BY MAJOR GENERAL MRINAL SUMAN
Health of democracies is directly proportional to the degree of independence enjoyed by their media. If India thrives as a vibrant democracy, a great deal of credit goes to its media, both electronic and print. It has been highly active in exposing weaknesses in governance and decay in societal standards. Even India military has not escaped its inquisition. Being a vital instrument of the government that consumes considerable resources, the military is as answerable to countrymen as any other public institution. Therefore, there can be no two opinions about subjecting military to public scrutiny.
Media coverage of any episode can be broadly divided into three phases. As the phases invariably overlap, they cannot be distinctly delineated. However, their distinctiveness can be easily discernible by their dissimilar attributes.
They are as follows:-
- Breaking News Phase: It is the phase in which the opening salvo is fired. As limited facts are available in public domain, conjectures are flashed as news from ‘reliable sources’. Every media house tries to sensationalise the issue by inventing imaginative and sometimes totally unrelated headlines to outdo others in TRP ratings. Though unfair to the affected people, media can be pardoned for such misdemeanors to some extent as it becomes a professional compulsion for them to make an impact. Thus this phase is characterised by half-truths and speculation.
- Detailed Coverage Phase: This is generally a much longer phase during which the events/issues are analysed repeatedly by inviting ‘experts’. Some media houses do try to moderate their stance as more facts get revealed and they become aware of the truth. In a subtle manner, they accept their earlier mistake and try to make amends. However, their number is highly limited. Most media houses find it undignified to change track and continue to harp on half-truths to justify their earlier stand and coverage. They continue with the vilification of hapless victims, despite availability of newer information to the contrary. Ego ruling over ethics is the hall mark of this phase.
- Closure Phase: No media entity has ever bothered to analyse an issue/occurrence in retrospect to correct its earlier coverage and communicate truth to the environment. Such introspection can help media become aware of pitfalls of unsubstantiated reporting and thereby protect its credibility. It will also help redeem the reputation and provide solace to victims of its smear campaign to some extent. To admit mistakes requires a great deal of sensitivity for others and Indian media has yet to attain that state of maturity. Unfortunately, this phase is conspicuous by its absence.
As there is a very thin line that separates investigative coverage from unfounded vilification, media houses readily sacrifice truth and objectivity to grab maximum publicity and viewership. In many cases, need for sensationalism forces media to create media hype by coining highly outrageous and absurd slogans. Terms like ‘Ketchup Colonel,’ ‘Booze Brigadier’ and ‘Frisky General’ are decidedly unfair and derogatory.
As soldiers are very conscious of their public image, unfair media coverage causes immense pain to them. Two cases (the Sukhna land case and the Adarsh Society case) in recent times have dented the image of the army officers and shown them as unethical and scheming persons for monetary gains. As reasonable time has passed and considerable specifics of the cases are available in the public domain, it will be educative to review them with respect to the above mentioned three phases.
Sukhna Land Case
The whole case revolves around issuance of ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) by a Corps Commander for the construction of a residential school for girls on a nearby privately owned piece of land by a civil entrepreneur. He did not consider the proposed girls school to be a security threat and issued the said NOC.
During the ‘breaking-news’ phase, every media house tried to out-score others by calling it by various names. They were unanimous in terming it to be a scam of monumental proportions. Some channels went to the ridiculous extent of estimating the value of land involved to further sensationalise the issue. Rational thinking was sacrificed to garner more publicity. The Army Headquarters (AHQ) added to the graveness of the case by stating that the case had brought disgrace to the Army, thereby obliquely accepting transgression and misconduct.
During the ‘coverage phase’, truth started trickling out and many media units softened their criticism. There were others who continued to question the integrity of the commanders involved and virtually ran a campaign for their conviction. AHQ chose to go along and failed to put the whole case in the correct perspective to the nation. In a first of its kind, the Corps Commander was ordered to be court-martialled on seven charges including ‘intent to defraud’. The General Court Martial (GCM), while dropping all the four charges relating to ‘intent to defraud’, found him guilty on three counts – issuance of NOC, signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the entrepreneur and not keeping the superior Headquarters informed.
As per the media reports, words of the Presiding Officer of the Court while pronouncing verdict were very revealing. He stated, “There is no evidence that the accused could have gained anything or caused injury to anyone… There was no deceit or secrecy in the signing of the MoU.” On the contrary, the Court noted the fact that efforts had been made to safeguard the interests of the army by ensuring that the security was not compromised and by seeking reservations for the students and families of the army men in the proposed educational institution. However, the Court found his failure to seek approval of Headquarters Eastern Command to be an act ‘prejudicial to good order and military discipline’.
