Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Media and Terror

This is a talk I gave on September 6, 2007 at the Bangalore International Centre. I am posting it on this blog in the hope that it will provoke some discussion.

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I thought I would speak on this subject not just because of the recent bomb blasts in Hyderabad, or that the incident concerning Haneef brought Bangalore into the news, but because this is as good a time as any for the media to introspect on how we handle these incidents that are taking place all around us.

I am not going to go into the issue of how we define terror – whether we should only speak of terror tactics by non-state actors or whether we should also address terror tactics by the state. This is an issue that needs to be addressed even before we look at how the media deals with terror. But for a moment let us set that aside and look at what in mainstream parlance is defined as terror – basically the actions of the non-state actors.

Also, led me add another caveat. What I am saying is based on my reading of print media, not a systematic survey but a close reading of what appears and my own experience as a media practitioner for over three decades. I am not touching on the electronic media as that is an entirely different ballgame, a media with compulsions that we in print sometimes just do not understand. Someone does need to analyse what role the overkill by the electronic media on issues like terror is doing in terms of people’s thinking on this subject.

It is interesting to note that even if one looks at terror as only those acts perpetrated by non-state actors, there is a certain hierarchy that is determined by the location of the attacks and those suspected of perpetrating them. Hence the attacks on Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, our metro cities and the national capital, always draw much more attention than similar types of attacks elsewhere. The “foreign hand” element also raises their news value. Varanasi and Ahmedabad would also be part of this type of attack.

Lower down come the attacks by internal political groups using violence and terror tactics, namely the Naxalites and ULFA in Assam. Their actions have also led to deaths of ordinary people and destruction of public property. But somehow in the national media, they do not get the same amount of attention as do the former.

Regardless of the kind of terror attack, or the number of deaths, media practitioners are faced with several choices in dealing with them. I doubt if there has been any conscious reflection about these choices. They are made depending on the positions a particular media organisation has already taken on these kinds of issues, or by default what appears to be the acceptable mainstream way of handling the event.

In my view, some of the choices the media faces are as follows:

1. Assist the state in the fight against terror. Be an ally and report all that state agencies put out as verified facts.
2. Be even handed by giving the version of the state but also giving the point of view of those who believe they had no option but to act – in cases where the groups are political and claim responsibility for the act.
3. Be sceptical of both sides, even as we report it, by ensuring that what is reported is properly attributed so that the reader understands the source of the information.
4. Assert the human rights perspective where under the guise of a war on terror, innocents are suffering.

For anyone within the media, it would be evident that these are not mutually exclusive choices.

Take the first. It is true, that the media in India does not have the ability to independently determine whether a particular attack is by a particular terror group. It has no option but to rely on the official version, much as reporting on war depends on what the army puts out. But even as it does this, how should these so-called “facts” be presented given the history of the innumerable times that they have been proved totally wrong? Should the press not ensure that it keeps a distance from the state’s version of what happened by careful attribution?

Unfortunately, by and large, the Indian media has forgotten even a basic norm of journalism like this as official stories about terror acts are presented as if they were the proven truth. Indeed, some of them are written up as if the reporter was actually present when the conspiracy was hatched. This makes for engaging and colourful reading but are these verified facts? Should we in the media be reporting in this manner when we don not have any way to independently confirm the veracity of these facts?

Acts of terror are backgrounded by social, economic and political issues. They are not born in a vacuum. They are not the acts of senseless, deranged individuals. All that is well known. Yet, the reason for the anger has to be understood and investigated. There has been some writing on the reasons Naxalism has spread and the creation of what is now popularly called the Red Corridor. But the bulk of the writing is only about the violent attacks by Naxalites – in the so-called “Naxalite-infested areas” – and the retaliation by the state. Somehow, in this law and order discourse, the reasons why such an ideology is growing, and indeed flourishing in parts of India and in Nepal, are lost. Similarly, the root causes of the alienation of people in the Northeast and the reason some of those groups have taken to the gun has been forgotten.

It is interesting that almost every one of those convicted in the long drawn out 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case gave the post-Babri riots and the inaction of the state against the perpetrators of the violence against Muslims as a reason why they participated in the conspiracy to set off those terrible serial blasts in the city. This is no justification for what they did. But their statements, and the conclusion of that case, have spurred civil society groups that have long demanded implementation of the Srikrishna Commission report on the riots and finally forced the Maharashtra government to pay heed to this demand.

My point here is that if terror acts are reported from the prism of the security agencies without also bringing in these larger political and social issues that fuel anger in a particular group, the picture remains incomplete. as an understanding of our readers about the issue. The reason this not done consistently, I believe is because, by and large, the press has internalized a State-ist view of all such groups, that they are criminals and ought to be viewed as a problem of law and order.

