Death of a Tehelka journalist: Sorry, no guarantees in journalism... or life

By Jay Mazoomdaar

Editor's note: Tarun Sehrawat, a 22-year old Tehelka photographer, died from cerebral malaria he contracted while covering a story in the Maoist heartland. The story has sparked a furious debate over Tehelka's editorial responsibility and the safety of journalists.

I did not know Tarun Sehrawat. The news of his death due to cerebral malaria, jaundice and typhoid did not shock me. Having seen quite a few untimely deaths in the profession and the armed forces routinely lose men to malaria, I felt sad for the young man and moved on.

What surprised me was the spectrum of opinion in the media coverage that followed. I read snide comments on the bravado of the deceased, some careful finger-pointing at his employers, and a well-meaning sermon to rein in “over-driven” reporters. I was not sure if I wanted to join the lopsided debate. But here I am.

'Ultimately, we are the choices we make'

A necessary disclaimer here: I write for Tehelka. The reader is free to dig for agendas in what I am going to say. But it needs to be said.

I understand the indignation of the been-there-done-it-so-much-better conflict reporters, anger of Sehrawat’s friends, angst that insider knowledge of an organisation fuels, and the anguish of armchair experts. These emotions do not require discussion or rebuttal. But the question of ethics, of risk weighed against result, and therefore the very essence of journalism, certainly does.

Is journalism a dangerous profession?

If one believes in the Orwellian benchmark – that journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed (not to be confused with a few good editors’ refusal to carry bad copy) – the risk is very real. If one does not, and pursues what Orwell called public relations, the only risk is of getting caught with disproportionate assets. But few journalists make successful public relation officers, fewer PROs make journalists.

I am not suggesting that the reportage we read or watch from war zones and conflict areas are necessarily great pieces of journalism reported at great risk. Many are snatches of an orchestrated drama. The state routinely hires reporters who readily oblige. The same is true of the insurgents who equally need publicity and take reporters on guided tours. Both trust the media to suitably dress up these “exclusives” to establish credibility.

But the rare ground report of a war crime, of a genocide or violation of rights or corruption or simply a big lie are invariably gathered at great risk, often to life. You can possibly train the reporter how to dodge a confrontation or avoid getting caught in a crossfire. But how do you train a reporter to pry a secret defended by a private or state militia on their own turf without risking life? Even the Bollywood of the 80s would have found such an idea silly.

Forget war or conflict zones. Try getting a ground report from an illegal quarry barely half a day’s drive from the capital. You mobile network will hold and you can keep in touch with the cops, the civil administration and your editors throughout. But in case of trouble, it won’t really matter because none of them can enter those quarries either, not without getting shot at or stoned. So what training should we provide reporters for uncovering illegal mining – other than discouraging any attempt at ground reportage of such issues?

Sehrawat fell victim to the water he drank and the mosquitoes he probably was not prepared for. Malaria prophylaxis, though not foolproof, usually works. Typhoid and hepatitis vaccines are recommended for everyone, even those in mega-cities. But hepatitis vaccines need to be administered over months. Typhoid and malaria preventives require days to take effect. So, in the best case scenario, if reporters are assigned to jaundice-malaria-typhoid zones, they require at least a week to medically prepare themselves. That is a terribly long time in a deadline-driven job. If you are following a live lead, just a week’s lag can kill your story.

I do not know if Sehrawat’s assignment could have waited, or if he or his editors even considered these health issues. But, ultimately, we are the choices we make. Three years ago, lowly city reporters were covering the swine flu outbreak in Delhi without any preventive vaccine because there was none. At least two I know were taken seriously ill. Nobody complained. It was an occupational hazard.

In my limited association with Tehelka, I have not noticed much that validates the organisation’s reputation for pushing its staff into unsafe territory. Then again, I may not have been looking at all. Maybe 72 months in The Indian Express, where even junior desk hands privately reported falling sperm count due to stress, set my bar a little high. If you want it easy, we were told, you go to Hindustan Times. Eventually, many of my former colleagues did.

Today, my years and my ‘independent’ tag discourage editors from advising me on personal safety. But even as a rookie with The Sunday Observer, I had no training to fall back on when I found myself in a small group of journalists who came under heavy brickbatting from every possible rooftop outside a polling booth in Sambhal (Uttar Pradesh) where Mulayam Singh was taking on his then arch rival DP Yadav in 1998. Years later, travelling far and deep inside forests across India, I frequently remained inaccessible for days to my bosses in The Indian Express, who never tried to stay in touch, probably because they could offer little to guide me along those terrains.

And why Abujhmarh, go to friendly Rajasthan, to one of those remote forest hamlets where village buffalos lounge in the only waterhole around. What training can help you decide, five minutes into conversation, if you should accept tea made from that putrid emulsion? Even while lugging along mineral water cartons, certain reporters do drink that tea, albeit gingerly, when they need to hang around long enough to strike a rapport and ferret out the information. It is a choice no safety guideline can, or should, take away.

Thousands of journalists, young and seasoned, take such calls, small and big, everyday across the world. The number of those who err on the side of caution is rapidly swelling. But in an increasingly absurd time, the profession survives by dint of those few who still make, consciously or not, those apparently insane choices. Not all of them get lucky.

Unlike Tehelka, I have no reason to fill up pages mourning Sehrawat whose death, to me, is no more than the loss of potential. Unlike those who have rushed to speak for him, I have no reason to suspect that Sehrawat did not know what he was doing when he set out to Abujhmarh. It is also unnecessary to judge if he died a martyr or a victim, what with the line separating the two anyway getting ever so thin.

If he was simply being a journalist, his death is incidental. Like all our deaths, after ample or no precaution, should be.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist 


Updated Date: Jun 22, 2012 18:09 PM

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