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Health concerns after reporter dies

2nd July 2012

The death of a young Indian photographer for Tehelka magazine from malaria after an assignment covering conflicts deep in the forests of Chhattisgarh has sparked concerns over the health and safety of journalists on assignment.

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Tarun Sehrawat travelled to the state in May with reporter Tusha Mittal, and both contracted cerebral malaria. While Mittal is slowly recovering, Sehrawat died of complications.

Urban journalists in India were shocked by the news, and have scant awareness of the health dangers that beset many of their poorer compatriots on a daily basis.

According to Luis Manuel Botello of the International Centre for Journalists in Washington, while journalists may feel that nothing can happen to them on assignment because of their "sense of mission," microbes and insects know of no reason not to target them.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on media managers to take more responsibility for the health and safety of their staff working in the field.

Asia programme coordinator Bob Dietz said that journalists on assignment could be faced with anything from incoming fire, to unexpected explosions to viruses and other microbes that could be just as deadly as reporting from a war zone.

According to a report in their own magazine, neither Sehrawat nor Mittal were well-protected for a week in the forest. They took only a few bottles of drinking water, packets of biscuits, and insect repellent.

They had taken no anti-malarial tablets, nor did they carry mosquito nets or water-purifying tablets, it said.

According to Chhattisgarh-based reporter Aman Sethi, who writes for The Hindu newspaper, neither was foolhardy or overly naive. Both had visited the area to report on the Maoist violence before. But it had apparently not occurred to them, or their editors, that they could contract a fatal disease.

Tehelka’s editors have praised his courage in reporting on the armed conflict. But managing editor Shoma Chaudhury admitted that the magazine had provided no guidance or training to either journalist.

She said: "There is almost no real understanding or knowledge of these places."

She said most assessments of the risks the pair were facing revolved around the likelihood that either side in the armed conflict would attack journalists from New Delhi.

She said she had told Mittal to "turn back immediately if you feel the slightest sense of danger". But she said the irony was that the real danger the pair faced was invisible.

Cerebral malaria is known as a major health hazard in Chhattisgarh, and malaria is still a major killer in rural India, and yet few Indian publications even report on India’s rural health crisis in much detail.

Chaudhury said there was a tendency among Indians not to view their own country as a hazardous location.

She said the magazine would now be advising journalists to check on local health hazards and get the necessary immunisations and equipment, including mosquito nets, before they travelled.

 

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