Media: Now A Danger To Democracy

Media: Now A Danger To Democracy
* *Thursday, October 13,2016*

*NEW DELHI: *Since the September 18 attack on an Indian army post in the
north Kashmir town of Uri, the media in this country has plunged into a
mood of bellicosity, extreme even by its usual standards.

It was a matter of some convenience that in the near-religious fervour with
which the “martyrdom” of eighteen Indian service personnel was observed,
two months of strife in the Kashmir valley – that had been casually
reported as treasonous, anti-national and dangerously fanatical – was
quickly forgotten.

Immediately following Uri, the news website reported that a
retaliatory raid had been carried out by the Indian army, inflicting
serious casualties on the Pakistan side of Kashmir’s Line of Control (LoC).
A categorical denial was swiftly issued from army headquarters, after which
other media outlets – resentful till then about missing a possible news
break – jumped into the fray with unseemly delight. Far from any manner of
effort to ascertain what really happened, they seemed to find greater joy
in a competitor’s embarrassment.

The news website in the thick of it all was not about to back away from its
fanciful reporting. It claimed to have carried out a further round of fact
checks and determined it had been right all along.

Meanwhile, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) a specialised body
dealing with terrorism cases, had found little corroboration for the story
line that the media almost reflexively spun immediately after Uri.

Savage raiders coming into Indian territory invariably carry some
identification marks that could be traced back to malevolent agencies from
the enemy state in the west. That was unsurprisingly, the first account of
the Uri incident that the media offered, following accustomed practice of
not seeking evidence.

When the Indian Express reported that the NIA’s preliminary investigations
had revealed no such evidence of overt involvement from the other side,
army headquarters reacted in extreme anger, demanding a prior factual check
over reporting involving its operations.

There has of course, been only one period when media reports were subject
to prior restraint, and that was the ill-remembered emergency of the
mid-1970s. Fortunately, this new power of censorship was not pursued any
further, perhaps because the army really had no reason to worry. Except for
the occasional flash of independence, the media has never been far from
rolling over in abject submission to any agenda that is proclaimed to serve
a putative national security interest.

On September 29, the Director-General of Military Operations in India’s
army headquarters summoned a formal media briefing at which he announced
that a cross-border operation had been carried out beginning the previous
night and ending at daybreak, in which a number of terror “launch pads” had
been destroyed and a significant number of enemy casualties inflicted.

A wave of euphoria swept over the media. Evening prime-time news broadcasts
were suffused with greater than usual bluster. And just as the news
channels were lending their full-throated support to street vigilante
efforts to eject all Pakistan nationals from cultural activities in India,
they were paying out good money to have certified hawks and retired
military personnel from that country on prime-time shows, to be verbally
savaged by bumptious anchors.

The news website rushed into the fray with a detailed account
of the operation headlined “Uri avenged”, which reported that attack
helicopters had been used to take crack Indian army commandos across the
border and evacuate them after the mission was completed.

The next day, The Times of India reported that the commandos had set off on
foot, traversed a wide circuit within enemy territory, carried out their
actions and safely returned to base by the break of day. But the factual
details were seemingly superfluous, since the main theme of the day’s
report was the newspaper’s magical clairvoyance in being the first to
predict, immediately after Uri, that India was actively looking at
retaliation options.

Meanwhile, the NDTV news website was celebrating the successful operation
which had been carried out without the slightest scratch being suffered by
the Indian soldiers. Other newspapers and websites reported minor injuries.
The Hindustan Times reported that helicopters had been used to ferry the
commandos while most others stuck to the story line of a trudge on foot
into enemy territory and back.

Certain details involving the well-being of service personnel completely
eluded the Indian media. On the day of the operation, the website of
Karachi based Dawn reported that one Indian soldier had been captured. All
Indian papers either ignored or vehemently denied that, before finally
admitting in their print editions the following day, that he had
"inadvertently" crossed the border and been taken captive.

This minor inconvenience was quickly forgotten, as the BJP began its
triumphal procession through the news studios. Hoardings were soon
springing up in town and village squares of poll bound Uttar Pradesh,
boosting the Indian army achievement as a hammer blow against terrorism,
and crudely appropriating the entire glory for the BJP’s national and local
political leadership.

Pakistan for its part, was sticking to the story line that nothing of any
consequence had occurred, beyond a minor flare-up in small arms fire across
the LoC. A media party taken on an army conducted tour to various parts on
that side of the LoC returned convinced, and for a brief while that story
dominated the news cycle in Pakistan.

