In a rather twisted way, the British Broadcasting Corporation and its South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt must be thanking the National Tiger Conservation Authority for banning the news broadcasting organisation for five years from filming in all Indian tiger reserves. For, if they hadn’t done so, would the documentary, Our World: Killing for Conservation have even been noticed in India?

Rowlatt’s report, Kaziranga: The park that shoots people to protect rhinos, appeared on February 10. For a generally slow moving bureaucracy, the official reaction was pretty swift. On February 13, the National Tiger Conservation Authority called for blacklisting Rowlatt.

In a chilling and matter-of-fact manner, Rowlatt’s report detailed that in the last 20 years, 106 persons were shot dead in Kaziranga National Park on the suspicion that they were poachers due to a “shoot-at-sight” policy of the conservation authority. The report acknowledged that Kaziranga is a success story of conservation: the park has 2,400 one-horned rhinos today.

The conservation authority petulantly said that the BBC committed a breach of trust and did not work “constructively” with the government of India, thereby portraying conservation efforts in India in a negative light. In his response to the authority’s show-cause notice, Rowlatt said that he did not attempt to deceive anyone and there was no reply to his requests for interviews with officials and the Union minister for Environment Anil Dave and Assam’s Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma.

While the ban has been widely reported now in the media, the authority appears to have gone a step further, appealing to the ministry of external affairs to rescind Rowlatt’s visa.

Image: IANS
Image: IANS

Questions for media

Any such move to curb the freedom of journalists to collect and disseminate information must be staunchly resisted. If the authority felt that the facts Rowlatt had put together in his report were wrong or a distortion, surely they could have conveyed this in some other manner? They are well within their rights to seek space for their viewpoint, but to slam down on the report and the documentary and initiate action against the messenger only makes one wonder what the authority is trying to hide.

Indeed, these methods definitely need to be questioned and it is surprising that they have escaped the radar of India’s national media for all these years. In the last three years itself, 50 people have been shot dead, allegedly for being poachers.

But there is another uncomfortable ethical question that Rowlatt’s documentary brings up: will the forest guards he interviewed face reprisal for speaking so frankly to him? Will the authority ensure that its guards and officers are not punished for, perhaps unwittingly, blowing the whistle on this highly questionable policy?

Nonetheless, Rowlatt’s piece is a starting point to raise these issues and to initiate a much-needed discussion on the rights of forest and the tribal dwellers in the park. We definitely need a larger debate on the tension between locals and park authorities and the man-animal conflict that is turning increasingly aggressive, with encroachments on each others’ habitat both in sanctuaries and national parks and even in highly urbanised areas.

But the heavy-handed approach evidenced in this ban merely clamps down on any such discussion and penalises those who raise such questions.

Over-sensitive state?

Irrespective of which government is in power, whether it was the earlier Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government or the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government, Indian authorities are uniformly jittery about the foreign eye. Any independent reportage that is critical and doesn’t accept the official narrative is sought to be not allowed. The rather naïve wording of the show cause notice (that the BBC failed to work constructively with the government) is a good illustration of the government’s expectation of the role of the foreign correspondents in image-building.

The fracas over the 2015 ban on the BBC documentary India’s daughter has blown over, leaving only stricter Home Ministry guidelines for foreigners visiting Indian jails. However, we do need more scrutiny of the clampdown on foreign journalists or restrictions on their work. Most foreign journalists find it near-impossible to get visas as journalists and a tourist visa comes with the accompanying restrictions on work.

Journalists who are here officially, find themselves penalised for stepping outside the invisible limits drawn for them. In 2010, Shogo Takahashi, the New Delhi bureau chief of Japanese state broadcaster NHK, had to leave India because his visa was not extended, allegedly because his reports focused on poverty. In 2011, the veteran David Barsamian of Alternative Radio was deported from New Delhi airport without ascribing any reason. He was planning to visit Kashmir to report on mass disappearances during the prolonged conflict. Last year, the visas of two Chinese journalists were not extended because the Indian government said they visited Tibetan settlements in Karnataka without a special protected area permit.

Writing on her own expulsion from neighbouring Pakistan in 2009, journalist Nirupama Subramaniam, who was The Hindu’s correspondent there, made the pertinent point that the Indian government is not alone in treating foreign correspondents “as an extension of their country’s foreign policy”. Far from being given the regard and respect that an independent journalist should get, they are treated as pawns in the diplomatic jockeying between nations. And journalism is the sufferer.

Geeta Seshu is an independent journalist and Consulting Editor of the mediawatch site The Hoot.