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New Delhi: I am aware of the dangers of reporting conflict, violence, and war. I have covered all. I lost my photographer when he opened a parcel, and I have seen a photographer of a daily newspaper dying in a car-bomb blast. I am witness to several of my colleagues' injuries while covering scattered incidents. I am, for my part, a victim of two kidnappings. Several hundred journalists have died on their professional duties while covering the conflict. In the latest Ukraine-Russia war/conflict, journalists are taking risks to bring the news to the forefront. Few of them have died or were injured too. With new technology, satellite phones, and internet access, news speed has muchly advanced, bringing live news to the drawing rooms and mobile phones minute by minute. It also brings criticism and praise to the media but beware; it increases the responsibility of the journalist to report the truth and not incite the masses with hacked or false reporting.
When a conflict erupts, the media parachutes in
It is often a piece of half-baked, half-knowledge news in a hurry. In the current Ukraine media coverage, we saw how the televisions have specialists speaking from the studios on the situation, often a piece of preconceived news, mainly in the western media. One hardly finds reporters on the ground telling about the problem, sufferer, and historical background, but more about the reporters and how close they are to the bombing and risk. People hardly talk about local stringers who are more responsible for collecting the information for the parachute media persons. These stringers take more chances as they have to live in the same vicinity, and parachute journalist leaves after a few days, sometimes putting at risk the lives of the local stringers or reporters.
Changing warfare and information/Fact-Finding
Media response to conflict either shapes or distort the news. Journalists observed that in the age of digital media and the accessibility of the camera in every smartphone, a story is incomplete without a picture/video. Visually dramatic events, like live battle scenes or bombings, receive more coverage, while longer-term, widespread situations (such as no food, electricity, drinking water, and no medicines) get less. In Ukraine, the Russian troops caught some professional fighters from other nations. How should they be seen or defined? POWs, spies, or mercenaries. Here, it needs expertise and legal opinion as in modern warfare; private actors are hired to fight their wars. In International law, mercenaries or spies have no immunity.
It was also easy for international journalists to get into Ukraine at the start of the conflict. A vast number of reporters reached the ground. The amount of live tweeting by professional reporters, local media, and citizen journalists posting images, videos, and descriptions of military movements and atrocities was unprecedented. How accurate are this information remains a question? Several times, we have witnessed people on Twitter removing their messages. Who was confirming that all information received from inside Ukraine was genuine?
Media reports have a unique capacity to shape our opinions. We all know that there is no one better placed than a journalist reporting from the ground zero of a disaster in the making. With the change of tactics of warfare, where now more Infowars are contributing than border clashes, media persons are facing new challenges. One finds more quotes in the story from Twitter, Facebook, or other social media platforms rather than face-to-face interviews that usually reach the newsroom late. As we all know, no refrigerator can preserve the news. So, the results are that we see more reporting on the situation and less on the suffering of the people on ground zero.
Fact Finding position and social media guidelines
The proliferation of technology means to provide significant coverage does not guarantee objectivity or balanced reporting. In some cases, modern communication tools and the penetration of social media across frontiers are used to bring the administration's attention to the people's needs or as propaganda. To authenticate the same, most media houses need to hire and create a fact-finding position whose job should be to affirm the cyber inflow information and to research the news so that truth is not made the first casualty. Many televisions use satellite images to authenticate their stories or places a media person can't reach.
Media organizations also need to develop social media guidelines, and reporters and photographers should strictly abide by them and be made familiar. Newsrooms are flooded with information, and much of it goes without verification. It is a minefield and risky if not appropriately scrutinized. We have seen how tweets get viral under challenging situations; it takes time until authentication is proved about the particular tweet. Many of us have fought the desire to tweet, respond, or forward information. In this rough and tumble, high-pressure info war, journalists and editors need to self-analyse the current issues of modern conflict reporting when digital social media is disseminating information (right or wrong) in seconds.
Professional ethics and fundamental humanitarian values
In a conflict, some active actors create barriers or restrict the flow of information. In a seminar, Justice J S Verma, former Chief Justice of India, once quoted Mahatma Gandhi that "peace does not come out of the clash of arms, it comes out of justice lived and done." "It means each one of us has to render justice, and if done in a proper way, the very basis of the conflict will vanish, and hence the reason for all the differences will not be there." Justice Verma further suggested, "If media has the greatest impact in influencing the minds of men, and that is the place where all conflicts originate, then please appreciate what is significant of media reporting."
Journalists have to stick to professional ethics and fundamental humanitarian values. Only then will the news stand the test of time and history. I am aware of how some journalists fall prey to propaganda. In such situations, false reporting and misleading reporting can exacerbate tensions, and lead to further confusion, or even violence.
