July 13: Television pictures of a mob molesting a young woman for half an hour on a Guwahati street have led to media soul-searching about whether the camera crew should have tried to help the victim instead of just carrying on shooting.
The debate whether journalists should merely be “detached” observers or “activists” ready to intervene is decades old and has sometimes been fuelled by prize-winning photographs of assassinations, drownings or the horrors of war or calamity.
As far back as 1961, Japanese news photographer Yasushi Nagao had won the Pulitzer for his picture of the fatal stabbing of politician Inejiro Asanuma by teenaged extremist Otoya Yamaguchi at an election rally. As the killer challenged the victim, Nagao changed the focus by five feet — many have asked whether he shouldn’t have dropped his camera and rushed to Asanuma’s aid.
But when to stand up and be counted and when to stand by and record is a “tricky choice”, admits senior journalist Vinod Mehta, though he believes that journalists should remember they are “human beings first”.
Many other veterans, though, say a journalist’s job is to stay detached to ensure “fairness and objectivity”.
“Our job is to honestly portray what has happened. The journalist who covered this (Guwahati) incident should be congratulated. It is the police’s job to handle law and order while we should focus on telling the administration and the public what is happening,” Prasar Bharati chairperson Mrinal Pande said.
The “doing one’s job” argument was also forwarded, for instance, when journalist Ron Haviv’s pictures of Serb soldiers shooting civilians helped the world understand the character of the Bosnia war. Had Haviv tried to prevent the killings, he might have risked death and no one would have seen his pictures.
“It depends on the situation. If a journalist feels he can prevent something terrible from happening, they should. If they cannot, they should chronicle the incident as evidence,” said Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta.
Mehta has no doubt that the Guwahati TV team should have “called the police or performed their duties as human beings”.
But Pande raised a practical point. “What if the journalists had intervened? People would have got injured and the police would have accused the journalists of starting the fight. There wouldn’t have been any witness and the fact of the molestation would have been lost.”
In the US, the debate has unearthed less noble reasons for “professional detachment”. Deadlines are critical for news organisations, which work on minimal budgets, and failure to meet these by getting involved would affect the bottom line, goes the argument. Journalist activism costs money and time and, usually, doesn’t yield news.
But in India, senior journalists say, the problem becomes more acute because of poor governance — which in most cases means the journalists are the first to reach the scene.
The Guwahati victim had stepped out of Club Mint on G.S. Road around 9.30pm on July 9 with a friend when a group of youths allegedly passed lewd comments. She was attacked when she protested.
A twist has been added to the role of the TV crew from Newslive channel with a social activist, Akhil Gogoi, alleging they actually instigated the mob to get “better” visuals — a charge editor-in-chief Atanu Bhuyan has denied.
Another question that refuses to go away is how so many attacks on women in Assam happen before TV cameras. The cameras were there when a woman was thrashed inside Dispur police station on May 29; when a woman was beaten up by another woman in Guwahati in December 2010; when Congress MLA Rumi Nath and her husband were attacked at their Karimganj hotel room.
The buzz in Assam now is that people call in TV crews before beating up someone. In none of the incidents do the TV teams seem to make any attempt to help the victims. But it’s also true that the police have taken action in most of these cases only after a public outcry that the visuals helped trigger. The July 9 footage has been used to arrest four accused while seven are in hiding.
“The cameraperson did the correct thing. It is because of the visuals that a national outrage has happened,” Pioneer editor-in-chief Chandan Mitra said.
He said the journalists would have stood no chance with a mob of 30-odd, and “did the right thing by capturing the attackers’ faces”.
The footage, however, also shows the cowering victim trying to cover herself while someone tries to get her to show her face.
Senior journalist Rezaul Hasan Laskar, who has lived in Guwahati, felt the footage betrayed voyeurism. “Guy who filmed it acted more like voyeur, less like journo; TV channel should never have aired girl’s identity,” he tweeted.
Faced with accusations of networks being interested only in TRPs, Dipannita Jaiswal, managing director of Guwahati-based channel DY 365, said: “I agree that TV channels need cleaning up.”
She added: “As for TRP ratings, that is what gets us revenue, and please understand that as visual media we need to show footage, even if we tone it down. But we have instructed our reporters that if they get ‘invited’ to cover such violence they should not go and that if caught in the middle of one, they should inform the police and help the victim.”
Sometimes, the observer’s role can come back to haunt the journalist. Photographer Kevin Carter’s 1993 picture of a vulture stalking a malnourished toddler in Sudan won him a Pulitzer but The New York Times, which published the photo, was flooded with enquiries whether the child had survived.
The NYT published a note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture but her fate was unknown.
Carter had waited about 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings. When it didn’t, he took the photograph and chased the bird away.
“The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene,” a Florida-based newspaper’s editorial said.
“I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up,” Carter later told a friend. Tormented by the violence he had seen and the questions about the little girl’s fate, he committed suicide three months later, aged 34.
ABC photographer Fletcher Johnson, while covering refugees from the Rwandan genocide in 1994, took a boy whose parents had died to an orphanage. “You would not want to leave that kind of place and say, ‘All I did was make pictures’,” he told an interviewer.