Reporting local conflicts-- a case study

Covering local conflicts should be easier than covering war. However, they can become complex affairs with real difficulties in digging up facts and reporting the truth. The agitation by tribals in Kerala for land and the police firing at them in the Muthanga forests of Wayanad district on February 19, 2003, is a case in point. (A policeman bled to death after having attacked and held in captivity by the tribals. A tribal was killed and many including women and children were injured during police action to clear the forests of tribal squatters).

This discussion analyses the coverage of the events in the media to high light the pitfalls and point to better approaches in covering conflicts. It should be interesting to note striking similarities between the American attitude towards Iraq and the official attitude towards tribals in Kerala. (The Chief Minister, A. K. Antony, has denounced the invasion of Iraq by the Americans. However, the terminology he used against the tribals reminds one of the terminology used by Bush.)

George W. Bush
A. K. Antony
Additional Information/Remarks
Iraq has connections with terrorist organisations such as Al Qaida
The Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (Grand Council of Tribals) has connections with outside forces (subsequently named by Government sources as the People's War Group, LTTE and PDP-- all extremist/terrorist organisations).
Both these allegations are yet to be proved. There were few news stories or comments about the veracity of Mr. Antony’s claims. Incidentally, Osama bin Laden was the creation of American Intelligence. Antony's party continue to have links with Abdul Nasir Maudany's PDP. 
Iraq is a threat to freedom and American way of life; possesses weapons of mass destruction
The tribals launched an armed uprising  against the Government for self rule using lethal weapons such as bows and arrows, machetes and axes.
These were exaggerations intended to justify the action. The Government had a different story to say two weeks  before.
Iraq broke the Geneva Convention  by showing the POWs on television.
Policemen are also human beings (in reference to the police man taken as prisoner by the tribals).
In the end, American was seen to have broken more provisions of the Geneva convention than the Iraqis. The Antony Government has to answer for violations of human rights and the rights of children.
Operation Iraqi Freedom: we are there to liberate the Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein
The police were not evicting the tribals; they acted to rescue the hostages from the hands of Janu and Geethanandan (the leaders of the agitation),.
The Government has alleged that Geethanandan misled the tribals.
The civilian causalities in Iraq and beating up and torture of women and children at Muthanga are described as unavoidable consequences of action intended to achieve higher goals.
Relevant links
The unthinkable is becoming normal. Do not forget the horror.
Press Freedom and War on Iraq.
Muthanga firing: the unthinkable is happening in Kerala.
Petition filed by KJU before Press Council of India.

History repeats itself, the only difference being in time, scale and relative importance. Reporting too goes through similar cycles and hence it is worth learning from the past.

As seen in Iraq, embedded reporting has its problems. Reporters who went mostly by official versions of events had to swallow their words, often, when confronted with statements of writers and non journalists (There is blood in your hands, Arundhati Roy, writer, wrote to the Chief Minister). So too had the journalists who went by rumours and unverified claims.

Both sides of the story:
It is the oft repeated principle of journalism that both sides of the story should be given. However, this is a simplistic approach aimed at achieving some balance in a situation where you have to report events within a deadline. Truth or facts may not emerge from hearing just the two sides. This is especially true in a conflict situation where both sides would be prone to exaggerate, distort and colour their versions. Outright lies are also to be expected.

Several sides of the story:
There are often several sides to a story and presence of a third or fourth party could be an advantage for journalists covering conflicts. This was something that Muthanga offered. However, the journalists failed to make use of this situation to the full extent.

On one side, there were policemen of different hues, the local police, armed police and officers. On the other side, there were tribals, some actively involved in the agitation, some allegedly misled by their leaders and others who came there merely with the hope of finding land. Then, there were the locals, the Wayanad Prakriti Samrakshana Samithi, political party units and the like who were not neutral observers but interested in the events in there own way. There were also people like K. K. Surendran who differed with the Samithi. (The local rivalries that existed at Muthanga prior to the encroachment of forests by the tribals had to be understood by the journalist if he is to have insight into developments like the arrest of Mr. Surendran and police case against Asianet reporter, M. K. Ramadas.)

No interviews for a while:
The main problem the journalists faced at Muthanga was logistical. As the events occurred in a forest area, many could not be contacted and interviewed. Besides, the police had denied journalists access to the area for 16 hours during and after the firing. However, it was very important to get the versions of the tribals who were on the spot. There was a specific advantage in interviewing the tribals at Muthanga which is not available in other conflict situations. Ordinary tribals are not skillful enough to present distorted versions. So, several of them would have given the bare facts!

As the tribals have been scattered by the police, it was several days later that some worthwhile interviews were made. This was serious failure not only from a professional point of gathering information but also from an ethical point as journalists is ethically bound to hear the voiceless. Editors should have pressed more reporters into the job to verify allegation of violations of human rights and children's rights. In fact, the reporters who were needed on the spot were ones with good background knowledge of human rights and children's rights, rather than local stringers.

Eye witness ignored:
The television cameraman of Kairali television (identified with the Opposition in the State), Shaji Pattanam, was the only journalist who had seen much of the the police firing first hand and photographed it. Though he was a key witness, other journalists did not interview him for quotes (except for a freelancer who went on to accept second hand information from him without questioning).

Rumors like wildfire:
Rumours spread when first hand information is scarce. So, statements of locals like that they had seen a bulldozer called in by the police to bury several dead tribals got currency. Did anyone see it? Do two accounts match when it comes to the details like the description of the bulldozer? Then, there was the key question which needed to be answered: who set fire to the forests, triggering the violent turn of events? (The officials said it was the tribals while the tribals said it was the forest officials whom they had held as captives for a day before they were released in the presence of the district Collector.)

Journalists as activists:
Activism is not tenable with professional journalism, though there may be fringes of journalism where it is justified. It has been alleged that several of the journalists who reported on Muthanga and related incidents were activists. There were two kinds of activists: those who argued for eviction of the tribals on environmental grounds and those who justified the agitation by the tribals. However, a close look shows that hardly any of them were activists in the sense that they actively participated in or aided the agitation by the Prikrithi Samrakshna Samithi or the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha. What they displayed was empathy for a cause. Some actively pursued truth, which is a legitimate journalistic objective. But for their efforts, many of the atrocities that had happened at Muthanga would not have received public attention.