The holy grail of conservation in India has been questioned by a stinging report put out by a foreign media house. Killing for conservation, an investigative documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation that aired in February (see video below), allegedly blows the lid off the conservation success story of the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, home to the Indian one-horned rhino, and exposes a grim tale of violence, human rights violations and forced evictions at the cost of protecting the endangered animal.
The story has been flailed for its facts, its “wrongful” portrayal of the forest guard, the conditions under which he/she works, the conservation model the park allegedly follows. Should guns be used to silence poachers, are they used in an ad hoc way, and were communities living on the fringes of the park attacked are all valid questions that have been asked in the aftermath of the controversy, leading to a spate of opinion that has largely leaned towards condemning the documentary for showing Kaziranga in a poor light.
Oddly, what has not been condemned is an order issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority on February 27 that bars the BBC from filming in tiger reserves across India for the next five years. The Authority went on to issue an advisory to the External Affairs Ministry asking for the visas of the journalist Justin Rowlatt (who filed the story) and his crew to be revoked for the same time period. It also issued a show-cause notice stating that the channel had provided them false information about filming the documentary with the “surreptitious malintent of obtaining permission from relevant authorities”.
The action taken by the Authority has drawn celebratory messages from various sections of the conservation community, publicly and on social media. I have watched in silence as the controversy unfolded and followed the community, which includes lawyers, scientists and forest officers, appalled as they were by the expose. Oddly, not a single voice has condemned the attempt to silence the media. These members of the conservation community who are lauding the Authority for banning the media outfit are the exact same people who approach journalists like me with stories on exposing forest officers or the corrupt practices in our national parks and sanctuaries.
This order by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which oversees all tiger reserves in the country, sets a dangerous precedent. Will the Authority tomorrow also ban an Indian media outfit or journalist if their story does not agree with them? Which journalist will go out tomorrow and question the policies of the forest department if this fear of retaliation hangs over his/her head like a sword of Damocles? The BBC team had contacted this writer for an opinion before heading out to Kaziranga. I didn’t agree with their line of questioning, so I refused to comment. I may still not support the final story, but what I do support is their right as journalists to raise questions on conservation policies, even if it makes us uneasy.
Banning the media, foreign or Indian, is not the answer. What the authorities should have done was issued a white paper on the allegations of human rights violations and dealt with the charges fact for fact.
“I just think that NTCA should have responded with their own critique and perhaps the BBC could have added that to the end of the article,” said a wildlife filmmaker who did not want to be identified, fearing retribution. “This is really the height of intolerance. Ban anything that they do not like or questions them is not the answer. In fact, I wish NTCA had said, ‘Yes, we stand by it. I know there are costs to this approach and sometimes this happens, but we decided to take this approach to save the rhino’.”
Banning a media house reveals the same act of paranoia as stopping scholars of Jawaharlal Nehru University from holding talks or seminars, or dubbing a person anti-national when he/she questions government policy. It is the same witch-hunt that led to news website wire.in being censored by a Bharatiya Janata Party MP through a court order this month, or Gurmehar Kaur, the daughter of a soldier who died in the Kargil war, being subjected to an online lynch mob over a year-old anti-war Facebook video.
Sign of our times
Rowlatt may have got some facts wrong, and you could disagree with the slant of his story, but what this incident has highlighted is a clause all of us have to sign on as journalists when we shoot in national parks, which has always made me extremely uneasy: permits are granted on the condition that we show our film to the government before broadcasting it. While it is fair to ask for a copy, should the government be allowed to stop us from broadcasting it if it disagrees with the contents? These are perhaps the more serious questions emerging out of the controversy even as the National Tiger Conservation Authority tries to do some damage control.
It has argued that Rowlatt misled the authorities on the intent of his article and, therefore, action must be taken against him. Are we then saying that a journalist who masks him/herself as a commercial trader in order to entrap a tiger poacher should reveal to the poacher what his story is about? Do all journalists reveal to the person they are exposing what the intent of their story is? Rowlatt should be condemned for the facts of his story if he has got them wrong, not his intent.
Those of us who track the wildlife and environment beat know for a fact how difficult it is to get any forest officer to talk to the media, unless, of course, we are doing a story that lauds their efforts. To ban a media outlet just because the story doesn’t agree with our sensibilities smacks of intolerance that sadly has become a sign of our times.