On the 8th of January, 2018, School of Communication, MAHE, received eminent journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya as a keynote speaker for Article-19, School of Communication’s core media fest. Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a freelance reporter who focusses his work on India’s north-eastern states. His talk to the students was on the topic of ‘Media Functioning in the north-east’.
Proud as we may be to claim that we are up-to-date with present political scenarios and current affairs, many of us are unaware about the happenings in the north-eastern states of our own country. There are several reasons behind this– lack of regional correspondents by media bodies in these states, not being able to understand the intricacies of the regional politics, and unbalanced reportage and coverage.
The room fell silent, save for the scribblings of pen on paper as Mr Bhattacharyya began his lecture with a presentation. He highlighted how the style of journalism vastly varies from state to state- with Assam having had 32 journalist deaths in the past year yet being a much safer area than Manipur, which has had only 8.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya highlighted the importance of sources for a journalist. He says that the most vital resource of a journalist is their contacts. He emphasised on its importance by bifurcating his experience with the experience of Daniel Pearl, a former journalist for the Wall Street Journal. While on a project, Mr Bhattacharyya relayed his well-being on the hands of some members of the ULFA.
“The Myanmese and Pakistani armies are such that if you get caught by them, you might as well commit suicide. So my one request to the ULFA members was that if you think they [Myanmese army personnel] are going to apprehend us, then you just take your gun and shoot me”.
He further went on to explain how he was received with laughter and a personal assurance. A few days later, while he was disconnected from family and colleagues back in Delhi, speculation of his death was making rounds while in reality, he was enjoying a beer with guerrillas.
Fortunate as this may be, on the other hand, journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in Karachi, Pakistan. Mr Bhattacharyya explained that this is because his contacts were untrustworthy and unreliable.
Furthermore, he elaborated on the credibility of information from sources. “As a journalist, you’re not supposed to believe either side because, in north-eastern states, it’s difficult for you to verify your facts immediately. Therefore, my advice to all young journalists is that it is better to miss out on a story than to write a false story.”
The rest of the talk featured case studies of deaths of journalists reporting in north-eastern regions, including Parag Das, Anil Majumdar, and Tongam Rina’s close call with death.
After a session of approximately two hours ensued a question-and-answer round. The two notable questions got the attention of the majority of the audience, including myself.
When asked his opinion on Irom Sharmila’s defeat in Manipur elections, he replied saying that not everybody can be proficient in every field. He stated that she was a fantastic crusader of human rights, but that did not assure the people that she would be a good politician.
When asked for his opinion on AFSPA, Mr Bhattarcharyya was clearly aroused with an underlying sense of anger.
“Do you know how many separatists there are tearing apart the north-east? Eight thousand. The Indian army is third largest in the world after USA and China. Are you telling me that the third largest army in the world needs AFSPA to tackle eight thousand guerillas? Are they not ashamed of themselves?”
The session ended with Mr Bhattacharyya being handed a token of appreciation by a faculty member of School of Communication, Mr Shreeraj Gudi.
No sooner than I read over my notes from the talk than I was called for the interview. My nervousness was palpable as I was about to speak to a man so learned that just hearing him speak for under two hours had prompted me to research and inform myself about organisations, scenarios and people I had not previously known about.
Just after I introduced myself to Mr Bhattacharyya and before I had even sat down, he had some insightful advice to impart.
“Something I forgot to mention in my speech was that you all must make use of RTI to its full extent. This generation has such an amazing tool at your disposal; you should take advantage of it. Don’t make the mistakes the previous generation of journalists made. 90 percent of journalists don’t emphasise on RTI, 90 percent of journalists don’t read. Don’t make the mistakes that journalists have earlier made. Cultivate the habit of reading, cultivate the habit of thinking. You do that, and you’ll be on top”.
“That’s some great advice to begin the interview with. So the first few of my questions are general questions and the latter are on some specific issues that I’d like to get your opinion on, if time permits.
One thing that strikes me is that a lot of people in my age group are not very well versed with problems and issues happening in the North Eastern states. With the age of the internet, we have so much information thrown at us that there’s an information overload. What kind of responsibilities do we have to streamline the information we receive?”
Well first imagine a very good news reporter has come from Guwahati or say, from Kohima, you’ll get to know immediately, with the internet. Now I write for The Wire or FirstPost now, after the story gets uploaded and published, I immediately share it on Facebook. From there many other people share it. It gets proliferated, it is spread. If somebody really wants to do good work— whether it is in the bureaucracy, in the legal profession, they will do it. Plan everything out, have a good vision. It all depends upon the concerned individual. It also depends upon the agency or the media house to which they are associated. There are many media houses that don’t have correspondents in North Eastern states. During elections, a crisis or violence, they send somebody from Delhi. During Assam’s elections in 2016, many media houses got their estimates wrong and that’s because Assam is very complex- you can’t study it by staying there for one week. As I mentioned in my speech, I have gone through only 60 per cent of the North East. If you ask me something about Tripura, frankly speaking I don’t know! If you ask me of the intricacies of Mizo-politics, I don’t know and I’ll be very honest with that. So I have scope to learn and it’s important for a journalist to admit that.
