BY N K SINGH

In Mumbai operation (or in other similar situations), the State might is at its obtrusively fiercest form and the terrorists in their aggressive best.

No matured democracy can afford to keep media away from the scene for more than one reason.

It is general nature of state to restrict media on such occasions seeking justification on the grounds of national interest.

Our Naval chief too seeks to do it although his men were guilty of mistaken identity.

Two reasons why Media has a role:

  • When Gandhi was assassinated, the first announcement from none other than Prime Minister Nehru through AIR was:  the killer was a Hindu named Nathu Ram Godse. Had this announcement not been made, the ensuing riots would have taken unimaginable toll.
  • During Sikh militancy days, in Nanakmata, Pilibhit, 22 sikh piligrims were killed by the police under an over-enthusiastic district SP due to mistaken identity. The then DG tried to hush up the matter saying although some children (they were also part of pilgrims) were killed in ‘cross-fire’, the other killed were hardened terrorists. One newspaper exposed the case by giving minutest details of the pilgrims, many of whom were 80-year-old. Even the Supreme Court sentenced the guilty policemen.

I would not say the same in war situations where two entities – our forces and that of enemy are clearly identified and their roles well carved out. Media can stay away from war front. And present to the public what is dished out by our forces. But not when state power is in its fiercest form and there are three entities – state agencies, suspected terrorists and common men. Our concern is for the last entity.

Why media should be present on the spot ‘recording’ every happening

Situation 1 in Mumbai: Remember Indian Navy attack on Thai fishing trawler recently. It was a clear case of mistaken identity. Suppose the same happens in Taj hotel on 27/11. Over-enthusiasm, casual approach to identify the enemy, ineptitude, pre-conceived notion about terrorist and his religion – any or all of them together carry the potential to create the greatest havoc in human history.  And to top it all, the State apparatus can make criminal attempt to camouflage the misdeed by branding hapless bearded man as terrorist by placing an AK-47 by the side of his body.

So we should have been there at the scene of occurrence.

Situation 2: Terrorists having seen the news on TV sets (that is what the allegation against the electronic media is) that they have been hemmed in and are being attacked both vertically and horizontally with weapons which have more killing range then their assault rifles may surrender finding their escape difficult. Many wars in the world history were won just on propaganda.

So we should have been there to support state machinery.

Situation 3: Now take another example: A bearded man passing for terrorist in Taj kills dozens of tourists including some children. Electronic media shoots the incident. Again it shoots the mother crying on the body of her only slain yelling passionately Manoj Tum Ko Kaun Mara, Main uska Kya Bigada Tha.

In the last two scenarios in situation 3 the media has no control over the developments – neither we can remove the beard nor can we ask grieving mother not to mention the name of his bereaved son.

If we air both pictures live in conjunction – which is very obvious – communal passion is bound to flare-up leading sometimes to riot.

Still we should be there to caution State might against any perceptional infirmity that may create havoc on one hand and erode public confidence in state as consequence.

The problem lies not with media airing situations live but with weak social fabrics –antagonistic social identities and lack of rational thinking. We do add and abet it by showing irrational fortune telling programmes.

The only solution is:

  • Training of reporters including so-called seniors (some of them conducted themselves in Mumbai in a very inapt, nay, boorish manner) on social issues, logic and elementary laws.
  • In such situations (we can categorize them) live feed can be deferred for one hour. Editors can discuss jointly to take a decision.

Govt seeks to gag media

The I&B Advisory dated December 3 had sought to project electronic media as working against ‘national interest’ four times, directly or indirectly, in its five-point note. And 48 hours later, we have newspaper stories ‘quoting sources’ that say NSG too has claimed media got in its way causing operational hazard leading to death of a Havildar.

The Government advisory does not carry ‘desired’ credibility but NSG rue does – even if it may be a bureaucratic ‘plant’. Very subtly the power-that-be has sought to divert post-Mumbai public anger against political class, mainly the ruling coalition, to media-bashing through its advisories. If not nipped in the bud, the trumped-up impression against the Mumbai coverage may damage the media irreparably. In the process, the Government will try to obtain legitimacy to gag the media.

The apprehension is that riding the crust of engineered anti-media wave the Government may issue “discipline channels order” in “national interest”. Media has to fight in the larger interest of “operational” democracy. Engineered though it is, the Government has succeeded in creating a palpable murmuring in the public with respect to our coverage.

We will have to effectively say that what we had done was in the best national interest. We will also have to demolish the basic premise that coverage led to death of Havildar.

Let the Government not forget that in Mumbai-like situation where the terrorists are in their aggressive best and the Government might in its fiercest form, the media presence cannot be blocked in any healthy democracy. And there were no operational details that we were privy to. We had disseminated only that which was in public gaze and was most obvious.

(N K Singh is the Political Editor of ETV News Network and is a guest writer with Canary Trap)