A dilemma during a humanitarian crisis

A dilemma during a humanitarian crisis

Should relief workers do their job or give access to journalists?

“What’s your weight,” asked the Indian Air Force (IAF) officer, visibly irritated by my persistence. He was responsible for ensuring that much-needed fuel and rations reached the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the days following the deadly tsunami of 2004, and I had been trying to get a ride on one of the helicopters or AN-32s flying between the islands all day. These aircraft would set out carrying food and fuel for people stranded on the islands, and return carrying the injured and homeless to shelters in Port Blair. So, when I asked again to be allowed to fly to Car Nicobar, which was among the most devastated, he snapped and told me, “I can either send a bag of rice or you on this flight. Which one should it be?” Cowed into silence by his words, I sat down and waited for the next flight that could carry me out.

Relief workers in any humanitarian situation face the same dilemma: should they deliver all the relief they can or give journalists access to the affected areas so the world can be informed about the crisis? This is a choice that must be made responsibly. Officials must consider whether journalists are hampering or aiding relief efforts, with the understanding that the media has a responsibility in bringing information to the public.

As a battle rages on about whether journalists should have access to wards at the hospital in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, where more than 100 children have died, questions must also be asked about whether the officials who allowed them had weighed these options carefully. There is a public purpose served in ensuring that the State Health Department is held to account even as the current epidemic of acute encephalitis syndrome continues. Having been granted that access, however, it is for the journalist to cover the story with what UNESCO-framed media guidelines call “a personal ethical consciousness”, where information is seen as a “social good, not a commodity”, and in a way that doesn’t obstruct health workers and doctors from doing their job. The dignity and privacy of all patients, victims and their families must also be maintained, note the UNESCO guidelines that were adopted in 1983.

Notwithstanding the point made by the IAF officer in Port Blair, facilitating the media in humanitarian situations does serve a larger purpose. One famous study titled ‘Media Coverage and Charitable Giving after the 2004 Tsunami’, published in the Southern Economic Journal, found that “each additional minute of international news coverage raised donations worldwide by about 2.5%”. Millions of dollars poured into the affected areas in the months after the tsunami.

Sometimes, the impact is even more immediate. I once covered a school project in a large slum in Delhi, and interviewed a little boy who didn’t speak much. When I asked him what he wanted the most, he simply pointed to his bare feet. A staff member explained that he and his brothers had one pair of shoes between them, and would take turns to wear them to school. Some days after the story aired on the international channel I worked for, I heard from a woman in the U.S. She wanted to know how she could reach the boy. Imagine our joy when we heard that a consignment of 500 shoes had arrived for not only the boy, but for every student in the school!

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