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Shakti Mills gangrape: No story is worth dying for

Legendary Formula One racing champion Michael Schumacher was once asked about the secret of his success in winning the F1 car racing championships again and again. One of the things he said came as a complete surprise, that he pays maximum attention to safe driving.

The F1 beasts that champions like Schumacher drive, anyway run at super speeds of 350 km/h. If at that speed, one is not careful and attentive to safety, if a driver speeds up recklessly — because, well, duh, it’s a racing event — the result can only spell disaster. Higher the speed, greater is the care and caution that one needs to give to issues of safety.

Prudence demands that journalists working on risky or dangerous assignments need to be alert, take precaution and pay attention to safety first. One is used to taking calculated risks, but if there is the slightest hint of real danger, prudence and good sense demands that you withdraw and retreat and return to the assignment another day.

Shakti Mills, where the 22-year-old photojournalist was raped in Mumbai. Sachin Gokhale/Firstpost

Shakti Mills, where the 22-year-old photojournalist was raped in Mumbai. Sachin Gokhale/Firstpost

There are deadlines to be met and stories to be broken, but what is the point of risking life and becoming a story yourself? There are moments in the lives of courageous people- be they journalists or others- when one decides that the issue is so vitally important that even death is an acceptable consequence. In such a situation, the risk that one takes is understandable- as happens with soldiers or activists who don’t return from their indefinite protest fasts for a cause.

Most journalistic assignments don't fall in this category, and therefore, young journalists and those undergoing professional training in journalism schools need to be told that no story is worth dying for; that the risks have to be weighed carefully and that the highest attention needs to be given to issues of safety.

In the recent Shakti Mills gangrape episode, the photojournalist narrowly escaped getting murdered. If one goes by the trend of gangrapes in the country, the victims often don't end up becoming survivors; they get killed in the attempt by the criminals to snuff out the evidence. In an intense moment, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj described gangrapes as an epidemic in the country.

By now we are familiar with the kind of deserted ruins of the Shakti Mills premises where the crime occurred. As it turns out, this was not the first gangrape in that area and according to the police, one of the accused has confessed to committing one molestation and two gangrapes of a rag-picker and a sex worker in the same area.

The ruins certainly bring delight to a photojournalist, but what about issues of safety? Was the company of a young male colleague also in his early 20s adequate cover? One cannot certainly expect a young woman journalist to go on such assignments with an army of bodyguards, just as one can't expect the police to be present at every vulnerable spot every time. So what's the solution in a country like India where crimes against women, especially, gangrapes are being increasingly reported? The solution is to take precaution and pay the highest attention to issues of safety. Leave the spot. Ask for back-up. Don't get into arguments- as most journalists are prone to do. The best option is to leave the spot and return with adequate back-up- may be two or three male colleagues instead of one- so that the assignment can be done unhindered.

In the case of the young photojournalist intern, she did call up her office when confronted by the alleged rapists posing as Railway officials and was told by her boss, the head of the photography department, “to leave the place immediately”. This was sound advice which should have been followed. From the office end, someone should have made a call after half an hour for an update, or even asked to speak directly to the “railway officials” concerned and demand their identity. Would these steps from the office end have changed the course of what went on to become a horrendous crime? Sticky situations demand that the office and the immediate supervisor do not let go of the situation till it is resolved for their staff who are on the field.

Writer and columnist Tushar Gandhi has raised this point effectively in his recent piece, “Put freedom and safety in perspective” when he asks whether Indian companies have an in-house policy regarding employee safety and security.”

Are employees urged to pay adequate attention to their personal safety and security while on an assignment? “Or are the employees just told to do their assignments, come what may?”

The point needs to be emphasised as does Gandhi that one is not preaching curbs on women or attempting to “curb the freedom of women”. But, when the young photojournalist and her equally young male colleague were sent to take photographs in the ruins of Shakti Mills “were they told to always be aware of their surroundings and to evaluate the situation with regard to their safety? Did their employer have a policy on how much risk the employees should take and where to draw the line?”

In their enthusiasm for a great story- in this case, great pictures- young journalists often throw caution to the winds and take risks that are unacceptable. This is where the immediate superior needs to step in and the organisation as a whole needs to frame policies. In the least, an experienced journalist needs to tag along with juniors working on a great story. This is what is meant by team effort which is what any news operation is.

In a recent piece in The Indian Express, “Fear in the Frame” photojournalist and photo editor, National Geographic ‘Traveller India’ Ashima Narain spoke of how the time has come “not to be ashamed to talk about fear”.

Having experienced some unpleasant and fearful moments as a photojournalist, she writes, “Fear is what ensures I look back as I walk, it’s what makes me look for exits when I enter potentially difficult spaces, it is what keeps me alert, and often, alive. I call it other things like discomfort or common sense, because it’s weak to be afraid- it might expose me for what I am, a woman.”

The Shakti Mills rape survivor is simply lucky that she was not murdered. Journalism can sometimes be a hazardous profession. But this is not about the hazards of journalism but about taking adequate precaution while being in any profession. We owe this to ourselves, and as a society, unrelentingly demand better laws, better policing and stiffer punishment for criminals.