The media shapes public opinion because news is about events and people. The media, therefore, can draw attention to injustice and suffering created by conflict or violence. Behind headcounts or causalities, the media should be interested in finding stories of human suffering. However, a media person must first be confident that s/he is maintaining the dignity of the sufferers even at the cost of their story.
Those who suffer understand that media cannot bring immediate relief, but when media reaches the spot, the sufferers realize that the world has not forgotten them. We all know the impact of pictures of refugees/boat people child dying on the seaside, a vulture waiting for a malnourished child to die, or a green-eyed scary Afghan teenage girl refugee in the camp showcasing the sorrow story of Afghanistan. One can only understand the crisis when there is more contact with the people who are really in it, and that's how media should be.
International Law and conflict reporting
Traditionally, International law has governed the conduct and relations between nations. International law also deals with functioning international institutions' relations between governments and individuals. In times of conflict, countries look for peaceful or coercive means of settlement. Armed conflict, and modes of terminating war add hostilities. In conflict or wars, reporters need to see through the angle of International human rights law, international humanitarian law, international refugee law, international environmental law, the law of international organizations, and international criminal law. Hence, reporters covering the conflict need to gain knowledge and understand what international and national law can support in reducing the suffering of hostilities. Today, States, the UN and other global and regional security organizations place a much greater emphasis on protecting civilians and holding those individuals responsible for attacking them.
Traditionally, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) only deals with protecting war correspondents in international armed conflict. Protocol one of IHL further protects the media persons considered civilians. But several countries have not signed Protocols 1 and 2, so the law is not implemented in many cases. Most accredited journalists will have to follow the country's laws and directions. There are no special immunity or protection rules for the media persons.
Journalists, while covering conflicts, need to take a lot of precautions, first for their own security and obligations that the law prevents them from doing: • Journalists must not take an active part in hostilities. • Journalists must not engage in espionage or spying. • Journalists must ensure that they do not humiliate or degrade any person. • Journalists must not hold Prisoners of war (Pow) to insult public curiosity. • Journalists must not incite violence against civilians in situations of armed conflicts. • Journalists must not incite terrorist acts. • Journalists must not incite war crimes or crimes against humanity. • War reporters or journalists must disclose their confidential sources before international criminal tribunals in circumstances where the evidence is a must need.
As a student of media, I was taught that as more times you visit the spot of an incident, the more evidence and first-hand reports you will get. It is called an "Onion effect." That means that by removing more layers of an onion, the sweetest part of it is discovered in the centre. Hence, more investigation and verification of a story are necessary until you reach an investigative account's precious truth.
The media's traditional role as reporters of the truth can play an essential role in conflict situations. Media, at priority, needs to give the public the information necessary to make good decisions. The media can seek to confirm official or unofficial accounts, reveal official or unofficial deceit, and correct errors of omission when some actors claim that a particular incident has happened in a specific area. It becomes the duty of the media person to visit the spot and get first-hand evidence from the locals, the officials, or other parties of the conflict and then report. In conflict, the versions from all sides are usually exaggerated. As a reporter, I have learned the importance of being a first-hand witness and reporting. It gives you confidence and all means to defend your story, even if it is being criticized or said wrong.
The biggest challenge for a media person remains security and access to dangerous areas. There is no adequate protection or immunity for journalists, the confidentiality of the source of information, or even self-censorship. In such circumstances: • It is challenging to investigate or verify the news as competition is so high in the news market. So many times, the truth becomes a casualty. • Struggling to find an objective and balanced stand between parties involved in the conflict. • Freedom of press vs Security concern of the people.
On the ground, we have seen that there are also several Constrains:
• Journalists may become partisan, sometimes even physical or emotional. • Psychological and Political pressures equally play a part. • Developing trust between the parties involved in the conflict and the Media can be difficult and tricky. • Cutthroat competition between various news markets. • History and background of the conflict. • The lack of knowledge about international or domestic law is a constraint for a journalist covering the conflict.
In the fury of happenings, the media person often gets involved in the campaign without their intentions. Not realizing that some interested parties in the situation wanted them to get involved and highlight the issues of their interest, the news indirectly helps them in opinion making. Often, we forget to follow up on our stories, showcase victims' humanitarian stories or news that we need to provide as vital information to the affected civilians, or remind the world of the forgotten conflicts and sufferings.
In difficult situations, what media persons need to do
• Avoid simplification and exaggeration of your stories. Vocabulary is essential that one uses in the story. • Avoid repetition of leaders' statements. Bring more truth to it. • Treat all sides equally; you will have more quotes and satisfaction while filing your story. • As news persons, we are not supposed to stark distinctions. It can have broader implications and invisible effects. • Journalists, while filling the story, should always consider the legal ramifications.
Above all, your own safety needs to be maintained. You bring the news but do not become the news; even at the cost of losing your story, one needs to stay safe.
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