A corps commander is the second highest field commander in the hierarchy of the Indian army, commands over 50,000 troops and is assigned responsibility to ensure defence of a large tract of national territory. GCM of a corps commander is no trivial matter. It is certainly justified for acts of treason, cowardice or moral turpitude but not for failure to keep higher authorities informed of an administrative decision apparently taken ‘in good faith’. He may deserve a reprimand but no country court-martials such a high ranking military officer for an act of indiscretion and misplaced initiative.
Regrettably, not a single media house has considered it to be its moral duty to carry out an honest closure of the issue by apprising its viewers of the final developments. They should have called involved authorities in their discussion programmes and grilled them. Was a Court of Inquiry (C of I) warranted for this lapse and on what basis did it recommend disciplinary action? Who suggested Summary of Evidence (S of E) and who advised a GCM? On what evidence was the officer accused of intent to defraud, a very serious allegation? Are the concerned officers being held accountable for subjecting a senior military commander to unwarranted humiliation and for unnecessarily bringing disrepute to the army?
Adarsh Society Case
No other case has besmirched the image of the army as much as the Adarsh case. During the ‘breaking news’, media went berserk tarnishing the character and military reputation of retired service chiefs and other senior commanders. The complete officer cadre of the services was projected a bunch of unscrupulous and greedy characters. It was alleged that a piece of defence land meant to rehabilitate Kargil-widows had been misappropriated by a few service and defence estate officers through falsification of records in order to construct a residential building.
Although it was a simple case of a few officers forming a society to seek allotment of land from the state government, the media chose to call it ‘Kargil for Profit’ scam and insisted that Kargil-widows had been swindled out of their entitlement by devious officers. Worse, the Defence Minister and the Chief of the Army Staff repeatedly asserted that the land belonged to the defence ministry and vowed to take action against the wrongdoers. It amounted to an implied admission of culpability of the officers involved. The media attack was so vicious and unrelenting that every serving and retired officer felt hurt, slighted and let down.
Some sane voices were heard during the follow up ‘coverage phase’. However, many channels decided to continue with their misplaced tirade against the service officers. Every group discussion castigated the army leadership for falling standards. Retired service chiefs were called land sharks and equated with land mafia. As is its wont, AHQ failed to clarify matters to let the truth be known.
Multiple enquiries and the court case have revealed many astonishing facts. The defence ministry has admitted in an affidavit submitted to Mumbai High Court that it has no record of the land in question to prove ownership. It has also accepted receipt of a letter from the state government in 1964 declining transfer of Block VI Backbay Reclamation to the defence ministry. In addition, state government has repeatedly claimed ownership of the land in the state assembly and justified its sale to Adarsh society.
Where does the case stand now? If the defence ministry has no records to prove ownership of the land, why were the top defence officials misleading the country? On what grounds has the army ordered enquiries? What is its locus standi to question purchase of land by a society from the state government? As regards grant of environmental clearance and other sanctions, it is purely a matter related to civilian governance and is being investigated by the civil agencies. It is time media initiates ‘closure phase’ and hauls every single authority that alleged misappropriation of defence land before its viewers. They should be asked to explain reasons for making false claims and denigrating the officer cadre.
Military leadership is very conscious of its public standing and highly sensitive to unfair character-assassination. Undoubtedly, there are some black sheep and they must be given exemplary punishment.
However, three suggestions are offered here.
One, it should be obligatory for the media to carry out an introspection through the ‘closure phase’. It should have the moral courage to correct itself. In the process it will gain credibility for itself.
Two, retired service officers, who are called by the electronic media as ‘experts’ for discussions should apprise themselves of the rules and facts of the case beforehand. They should advice restraint till enquiries unearth the truth. Tendency to pass condemnatory comments without adequate knowledge must be curbed. AHQ must keep the environment informed of true facts of the case. It must realise that unwarranted media attack on serving and retired officers dents the image of the army as an upright institution.
Finally, media coverage of Sukhna and Adarsh cases over the last two years have caused immense pain to all serving and retired officers. Both the media and AHQ have let them down. They have been made to feel small in front of other segments of the society. It is unfair to look for scams where none exists. Reputations once lost are very difficult to redeem.
(Maj Gen Mrinal Suman is India’s foremost expert in defence procurement procedures and offsets. He heads Defence Technical Assessment and Advisory Services Group of CII. This article, written by him, first appeared in the Indian Defence Review)