By: Dr. A. Ibomcha Sharma, IIS
News Editor & Head, Regional News Unit, AIR, Imphal
Introduction: The history of laws of war and history of the professional hazards of journalists in an armed conflict situation are often intertwined. Even if the laws of war clearly spared the messengers/peace communicators from time immemorial, they were not absolutely free from the menace of war or armed conflict. The risk associated with journalists in an armed conflict situation can be traced back to the Vedic Age in Indian context, Saint Narada is a glaring examples of it. Chanting “Narayana, Narayana”, he reached to the Gods and to the Demons, informing thereby the ambition and evil designs of war each group planned against the other. He was considered as a trouble monger and many a time had to invite wrath of one section or both and hence had to face the music.
Reporting armed conflicts:
The combatants of an armed conflict try to control and manipulate the media with subtle and no so subtle propaganda and misinformation messages. Sometimes what the military authorities brief during armed conflicts is not news but illusion of news. Information is tightly controlled in such circumstances and for best known security reasons; distortion of news is seen at times.
As the frontline journalists are covering incident after incident, it becomes next to impossible for them to please both the warring parties and sometimes it happens that the group a journalist is embedded with becomes so furious that its armed personnel target him or her in the garb of mistake. Killing the messengers in the crossfire is a regular case. Taking them into hostage and intentionally targeting them while they were performing their duty of informing the common populace are not rare actions cases. On the part of journalists also, some of these actions were against their own professional ethics thereby causing irreparable damage to the credibility of the profession.
In an armed conflict situation, both the warring parties try to mould public opinion favorable to them. With that goal in view both try to use the media to their advantage either through persuasion or direct coercion. Herein starts the problem of an independent media trying to cover the prevailing situation in an objective manner. Covering such situation also raises both moral and professional issues for the journalists. As per journalistic ethics, the fundamental function of the press is to report fairly, accurately and objectively about the newsworthy events. And the news value of an armed conflict is irresistible. So, there is a great need of reporting the news pertaining to the armed conflict on the one hand and on the other side, the maneuverings of the conflicting parties to use the media to serve vested interests.
Covering militancy and the PCI observations:
In a bid to curtail propaganda of the proscribed secessionists’ organizations through local print and electronic media and curb their oxygen of publicity, the government of Manipur clamped an official order on August 2, 2007 under Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The order says that any printed material, i.e. either newspapers or books an document whether printed or in electronic form shall be forfeited to the state government if they contain any material which are directly attributed to unlawful organizations, organised gangs, terrorists an terrorists related organizations considered to be subversive an a threat to the integrity of the state and the country.
The order of the State Home Department further forbids obituary notices of slain militants that would be glorifying them as martyrs of a freedom struggle. Publication of threats of any sort by terrorist organizations or unlawful organizations, publications of any code of behavior, dress code of social practice decreed by such organizations, publication of any justification for killings, causing injury, assault, kidnapping, imposition of fines or warnings by such organizations, publication of notices for payment to terrorists related organizations or unlawful outfits in cash or kind and publication of items in the form of invitation to the aforementioned organizations to settle or solve disputes are all altogether banned by the official order.
Opposing the move vehemently, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) served an ultimatum to the state administration demanding it to withdraw the suppressing order on or before 9 August, 2007. In a memorandum addressed to the Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, the Union flayed the government of trying to gag the freedom of expression in democratic India by clamping a stringent restriction. The union further argued that if the order is allowed to prevail the national level television news channels would have to be banned from airing in Manipur and national level newspapers are to be stopped from circulating in the state, and the state will suffer a total cut off of communication from other parts of the country. The Press Council of India sent one of its members to study and address the genuine grievances of the local journalists of the state in the first week of October, 2007. The PCI member discussed the issue with the AMWJU.
Acknowledging the gravity of the pressure journalists faced in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab (during the height of Khalistan movement) and the Northeast states, the Council conducted an enquiry in 1991 into the pressure the press in Punjab was facing. A special committee was constituted to examine the problems and its report “Overcoming Fear” was adopted by the Council.205 It extended full support to the press in Punjab in its effort to inform the people truthfully and impartially of the events taking place in their state by reflecting all parties of an event with due care and self censorship and in resisting any diktats from terrorist groups.
