A question of credibility

Published : Jul 03, 1999 00:00 IST


JOURNALISTS who participated in the bus tour organised by the Army to Drass and Kargil on June 22 discovered little about the war. They did, however, learn that some things have changed little since the days of the Raj.

The United States-based Cable News Network (CNN), which days earlier had put out a fictional report claiming that thousands of Kashmir residents were protesting against Indian military actions in Kargil, was allowed to travel in comfort. Its journalists travelled in hired cars, with a small convoy of other vehicles carrying technical equipment following along. So did the British Broadcasting Corporation. A Colonel-rank officer from the Northern Command's public relations apparatus was assigned to ensure they had access to the information images they wanted.

Indian representatives of Indian media organisations were told flatly that they could not film gun positions or artillery actions. Officials at the headquarters of the 56 Brigade in Drass and the 121 Brigade in Kargil offered them no information at all. At one point, when chaotic organisation led to protests, journalists were told in true schoolmaster style, not to "behave like children".

If the Indian Army is not winning the media war on Kargil, it is not difficult to see why.

With access to the Kargil combat area barred for journalists and officials at Srinagar's 15 Corps Headquarters having disappeared down bunkers, several aspects of the Army's Kargil campaign are suffering from a credibility problem. Journalists find accounts emanating from press briefings often at odds with their field experiences.

When fighting first broke out in Kargil, the Army responded by keeping all journalists out. The ban appeared to have been the consequence of 15 Corps being as confused as anyone else about exactly what was happening in Kargil, and not wanting journalists to get hurt. This correspondent was the first to enter the area, on May 19, breaking official travel restrictions. Army officials proved impeccably cooperative. Then, from May 25 to June 4, journalists were formally allowed in, and faced no problems.

On the night of June 4, the Army Headquarters in New Delhi abruptly cancelled permits to journalists to travel. Seventeen journalists who had been scheduled to leave from Srinagar the next morning had their valid travel permits terminated. No clear reasons were given for the decision, but senior Army officials in New Delhi privately put forward some claims. Photographs that had appeared in some newspapers and magazines as well as television footage, they said, had exposed Indian gun positions. At least two forward positions had been badly hit.

After the ban on travel, journalists pointed to its patent flaws. The gun positions, they said, could just have well been compromised by Pakistan field and technical intelligence. If photographs had given away gun positions, that was because no ground rules had been issued.

Curiously, journalists were still able to enter Kargil through Leh, as this correspondent did, using a little ingenuity. But since most important sources of information are Srinagar-based, and communications between Leh and elsewhere are somewhat thin, this route was less than ideal.

On June 7, a well-respected defence journalist faxed a letter to Army chief V.P. Malik asking that the travel restrictions be lifted. Among his important suggestions was that "all copy (could be) filed through specially created media facilities". That would let the Army censor any material endangering security, bearing in mind that "any attempt to crudely mould opinion will boomerang". Such restrictions have been widely applied in conflict situations elsewhere in the world. Indian journalists from reputed publications, the note continued, could safely be given deep background information, a privilege that need not be extended to the international media.

The Director-General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) appeared to agree broadly with the defence journalist's note. Frontline gained access to a confidential letter clearing media access to Kargil, prepared by Army Public Relations Officer Shruti Kant. Below Kant's letter the DGMI endorsed plans to allow "onward visit(s) to the op (operations) areas in Kargil sector". Public relations officials in Srinagar announced that groups of journalists would be allowed in from June 9. Then, for reasons never stated, Army Headquarters suddenly changed its mind. The handful of journalists in Kargil were allowed to continue staying there, but their access to information diminished.

While Army officials complain that they have sometimes received unfair press, the fact is that the situation is entirely of their own making. In the absence of any answers to questions, let alone lucid and fact-based answers to uncomfortable questions, journalists rely on sources who believe all is not proceeding on the Kargil front as the Army's official spokesperson would have them believe. Ironically, much of the information the Army would have preferred journalists not to discover, from its intelligence failures to strategic errors, has become public. The consequence of continued denial of access is likely to be that the news the Army would like to get out will lose credibility.

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