Woman at War

Mahalaxmi Singh interviews SCM alum Leela Jacinto, conflict reporter in Paris.

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

 “As a war reporter, people would ask me, ‘What is the most dangerous place that you have been in?’ and for many years I used to say, ‘Actually, I find New Delhi the most dangerous,” Leela Jacinto tells me. Seated in the Crowne Plaza’s hotel bar in Paris, France, on a busy Wednesday morning, Jacinto shares her tumultuous journey and how it has led her to her current position as a senior editor at an international news organization.

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Source: Leela Jacinto

She was twelve, she says, when she decided that journalism was the career path she wanted to follow. However, she adds, “Of course, I was too afraid to confess to it. So, it’s been brewing since my teenage years, and maybe that got me prepared for what I wanted to do.” Jacinto took her first step to actualizing this dream when she joined the post-graduate multimedia course at Social Communications Media SCMSophia. It was with the weight and the name of the “SCM degree” that she could then move forward in her career as a journalist. Talking about her journey at SCM, she says, “SCM made me think”. Crediting her education at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai which also aided the development of her critical thinking skills, she believes that SCM helped her hone these skills and gave her a holistic view of how to evaluate her surroundings. One of the lessons she valued most at SCM was the film appreciation programme where she was exposed to the nuances and details of world cinema. She says, “This is the background that stays with you no matter what you actually cover.”

After SCM, she went on to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at New York University. This opened the floodgates. After NYU, Jacinto worked with ABC News as a producer, travelled to Afghanistan to be a freelance reporter and finally moved to France where she currently works as a senior editor at France 24. This whirlwind of travel, and the experiences that came along with it have instilled a remarkable resilience in her. Talking about her travel experiences she says, “My travel experiences have taught me to look, but more importantly, to look for the underlying issues.”

But that’s not all it takes, she says. “You can’t just travel and get stories. You have to have people skills because you have to work with other people and you have to get people to talk. You have to have a point of view. You have to have something, a baseline, with which to compare what is happening in the moment. Having been brought up in India and grown up in Bombay, it also gives me a perspective coming in from the non-Eurocentric, American world… so as someone who has grown outside of the first world I can hone in on different issues.  So, travel has taught me everything really.”

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Source: Leela Jacinto

Jacinto has dual citizenship: of the United States of America as well as of France; and having worked on both sides of the Atlantic, she is in a good position to compare work cultures. “In my personal opinion, the standards of journalism in the US are very high. Wherever I go… I do not accept these arguments that ‘This is how it is done here’.  I am almost American imperialist about it. I feel that there is journalism, and there are journalistic ethics that are trans-national and international and if you are not following them, you are not doing good journalism.” During the conversation, she acknowledged the extraordinary privilege of her passports, which enable her to easily leave countries plunging into war or autocracy -- unlike the people she’s covering.

Jacinto left India in the mid-1990s and has not worked much with the Indian media since then. She says: “I follow the Indian media that I trust, like The Wire; incidentally the editor of The Wire, Sidharth Bhatia, taught me journalism when I was at SCM.” However, she finds TV channels “screaming, not examining the issue, their visuals are so crowded.  I have only one life to live, I am not doing media comparison analysis, so I just don’t have time for the media that I find compromised and ridiculous.”

When she tells people Delhi is the most dangerous place she has been in, for a long time many believed she was joking. But she explains that while going into a war zone, she knows exactly what the threats are and she can go extremely prepared for it. What she is not prepared for are the myths that have surrounded India for decades, that are now coming to the fore, such as the rise of Hindu nationalism and the illiberal, populist takeover of the democratic system. For her, a marker of majoritarian populism is how a country treats its minorities and the violence – physical or legal – unleashed on minorities. As a Mumbai girl in New Delhi, she says she always found violence against women palpable in the harassment in public spaces. That sort of violence, unlike in war, is hardly discussed and is not covered in conflict zone training courses, she explains.

