In the wee hours of the morning, on February 26, a dozen Mirage fighters dropped guided surface to air missiles on a terrorist camp in Balakot, Pakistan. According to foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, this was not in response to the suicide attack that claimed the lives of 40 CRPF soldiers on February 14, but was a pre-emptive strike against future attacks that were being planned from that camp. While the Indian government and military played down the attack, calling it a non-military pre-emptive strike, Indian news media went ballistic. After all, it isn’t every day that the media is gifted with a military strike that it can spin, whichever way it wants to gain more eyeballs. And, in this spin, the loss to the nation and the harm to the armed forces is collateral damage.
Someone on Twitter described Indian news channels being like Fox News on steroids. It wasn’t far off the mark. There was glee at the claim that Yusuf Azhar, the brother-in-law of Jaish-e-Muhammed head Maulana Masood Azhar was finally neutralised. Yusuf Azhar was the man who carried out the Kandahar hijack of IC-814. This was the hijack that saw the Indian government release a number of terrorists including Masood Azhar, in return for saving lives on the plane. And, for those who remember the hijack, the scenes of the families of those on the plane, crying and threatening to give up their lives, if the Indian government did not release the terrorists, is still fresh in memory. These scenes were broadcast ad nauseum on TV channels putting unbearable pressure on the Indian government to release terrorists. And, they did. Masood Azhar went on to plan the 26/11 attacks. While it can be said that the government should have held its nerve and not released the terrorists, the fact remains that the news media of that era enabled this by bringing a new factor into the equation – the sight of grieving Indian families. It was great for ratings. Terrible for the country.
And, that has been a playbook adopted multiple times when dealing with national security issues. We can all recollect the minute by minute coverage of the 26/11 attacks. A coverage so pervasive that the Supreme Court of India, in the verdict against the lone terrorist who survived Kasab, has an entire section on the Indian news media and its role in the carnage.
The judgement states that the terrorist handlers were following the live coverage, to pass on information to the terrorists holed up in the Taj and Oberoi, enabling them to do more damage. “The reckless coverage of the terrorist attack by the channels thus gave rise to a situation where on the one hand the terrorists were completely hidden from the security forces and they had no means to know their exact position or even the kind of firearms and explosives they possessed and on the other hand the positions of the security forces, their weapons and all their operational movements were being watched by the collaborators across the border on TV screens and being communicated to the terrorists.”
And, while ratings are important for a news business, and the news media has every right to turn the lens on the actions of the government, corporates, political parties, and even influential individuals in public interest, the question to be asked is whether this sort of high pitched coverage compromises Indian security? Whether it puts unbearable pressure on the Indian government of the day in terms of the options it has remaining? Does it put lives at risk?
Despite multiple violations of the codes of journalism or ethics, there has been little done to rein in the news channels. While they have complete freedom of expression, the question arises – is compromising national security covered as a part of freedom of expression. A day after the attack, the channels are busy finding the most virulent, irrational people in the subcontinent, trying to fan the flames of war. Because war means ratings for the media. For all their claims of respecting the armed forces, the channels seem to demand blood sacrifice of the men and women in uniform, to assuage their own sense of patriotism.
At the core, the question that needs to be asked is whether speculation is news. Whether opinion can be passed off as news. A great many benefits that accrue to the news media is because of its traditional role in acting in public interest. However, kindling a war is definitely not in public interest, nor is raising emotions to a level that people clamour for a war or a riot. The government needs to revisit its regulation on news media and see if in a world where there are 400+ news channels and countless news websites- they need a more effective code of conduct. Else public interest is going to be damaged by a news media on war steroids.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersections of technology, media, and audiences.