On October 6, despite the anxious efforts at damage control, Dawn came up
with a story suggesting fresh sources of discord between the civilian
leadership and army in Pakistan. Worried about the international isolation
and odium that Pakistan was falling into, the political leadership had
ostensibly demanded that the army rein in the various Islamic warrior
groups it had nurtured. The army command was resisting this move,
suggesting a fresh eruption of the civilian-military volatility that has
plagued Pakistan’s state structure.

Army HQ in Pakistan and the Prime Minister’s office were quick with their
denials. Dawn stuck to its story. On October 11, the reporter who had
investigated and written the story, Cyril Almedia, was placed on a
so-called “exit control list”, restraining him from travelling out of the
country. Dawn responded with public statements of support for their
reporter from the publisher, Hameed Haroon and editor, Zafar Abbas.

Basic freedoms on both sides were beginning to be threatened in the
overwrought atmosphere of hostility towards the other, a public mood
described by the former civil servant Gopalakrishna Gandhi in a rare
interlude of media sanity, as “hate-riotism”.

If the spirited response of Dawn was something that freedom loving
individuals from both sides took courage from, the media in India seemed
happy to cooperate with the political design of fettering its ability to
contribute to the public discourse.

On October 6, morning bulletins in the Delhi-based news channel NDTV gave
brief excerpts from an interview it had recorded with former union minister
P. Chidambaram. There was a promise that the entire interview would be
broadcast in evening prime-time.

What NDTV actually served up at the promised hour was a full-screen, static
announcement titled “India above politics”.

That theme kicked off its prime-time news broadcast as the newly minted
editorial leitmotif: that “national security (could not) be compromised by
politics”. Recognising that “the current political debate” threatened to do
precisely that, NDTV had determined that it would “not air any remarks that
risk security for political advantage”.

As reported by Siddharth Varadarajan on the news website, this
announcement followed a directive issued by NDTV editorial director Sonia
Singh to all staff in an email that morning. The directive also included an
explicit disavowal of any intent to “doubt or question” the Indian army or
use it for “political gain”. Only this particular proviso was dropped, for
reasons yet unexplained, from the prime-time declaration of editorial
fealty to the new militarist spirit.

It was difficult to imagine that Chidambaram, who was appointed to his
first important national security position in 1986 and had served ten years
in the cabinet committee on security under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,
could contribute to any of the negative outcomes that NDTV feared. But in
the mood of prickly patriotic fervour that the media is seeking actively to
foster, even the most sober and informed voices seem to have no place.

An environment of information scarcity allows rumour and half-truths to
flourish. Far from restraining competitive politics, it actively nourishes
it, at the cost of any sense of responsibility to the public.

On October 4, the Congress issued a press release demanding answers on how
the “surgical strike” announced on September 29 differed from various
operations carried out while it was in power. Specifically mentioned were
operations carried out on September 1, 2011, July 28, 2013 and January 14,

On October 9, The Hindu with an obvious assist from higher levels in the
military command, revealed the various details of the first of these
cross-border operations, carried out by the Indian army in retaliation for
a strike exactly a month earlier by Pakistani forces.

Pakistan had allegedly carried out its sneak attack in the Kupwara area,
pinning down a small Indian army contingent and inflicting a heavy cost in
lives. Two Indian soldiers were beheaded and as reinforcements rushed in,
the Pakistan men fled back to safety with their grisly trophies.

“Operation Ginger”, the Indian retaliation was planned for the day before
Eid, when Pakistani personnel were expected to let down their guard. The
early morning raid ended with India going one-up on Pakistan in the number
of trophies harvested.

The Congress was soon strutting its stuff, claiming that this display of
military machismo under its watch was proof of greater devotion to the
nation. What was missing was any sense of public scrutiny over army actions
on both sides, which amount by all applicable codes, to war crimes.

Early in 2013, when two Indian army personnel Lance Naiks Hemraj and
Sudhakar Singh, were killed and their bodies mutilated in a cross-border
incident, the Indian media went into a paroxysm of rage, stirring up a vile
public mood for vengeance. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, then in
opposition, called for three Pakistani heads to avenge the indignity to the
Indian army.

The details of “Operation Ginger” as now revealed, speak of an
action-reaction sequence of barbarities on the border, underway since well
before this incident. Yet the public discourse seems unconcerned about the
persistence of the conditions that make the young men of the Indian army
accessories in such patent violations of basic decency.

In a political milieu that values the principle of civilian control over
the armed forces, the responsibility for every such incident is ultimately
the political leadership’s. The mood of unquestioning obeisance to the army
is an opportunistic evasion of this principle.

A media that casually calls for pressing ahead with this cycle of vengeance
and uses the most violent vocabulary in daily discourse is a danger to
democracy. One that calls the nation to war without the slightest
comprehension of wider realities, is an accessory of the worst


Peace Is Doable

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