In the 'war' zone: cover for journalists out on field

MUMBAI: In the wake of the tragic death of 39-year-old BBC producer Kate Peyton, who was shot in Somalia earlier this week by militiamen outside the Sahafi Hotel, comes the inevitable question - Are journalists safe enough on the field?

Perhaps one of the biggest tragedies to hit the Fourth Estate was the abduction and the subsequent murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Pearl's wife Mariane sought compensation from the 11 September victims' fund, even after the fund administrator rejected her claim. That again raises the question whether broadcasters and publishers really safeguard their employees' interest in case of any unforeseen circumstances?

Leading broadcasters spoke to vehemently stressed on the fact that the well being of all employees was a priority and that they were taken care of by way of insurance and medical claims in case of accidents on the job.

BBC World spokesman Kevin Young says that the BBC staff is adequately covered by insurance arrangements, but refused to elaborate on the nature of these "arrangements". Says Young, "The health and safety of BBC journalists is paramount, and subsequently we pay scrupulous attention to protective measures, including equipment, training and planning."

Speaking on the specific case of Peyton, Young says, "The situation in Somalia makes it extremely difficult to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding this tragic event, but we will do our utmost to find out as much as we can with regards to Kate's death."

Indian news channels like NDTV, Star News, Zee News, India TV etc, too have their employees safety well catalogued by way of insurance. In case of death of an employee on the job, NDTV covers them for medical insurance. However, life insurance coverage is not on the cards, informs NDTV company secretary Rajeev Bhatnagar.

Star News CEO Uday Shankar emphasises that the company had high volume of insurance coverage, which included casualties or permanent incapacities of any sort. "Journalists work in hostile environments and occupational hazards are always there. We give our employees and their kith and kin all assurances that in case of any problems, the necessary steps would be taken by us," he says.

Talking about area specific hazards, like in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand or Kashmir especially during elections, Shankar says, "Every State has a different kind of problem. The kind of problems journalists face in North-East India would not be the same as that in Bihar. They face threats all over." Speaking of the most recent incident of a Star News journalist being assaulted in a school in Kolkata, Shankar says that one could not think that a journalist could face any kind of threat from a school, but that was what happened to the journalist who was reporting on the maltreatment of an innocent child in the school.

"Precautionary measures are taken by our team who travel in the interiors of states like Bihar and Jharkhand," Shankar says, while stressing on the fact that the number of verbal and physical assaults that journalists and news channel crew faces are very high in the country. In consensus, Aaj Tak CEO G Krishnan, too, affirmed that journalists working for the network were well covered for with insurance policies.

Zee News, too has their staffers insured under various covers ranging from medical to accident. Zee Telefilms news director Laxmi Goel informs that the employees' insurance package depends on their category and salary. "In case of accidents, deaths or impairment while on duty, apart from the insurance money from the insurance company, Zee News too chips in with a helping hand on humanitarian grounds," he says. Company sources, on the other hand say that on an average the insurance package would range between Rs 50,000 to Rs 80,000-Rs 100,000.

Zee News editor Alka Saxena, on the other hand pointed out that thankfully there have been no major mishaps involving Zee News crew out in the field. Goel, however points out that in one case, Zee News' Jammu correspondent got shot during some militant activity three years back and the full treatment cost was borne by the company and now the person is hale and hearty on the job.

India TV's employees who go on field assignments ranging from drivers to reporters to camerapersons are insured against various things like riot insurance, medical insurance and accident insurance. This is taken care of at the time the person joins the organisation. The insurance cover in India TV ranges from Rs 100,000 to Rs 1 million, say sources in the company.

Speaking about a specific case, India TV MD Rajat Sharma says, "A messenger lost his eye in an accident and the full medical cost was borne by India TV as part of the insurance cover. Similarly, one of the editors on the desk met with an accident and got paralysed for life. Not only the medical treatment of about Rs 400,000 was borne by the company, but he continues to get a monthly honorarium of Rs 10,000 from India TV. Special care is also taken when TV crew go to cover riots, violent-prone areas and places where natural disasters have struck."

A CNBC employee informed that the areas that their journalists covered are not death defying ones, but nonetheless, all precautions were taken by the company in terms of group health insurance policies, hospital policies etc.

At Sahara too, such issues are taken care by the Sahara Employees Welfare Fund. A standard rule is that in case of death of a serving employee, the spouse, especially the wife would get about one-fourth to one-third of the salary that would have been earned by the dead person for her lifetime.

One BBC employee pointed out that utmost safety measures were taken before journalists went into conflict zones and that the BBC regularly organises training lessons for employees going out in the field. However, what one cannot turn a blind eye to is the fact that news channel professionals, especially those who are out in the high-risk war zones are constantly treading on fire, whether insured or not!

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