“Do you wear a bulletproof jacket when you go reporting?” senior journalist Munizae Jahangir asked me at a brainstorming session on women reporting from conflict zones. This was part of the first regional conference of the South Asia Women in Media (SAWM) in 2009. The question unsettled me. It had also sowed the seed of a new idea – to document my experiences as a journalist reporting from a conflict-torn and one of the most underreported regions of the world ie Northeast India. Bulletproof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict (Penguin Random House India) is the journey of a journalist through a difficult terrain away from the radar of the so-called ‘national media’. It is also the story of a chronicler trying to tell the stories of men, women and children of the region beyond the statistics of bloody violence and bloodshed.
Do you ever wonder how does the journalist get you the neat story you read in your morning newspaper? As a journalist, I had realized that I had never really cared for my personal safety and security. I ventured out reporting equipped with only a pen, a notebook and my intuition. When I read about the HEFAT (Hostile Environment and First Aid Training) courses for journalists in foreign media outlets, I was surprised that I had never bothered about my own safety. A BBC journalist once told me, “We have to undergo mandatory HEFAT courses before stepping into a hostile environment.” International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) has organized 33 HEFAT courses that have trained over 480 women journalists from all over the world. Some of the topics covered under the courses include emergency first-aid, digital security, situational awareness, emotional care, navigating checkpoints, reaction under gunfire. But, for many like us based in remote parts of Northeast India, these kind of trainings and precautions like a bulletproof jacket is unheard of.
As a journalist, I had realized that I had never really cared for my personal safety and security. I ventured out reporting equipped with only a pen, a notebook and my intuition.
The region is embroiled in conflict of various hues. And as a journalist born and brought up in the region, I had seen several generations who have grown up in the midst of violence, gory bloodshed and a chronic low-intensity war. The violence has stayed with us and has also shaped the way we respond to situations. The narrative of a journalist is scarce and far between. It is rare that one gets to listen to the travails of the person behind the stories – ie the journalist. Through Bulletproof, I am also telling the story of countless journalists who work under tremendous duress and are constantly flirting with danger. It also unveils the humane side of a journalist who feels vulnerable, unsafe and a fear of the unknown.
In my almost 20 decades of reporting from a conflict zone, there were many stories embedded within me. Stories of intrigue, fear, surprise. They had become part of me and my scrunched notebooks. These were stories I never told anyone, not even to my colleagues, family and friends. Maybe, it was because I did not want to expose my frailties and vulnerabilities. I had no mentor in the family. While on the job, I met some of the finest editors and learnt mostly on the job. However, this arduous journey as a regular combat journalist was mine alone. Through Bulletproof I felt it was important to tell my story as a journalist and a woman.
Reporting conflict can spring surprises at every step. There are certain situations which a journalist would probably encounter once in a lifetime and there could be no precedents.
My journalism school did not teach me many things – how to deal with a traumatic experience, to seek support (legal and psychological), to deal with a difficult situation. In many ways, I am fortunate that I had not been reduced to a mere statistic in the very masculine stories full of guns, artilleries, statistics of the number of people killed or injured. The challenges were manifold – there were no manuals to guide me. I was the lone wolf, stepping into the unknown with no modern safety equipment like a bulletproof jacket. Reporting conflict can spring surprises at every step. There are certain situations which a journalist would probably encounter once in a lifetime and there could be no precedents.
Over the years, I had realized that my gender mattered in peculiar ways. There are certain things peculiar to women and we often tend to overlook seemingly trivial issues like toilets, attire, personal safety etc. The world over, there has been incidents when women journalists have been killed, attacked, stalked or injured. And most importantly, there is no safety net for a journalist reporting from this region. A support system to deal with myriad issues – physical, legal and psychological. Personally, I had to undergo psychological counselling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after doing a groundbreaking story on a fake encounter. My mental state was aggravated by my physical condition as I was expecting my second child then.
Our lives are often at tenterhooks while reporting from a conflict zone. A journalist has to face the wrath of both the state and the non-state actors. It is not uncommon to have newspaper offices closed down, newspapers seized, and journalists abused, jailed and killed. Our media schools should incorporate these living realities - a section on conflict reporting in their curriculum. Often the narrative of the journalist goes missing. I hope everyone relishes Bulletproof which is a collection of stories behind the stories.
Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist and author based in Northeast India. Her first book, The Mothers of Manipur, was critically acclaimed. Her latest book, Bulletproof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict has just been released. The views expressed are the author's own.