Another aspect I’d like to tell you about is that I haven’t seen any media houses shaping their opinion on the feedback of their readers.
“Feedback in what form?”
Any form. There is no platform, rather, other than letters to the editor. So how do you really know what the reader is thinking? Now when I was the managing editor of Seven Sisters Post, me deciding what kind of stories would go on page one is an assumption. We, as editors, assume what would make breaking news. We think we have the pulse of the people but how do we know? This is by talking, by getting feedback yet there are no streamlined and institutionalised channels. You get five letters to the editor- one is in very poor language, one is very vulgar. That leaves us to consider two to three. Sometimes we edit that as well, there’s a provision to edit the feedback also. So that is the only channel. Otherwise you don’t have too many channels to get the feedback of the readers or the viewers. At least in print media you have something as letters to the editor but in television, where is it? Some times in news stories, you take voxpops. This is one area where media houses should focus their attention, on how to increase their interaction between the readers and the product.
I can give you an example. When I was working with Times of India, I was associated with a supplement that had very local news. It’s a very smart way of doing marketing and increasing a certain issue. Now if you go to a locality and people complain that their drains haven’t been repaired in over a year, what Times of India would do is take five to six pictures and publish it. Now a localite, no matter what newspaper they were reading, would discard it and move to Times of India because in the process, it also highlights the local grievances and gets people’s feedback.
“So branching from your answer to my previous question, I have another one. You mentioned how there aren’t correspondent of media houses in North Eastern states. My question being that could outsiders, unfamiliar with the languages, terrain or field experience in the region get into investigative journalism in those areas?”
Well there is a way obviously. The first thing is that you must have a plan. Now the questions that arise are would you like to go there for just one story and come back? Would you like to do a couple of stories or do you want to stay there permanently for a few years? If you plan to stay there permanently for a long time then I think it makes sense for you to know the language. Now again what do you mean by language? There are so many languages in the North East. If you know Assamese, for instance, it will carry you through Assam, Nagaland and most of Arunachal Pradesh. The only state where I’ve found a language problem is Mizoram. Despite having one of the highest literacy rates, most citizens don’t know a word of Hindi or English. They speak only in their local tongue of Lushai. Then what do you do?
There have been instances where people staying in Delhi have done very good stories on the North East without any knowledge of the language. There is a freelance reporter called Neha Dixit. She has done a wonderful story about how the RSS has taken away children from Assam and indoctrinated them into their Hindu culture. So sometimes it is possible if you have the contacts and sources. If they give you inputs then it is possible to do the stories without knowing the language also.
“Do you believe that All India Radio and Doordarshan’s refusal to air Manik Sarkar’s unedited speech was a reasonable restriction to freedom of speech?”
Well, it has been a while since I’ve not been aware of such instances. Maybe I have missed out but in the last many years, I can’t remember a Chief Minister’s speech being curtailed.
“Yes, it was as of August of last year.”
So I found it very surprising. Because in a country like India, you cannot have one ideology or belief. The strength comes from diversity. One must tolerate dissent. If I am a leftist, then I can’t expect everybody to be a leftist. On the other hand if I am a rightist, I can’t jail everybody who is not. There are so many cultures and so many languages– so many different levels of existence. So I found it very surprising.
“One last question, since time does not permit me more than that. You had mentioned towards the end of your lecture that you do not identify as a leftist, rightist or a centrist. Could you give a bit more insight into the thought process behind this?”
My thought process is simple- take everything good from everybody and reject the bad. Simple.
“Right, but don’t you find that restrictive in dialogue with certain people where you need to stick to certain ideologies?”
I don’t think so. Once you make the initiative to start a dialogue, you cannot have a fixed mindset- you must be open minded. Just put everything on the table. A militant outfit might say, I want independence.” but that does not mean that you throw them out of the room and start shooting them. Just agreeing to the dialogue process doesn’t mean that the country will break up. The issue with ideology is that you cannot say that all Chief Ministers are corrupt. Manohar Parrikar has done great things, Manik Sarkar has done a lot of great and honest work. There are bad things done by the BJP, bad things by the Congress and bad things done by the CPI(M). Let’s reject everything. We can’t say India is a rich country, India is still a poor country. You cannot just allow corporates to rule everything. If someone makes a statement that I am a leftist then they are absolutely wrong. We should think about the poor people. To do that, you don’t have to be in love with Karl Marx. You can still support a right wing government without constantly saying that the left is wrong.