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ThePrint in Afghanistan and the value of putting boots on the ground each time

It's common practice now for most Indian media houses to not do stories datelined from other countries, partly due to financial constraints but also because of domestic upheavals.

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She stands in the middle of a road, deserted but for a man who cycles away behind her; in protective helmet and a security vest, she looks ready for combat but the only weapon she carries is the microphone in her hand: “This is Nayanima Basu in Mazar–e–Sharif for ThePrint.”

In this video report, Basu noted that the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s fourth largest city was closing down even as the Taliban closed in. It was 10 August. Two days later, the Taliban moved in….

Today, such reporting is perhaps unthinkable following last Thursday’s terrorist attack by the ISIS-K in Kabul, which left about 200 people dead, and the chaotic evacuation of thousands by many countries.

When Basu had arrived at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, on 7 August, it was to report on what the editors at ThePrint believed would be the political and military fallout of the US forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban overran the country with a speed and lack of resistance that was as unexpected as it was alarming, upsetting all calculations. Basu, like thousands of others, was evacuated on 17 August, along with members of the Indian embassy.

During that one week – the period just before the Taliban entered the capital, Kabul, and two days after they installed themselves in its presidential palace – Basu visited Mazar-e-Sharif, met and interviewed Jamiat-e-Islami Party leader Ata Noor there a day before he fled the city, and in Kabul, she managed to speak to the former prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, besides filing reports on political developments.

Also read: Dear readers, you know our news. Now know ThePrint newsroom

Among the few Indian media in Kabul

Nayanima Basu was one of a mere handful of Indian journalists in Kabul reporting for the Indian media – print, broadcast or online – at the time. Most news organisations were content to report on the Taliban’s surprisingly swift advance through Afghanistan from New Delhi or rely on agency and international media reports.

This is now common practice for most of the Indian media – you will be hard pressed to find stories datelined from other countries, and the neighbourhood, partly due to financial constraints but also because domestic issues, political and social upheavals – and more recently, the pandemic—have driven the news cycle at such a furious pace, the media is always playing catch up, as it is.

From a journalistic point of view and for the public, this is disappointing and worrisome: following the 2020 clashes with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the constant friction with Pakistan, the Indian media ought to have stationed correspondents in these countries – to say nothing of Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka –so readers/viewers saw them through Indian eyes, keeping in mind Indian interests, not say, The New York Times, which obviously reports the news from a US perspective.

Other than ThePrint, there was no more than a smattering of Indian news organisations like The Indian Express, TV9 Bharatvarsh, India Today in Kabul, which meant we turned to BBC World, CNN International or Al Jazeera to witness the swift debacle of the country and its capital on 15 August – and the events that have unfolded since.

The virtual absence of the Indian media in Kabul at this critical juncture is perplexing: India enjoys strong historic and cultural ties with Afghanistan, has abiding political and economic interests in the country which is of vital strategic importance to the region – besides, there are the Taliban’s links with terrorism to worry about.

This assignment was fraught with potential danger for any journalist– the threat of violence loomed on the horizon and at the back of all our minds was the killing of Reuters’ photojournalist Danish Siddiqui on 16 July.

But peril always lurks around the corner in conflict reporting, it comes with the territory. That Basu went ahead, nevertheless, speaks of her character.

Also read: From Mazar to Kabul, I saw Afghanistan fall to Taliban in 10 days

Committed to field reporting

For ThePrint, a reporter in Kabul became an unforeseen feather in its cap, while underlining its continuing commitment to field reporting.

Basu was amongst a small contingent of foreign journalists at the Kabul Serena Hotel (thought to be the most secure hotel in the city), and she was alone. It was also her first visit to Afghanistan, her first conflict zone assignment.

Now, cross over to India’s eastern front where another trouble spot had to be seen to be believed – and reported. That is precisely what ThePrint’s Ananya Bhardwaj did, travelling to the border towns between Assam and Mizoram where the police forces of the two states have been locked eyeball to eyeball since last winter.

On 26 July, clashes between them left six security personnel dead and 50 others injured – all for the sake of an “8×8 feet under-construction post that has barely made it out of its wooden skeletal framework’’, wrote Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj had never visited the two states before, spoke neither language and had little knowledge of the longstanding dispute between them. Moreover, the situation was highly unusual: these were Indians on both sides, divided by claims over land.

Once again, it was the kind of confrontation that could be only described accurately from the ground, which is what Bhardwaj did, along with ThePrint’s Praveen Jain who captured it, quite dramatically, in photographs from the clash site and then again from the border.

Also read: On the roads of Kabul, anxiety, fear, terror & gunshots a day after Taliban take control

Good journalistic values need reiteration

In my July article, I had referred to ground reporting as being one of ThePrint’s defining characteristics. These two assignments illustrate the point well.

What began with the 2019 Lok Sabha election, gathered momentum through the Covid pandemic as reporters travelled across India to record the impact of the first and second waves.

A lull in the pandemic since June hasn’t seen ThePrint take its foot off the pedal: in August alone, reporters have travelled to Assam and Mizoram, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu besides Afghanistan.

Has the decision to send out reporters, for the better part, young and inexperienced, to report from places they have never been before and report on situations they have never seen earlier, been justified for ThePrint  and the reader?

Well, yes but a qualified yes.

Yes, because good old-fashioned journalistic values or see-and-tell, assess-and-evaluate field reporting needs reiteration, especially when so much of journalism, in the time of the Internet and Covid, has become armchair-laptop-mobile phone-social media reporting.

In conflict situations, this is all the more necessary.

For the reader, a conflict needs to be fleshed out with people – the chief protagonists, in this case, members of the Afghan government, the Taliban, the resistance and the US forces; or the police in Assam and Mizoram. But most of all, conflict needs human features, in particular of those who bear the consequences of the strife and violence – the people. That’s why journalists need to be at the fault lines of any stand-off.

Zoom sessions, mobile calls, e-mail interviews are poor substitutes, albeit necessary now, to the real thing.

Ananya Bhardwaj reporting on reactions of the Assam and Mizoram police forces, or the villagers’ distress at the price rise in Mizoram because of Assam’s blockade, were the real thing — you can’t capture that sitting in Delhi.

Nayanima Basu’s visit to Mazar-e-Sharif was the real thing – if only she had more time to trawl the city, meet more of its citizens. If only she had been able to walk the streets of Kabul, describe the sights, sounds and smell of a city under siege and the taste of fear in the mouths of its people.

Her accounts of waiting at the airport on 16 August and subsequent journey to the Indian embassy as well as her 10-day diary are much more compelling journalism than the routine reports on political developments — the latter is necessary but eyewitness reports can transport the audience to the place and through one person’s experience tell the story of a people caught in the crosshairs of conflict, mostly not of their own making.

Also read: Escape from Kabul: How I negotiated with Taliban to make it to the safety of Indian embassy

Putting boots on the ground

However, there is a thin line between a reporter from Delhi (or anywhere else for that matter) landing up in place for just a few days’ reporting, and what is often, disparagingly, called parachute journalism.

Such assignments can be accused of being hurried and superficial — too often, journalists hole up in a hotel and report from the rooftop, or, go by the official versions of developments.

To avoid such hazards, senior editors at ThePrint brief reporters, and reporters do their homework. As they continue to travel, they will, hopefully, gain in skill and experience with each outing, acquire a greater understanding of the places they travel to and the people they meet — that will enrich the stories they go to tell or discover along the way.

And this is where the opportunity lies for ThePrint, to make its mark – to go to places other media houses, digital news don’t go. For now, it has shown a willingness to put boots on the ground, to take the road less travelled.

Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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