In Kashmir also, the Council conducted more than one enquiry. In one enquiry in 1991 that covered both Kashmir and Punjab, the Council accepting its special committee’s report “Crisis and Credibility”, said the critical importance of information and communication in the complex and difficult situation in the state had not been adequately appreciate either by the government or the media. It suggested a series of measures to respond effectively to the complex situation. In suggested a series of measures to respond effectively to the complex situation. In 1993-94, the Council conducted another enquiry into the problems facing the press in Kashmir and adopted a report entitled “Threats to the media from militant organizations”. In this report, the Council asked the government to provide institutional and area security to media personnel who faced threat from the militants for taking an independent stand.
Arising out of complaint against publication by newspaper of Assam of some press handouts and threat notes issued by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the PCI enunciated some general principles for the guidance of the press in this regard in September 1992. The guiding principles say that diktats or press notes commanding newspapers to publish them under duress or threats of dire consequences, emanating from elements wedded to violence constitute the gravest assault on the freedom of the press which is one of the surest guarantors of a democratic an plural society. Generally, such dikatts or press notes are not newsworthy per se. Publication of such contents not only compromises the freedom and independent functioning of the concerned newspaper but also constitutes an offence against the standard of professional ethics and responsibility of the fourth estate of democracy.
The guiding principles further add that if there is anything newsworthy in a press note emanating from any source, it should not be blacked out altogether self censorship may be no less dangerous than being insidious. The bottom line is that editors must exercise due caution and circumspection in considering the dissemination of such press notes. If the whole content of the proscribed outfit’s press communiqué is not pernicious, than it may be edited, its objectionable portions removed and language toned down so that whatever is really newsworthy gets disseminated in an impartial and balance manner.
As per guiding principles of the Council, the fundamental criteria for selecting editorial content should be its newsworthiness and not where it emanates from. The Council advises to withhold the publication of a press note released by militants only when the newsworthy and the objectionable portions are inextricably mixed up.
According to the findings and recommendations of the “Crisis and Credibility” report on Kashmir, “…….The media cannot therefore turn away from critical situations entailing danger or retreat to safe havens, depending on handouts from any quarter. The people have right to know and to seek authentic, objective and wherever possible eyewitnesses or well documented information.” It further says, “Newsmen and newspapers should report all sides and aspects of events fairly and objectively, citing sources, verifying facts, providing necessary contextual background and where possible, offering their own eyewitness observations, analysis of interpretation without editorializing.”
As per the recommendations of the report, the most horrific events can be narrated with moderation and should be portrayed or displayed with sobriety so as not to exacerbate tensions. The concept of objectionable writing must be clearly defined and understood. If genuinely objectionable matter is to be curbed, pre censorship is not the answer. This should be scrupulously avoided. The remedy lies in taking action under the ordinary law of the land with suitable appellate procedures. It would be desirable if the PCI were to be informed of all such cases. In the PCI report on the media crisis in Punjab, the Council recommended that the bandh notices and press notes from ultras should be edited and played down while positive developments should be mentioned and even highlighted as the occasion demands. While exercising due caution in disseminating press notes issued by terrorist groups, the press must also be vigilant against the possibility of its being used by the government. The media cannot be anybody’s handmaiden or cat’s paw, because credibility is vital.
Reporting for Communal Harmony:
The Press Council of India has given the following guidelines to observe by the media in covering news which may be tagged with communal tone and texture.
1.Distortion or exaggeration of facts or incidents in relation to communal matters or giving currency to unverified rumours, suspicions or inferences as if they were facts and base their comments on them.
2.Employment of intemperate or unrestrained language in the presentation of news or views.
3.Encouraging or condoning violence even in the face of provocation as a means of obtaining redress of grievances whether the same be genuine or not.
4.While it is the legitimate function of the Press to draw attention to the genuine and legitimate grievances of any community with a view to having the same redressed by all peaceful, legal and legitimate means, it is improper and a breach of journalistic ethics to invent grievances, or to exaggerate real grievances.
5.Scurrilous and untrue attacks on communities, or individuals, particularly when this is accompanied by charges attributing misconduct to them as due to their being members of a particular community or caste.
6.Falsely giving a communal colour to incidents which might occur in which members of different communities happen to be involved.
7.Emphasizing matters that are not to produce communal hatred or ill-will, or fostering feelings of distrust between communities.
8.Publishing alarming news which are in substance untrue or make provocative comments on such news or even otherwise calculated to embitter relations between different communities or regional or linguistic groups.
9.Exaggerating actual happenings to achieve sensationalism and publication of news which adversely affect communal harmony with banner headlines or in distinctive types.
10.Making disrespectful, derogatory or insulting remarks on or reference to the different religions or faiths or their founders.