barkha and Maya from the NDTV. You have never referred to the coverage of Suhasini and Anjali. Let me answer in the case of Anjali first. It is true that I do not pay the same attention to her coverage as I do to the coverage of women journalists who go out into conflict situations from India. There are two reasons. Firstly, Anjali covers from the US perspective. I am more interested in the coverage from the Indian perspective. I want to look at what has been happening in Egypt and Libya through Indian eyes keeping in view the Indian interests. Barkha, Maya and Suhasini provide those Indian eyes. Secondly, Anjali, I notice, has been living in Egypt and Jordan off and on. I also notice —I will be happy to stand corrected if I am wrong— that during her first foray into East Libya she was accompanied by two Egyptians. Her local knowledge and local assistance give her an advantage which none of the Indian journalists going out from India has.
Even at the risk of being considered unfair, I would like to make a distinction between the coverage of rebel-controlled East Libya by Barkha and her NDTV team consisting of Ruby Dinghra and Manoj Thakur, and the coverage of Government-controlled areas from Tripoli, the capital, by Suhasini Haider. Travel to rebel-controlled areas and reporting from there without any back-up support, when needed, by Indian diplomatic missions requires greater courage and initiative.
Indian journalists are not strangers to conflict situations. Barkha made her name with her brilliant coverage of the Kargil conflict. Many Indian journalists did equally brilliantly in covering conflict situations in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. However, not many have ventured into the Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan where even not many Western journalists go because of the unacceptable risks involved. To my knowledge, this is the first time that Indian journalists have ventured into conflict areas in foreign territory far away from India without the advantage of any local assistance.
The rape of an American woman journalist in Egypt highlighted the extra dangers faced by women journalists volunteering to cover conflict situations. In this context, the action of Barkha and her team in volunteering to go into the epi-centre of the Libyan civil war showed remarkable courage and needs to be applauded. There is a need for journalism institutions in India to make case studies of the coverage of conflict situations by our journalists—particularly women— in order to see what lessons could be drawn.
The coverage by these women journalists and the remarkable feed-back to their coverage from viewers in India clearly show a growing interest in foreign news coverage—particularly in conflict areas— from the Indian perspective. How to encourage this interest and cater to it on a permanent basis and not in an ad hoc manner is a question that needs attention from our news channels.