Dont shoot the messenger

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

An NSG commando rappelling down from a helicopter on to Nariman House in Mumbai on November 28.-REUTERS

An NSG commando rappelling down from a helicopter on to Nariman House in Mumbai on November 28.-REUTERS

The authorities ought to realise the enormous advantage of having media that, with all their defects, are credible.

AFTER the terrorist attack on Mumbai has come the hysteria. Perhaps, because for the first time apart from the ordinary middle class and the poor, the elite were also victims. Many of those who were at the Taj Mahal hotel or the Trident or the Oberoi not those at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) wanted politicians to be driven out, the Army to take over, Pakistan to be carpet bombed, the slums where the Pakistani flag flew to be razed to the ground and various other things that would convey shock and awe to whom, one does not know. Our neighbours certainly but also to others within the country it is not clear.

Meanwhile, people like the hundreds who were gunned down at the CST quietly turned up to vote in different States. They must have known of the carnage in Mumbai, but they exercised their right to vote for those they wanted to go to the State legislatures and carry on the business of governing, inefficiently, in the disorderly way that States have been governed, but governed nonetheless. These people, who will never ever make it to page 3 of our glossy journals and magazines, were participating in the process of democracy that the Constitution has set up.

It would be inhuman and depraved not to feel a deep sense of shock and grief at what happened at the Taj, the Trident and the Oberoi at the vicious killings of people who were just going about leading their lives. Equally, it would need a very hard heart not to feel the same desolation and grief for those who died at Nariman House, killed for loving and believing in God in a way different from those who killed them. And for those who died at the CST, innocents going home, waiting to travel, arriving from other cities and towns, each doing nothing more than leading his or her life. The grief and the horrible senselessness of their deaths will take some more time to sink in.

Meanwhile, the collective hysteria has found another target: the media. Although many people watched television channels without a break for almost three days and devoured every newspaper for information on what happened in Mumbai, it is now being said that the media damaged the operations, that they compromised the strategies the commando groups were following to eliminate the terrorists.

What is being cited over and over again as an example of this is the television coverage of commandos descending from a helicopter on to the roof of Nariman House. Had this not been shown live, it is being said by those in authority, the commandos would have had the invaluable advantage of surprise, which was denied to them because someone who was watching the television channels told the terrorists in Nariman House that commandos were landing on the roof.

One channel, NDTV, has already officially denied having shown the event live. It is not clear right now whether some other channels did indeed show the event live. Those who have heard the noise that a helicopter the size of a Mi-17 makes when it flies hundreds of feet overhead people in Delhi will be only too familiar with it, having seen them fly past during Republic Day parades can well imagine the horrific din it must make when it comes down to rooftop height and the tremendous wash of its giant rotors that hit everything near it like a hurricane.

To the terrorists within Nariman House, who were, we are told, very well trained, that would mean just one thing: an operation involving helicopter-borne troops going on nearby, most likely at Nariman House itself. To suggest that without television coverage it would have been a stealth operation is comic.

Yes, if commandos had sneaked into the vicinity of Nariman House, climbed on to neighbouring buildings and then silently jumped across to Nariman House itself, and if this had been shown live on television, one could say that television coverage definitely compromised a covert operation. But that was not what happened. The airborne assault was a very, very noisy affair, not stealthy or covert.

And what else did the media do wrong? They kept behind the cordons the security forces indicated and never ventured inside the conflict zones, but, yes, they talked, as journalists from the print media also did, with survivors and carried the briefings given by the authorities themselves.

It was the media that told us of the incredible bravery and courage of police officers, constables and the commandos of the National Security Guard (NSG), of those among them who gave up their lives doing their duty. It was the media that pointed out the pathetic condition of some of the equipment the police had to use rifles of Second World War vintage and lathis and the indifference to the repeated pleas of even elite groups such as the NSG for equipment that would make them more effective.

Yet, we now hear of guidelines being framed (for future terrorist assaults?) for the media. What exactly these will be one can only guess, but the objective will be to permit the media to carry only what the authorities think is safe.

One of our strengths has been, from the time this country began its shaky start as a democracy, the freedom of the media. That has meant that, to the extent possible, the country has been kept informed of what was happening in the country politically, socially and economically. By and large, the media have stuck doggedly to the truth.

The advent of a number of news channels has reinforced this strength, and the coverage of the attack on Mumbai enabled the country as a whole to see the horror of what actually happened.

By and large, the television channels and the print media reported what they saw, and I am certain they saw much that was too gory and gruesome to be shown on screens or be written about, and they avoided such reporting for the most part. One television channel seems to have telecast some excerpts of a conversation between two terrorists but that is being dealt with by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and very few details of what was actually shown, how much was audible, whether it was operationally valuable, and other matters are not known to most of us.

Yes, some channels carried the shrill comments of some so-called celebrities and aspiring celebrities. They made one thing very clear: we know where the roots of our democracy lie. It does not lie with those who carry placards vilifying politicians, as it does not lie with those who advocate giving the nation over to the NSG or the Army, and as it does not lie with those who want Pakistan to be bombed and slums with Pakistani flags razed.

It lies with those who come out in their thousands common, or garden, citizens of India to vote and underpin, thereby, the process of democracy. That is what the media exposure of the empty-headed chatterati has achieved; that is what it has held up. They could do that because, in this country, they are free and have a tradition of freedom.

But does that mean that there should not be some guidelines for covering such events? Perhaps there should be, but these must be guidelines that the media must work out for themselves. There are those in the media world who are certainly not as pure as driven snow, who try to make a little more by playing up a story, who distort the truth by sensationalising it. But it must be the media that determine the line between this and frank and full presentation of facts, of providing people with as much information as they can.

One can only hope the authorities will realise the enormous advantage of having media that, with all their defects, are credible and an asset to our security forces in times of crisis and to those in authority at all times. The truth may not always be palatable, but that does not mean it is something that needs to be manipulated.

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