One imagines that being a reporter is one thing, being a female reporter is another, and being a female war reporter is an absolutely different ballgame altogether. Travelling, questioning, inquiring and making waves in a man’s world is something Jacinto has mastered by now. While covering conflict or the effects of war in patriarchal societies, the question of what it means to be a female war reporter certainly comes up, and for her this is a double edged sword. In a conservative place like Afghanistan, being a woman allows one to not only enter male-dominated spaces but also spaces that are specifically meant for female and where the men aren’t allowed to occupy space. In such situations, “I sometimes have a sort of a neutered gender in places like this, where I can sit in with the men and I can go and poke my nose into the women’s affairs,” she says.  

Speaking of the disadvantages, safety is one of the primary concerns that comes into play. She talks about being in Egypt during The Arab Spring, which was a time when women were harassed in public spaces. It is during such instances that she feels extremely aware of being a woman, at times like those “you are exposed to a level of harassment that your male colleagues would not be exposed to”. She believes she is fortunate that in such situations her male colleagues have always been acutely concerned about her safety and security, but it feels as if she is the “weak link”. “I am sort of the weak-link because the team has to make sure that I am safe, but on the other hand I bring experience of handling regions and terrain where things can change very quickly. I am also bringing my inputs to the team.”

In today’s day and age when women journalists have made incredible strides, Jacinto points out that “many of the limitations that are imposed on women are self-imposed limitations” and she has personally taken the opportunity to break barriers without giving a second thought to “what society thinks”.

She remembers her time in Kenya, following a riot in the city of Mombasa due to the killing of a Muslim cleric. This cleric was said to have been killed in an “encounter”, when in truth it was just a police killing. In anger, the local community had ransacked shops and a church was burned. By the time she flew down to cover this story, things were quiet and journalists arrived with the idea that there was tension between the Christians and the Muslims. However, this was not the case. The true story, the one still to be discovered at the time, was about police violence. An international team of reporters from various channels were waiting outside a mosque after Friday prayers, and when people started coming out, it was evident that they did not want any trouble. But just because the cameras were there, a few young people started exiting the mosque and “performing” for the cameras, and at that stage the police started coming in. In many such instances the cameras start driving the narrative and the same happened here. At that point Jacinto began to yell at the international reporters at the top of her voice saying “Stop this. Stop this. This is not the story”. Hence, she believes: “The question of integrity is not ‘heroic’, it’s very every day and mundane”. For her, moral integrity is the most important trait that a journalist can possess, and it cannot be taught. that a journalist can possess, and it cannot be taught. confidence would not get you very far with that.

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Source: Leela Jacinto

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Source: Leela Jacinto

Dangerous situations are something that might be a daily part of war reporting or a political journalism, so she finds that dealing with them is now no big deal. “Stand back, observe, don’t rush into things” are the most general rules to follow. While getting first aid training and conflict zone training might prove helpful; a lot of the learning comes with experience, having courage, not being nervous, and “understanding your threshold.”  An integral idea to remember, in Jacinto’s words, is that “If you don’t think you can do something, don’t do it just because it seems all macho and heroic. I don’t run into battle lines and stand there and say, ‘Here I am’.” Being in a team, instinct matters and faking confidence would not get you very far with that.

 

As a journalist she looks up to Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco who was her roommate in New York. Talking about Sacco’s work process Jacinto described how, “When he is drawing a war zone, he is counting the number of window panes that are broken” in order to depict the scene with the utmost level of accuracy. It was he who inspired a deep commitment to details in her.

 

Jacinto’s journey from India to being an international reporter and to now teaching young aspirants in Afghanistan the art of journalism is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Her dedication towards her craft, her fearlessness, her discipline and the courage that she possesses are things that every young, hungry and aspiring journalist should take cues from. Her energy, enthusiasm and dedication remains with me even now, months after I met her.

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Source: Leela Jacinto