And what about the human rights perspective? In the post-Emergency period, when the violations of human rights by the state had forced the media to accept a human rights perspective as a legitimate prism through which to view events, every story of an encounter killing, for instance, was followed up by some attempt to investigate whether in fact what the police claimed was true. Civil liberties groups were active in those days. Fact-finding missions were immediately dispatched to check. And the press was open to presenting the other side of the story.

Today, there is only one side of the story. Until a Shahabuddin case comes to light, or the as yet unresolved case of Khwaja Yunus in Bombay, a Gulf-based computer engineer from Aurangabad who was picked up in connection with the Ghatkopar blast, tortured, probably killed and his body disposed of. The police version was that he had escaped en route to Aurangabad. The story is still unraveling in the court but it is clear that rogue police officers, who were virtually given the license to torture and kill to deal with terror were responsible for what happened. In the end, the courts had to discharge all those implicated in the Ghatkopar blast because the police simply didn’t have any evidence. We also had the more recent cases from Kashmir where security forces personnel were faking encounters to collect awards. In the process, innocents were being murdered.

Or take the case of Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old girl from the suburb of Mumbra outside Mumbai. She was killed in an encounter in Ahmedabad along with three alleged terrorist from the LeT in 2005. The police version was that the four were on the way to assassinate Narendra Modi. The press reported this without asking any questions. The only photograph that appeared was of the four bodies neatly laid out on the road next to a car riddled with bullets. Only one Gujarati paper ran pictures of the bodies slumped in the car, clearly shot at close range before they could even get out. So how was this an “encounter”? No one asked. Incidentally the same police officer, Vanjara, who has been named in the Shahabuddin killing, was involved in this case.

I could go on. There are stories from Kashmir, from the Northeast, that reveal repeatedly the many false claims made by police and security forces in the guise of dealing with terror. These incidents also illustrate, repeatedly, how violations of people’s rights by the state, by the people who are supposed to be our protectors, breeds alienation and disillusionment with the state.

But, we are told, we have to accept the Khawajas and the Ishrats as part of the “collateral damage” in the war against terror. That the state needs more powers not less. That a soft state lays itself open to more terror attacks etc. A leading daily has launched a virtual campaign demanding more stringent anti-terror laws like the ones in place in the UK and the US.

Incidentally, this same paper has a front page story today which is typical of the kind of stories the media should not be doing. Based on the alleged Bangladeshi terrorists caught in Mysore recently, the paper seems to suggest that all Bangladeshis who overstay their visas are somehow suspect. The reporter states that the majority have been here 25 to 30 years. These would be people who came in after the formation of Bangladesh but at a time when refugees from that poor and war affected country were welcome in India. Yet, this is the kind of ahistorical and panic creating reporting that is pegged on the “war on terror”. It paints an entire community, many of them too poor to even know that they need passports, as somehow part of an evil design.

It is interesting how the Indian media now is sceptical about so many other actions of the state but somehow on the issue of terror it is willing to go along. For years, after Independence, there was practically no questioning on India’s foreign policy choices. Today, there is. In fact, there is a vociferous debate in the media on the Indo-US nuclear deal, regardless of whether the majority of readers are interested in this or not.

This unquestioning acceptance of the state’s actions is actually, unwittingly, undermining the state. For instance, after a terror attack, you always see stories in the paper about how intelligence agencies had warned the local police about a possible attack. Readers always ask that if the police knew, why did it not do something to pre-empt the attack. The reason, we are told, is because the police does not have the powers to carry out preventive detentions and that they are afraid of being labeled anti-minority. And yet, immediately after an attack, dozens of people are rounded up and questioned, their names given out to the media, even though they are only under suspicion and there is no evidence. The police feels no constraint in doing this. Do they need more powers or better policing? That’s another story altogether.

It is also amazing that people do not recognise the intra-agency politics that is often the real story behind the selective leaking of information to pliant journalists. The tussle between local police, the anti-terrorist squad, the CBI and the Intelligence Bureau, for instance, is a known fact. After each such attack, the jostling begins and the undermining of one by the other. The press plays into the politics by legitimizing what is put out, often without any attribution, because it comes from “sources”.

Similarly, newspapers often run “confessions” of the alleged perpetrators of a terror act even though these statements are not admissible in a court of law and have clearly been leaked by the police to build up the credibility of their case. The leaks occur a good while before the final charge sheet is prepared. Yet, only some newspapers take the pains to point out the discrepancy between confessions and the actual charges. For instance, the Mumbai train bombers were supposed to have used pressure cookers loaded with explosives. Yet there’s no mention of this in the charge sheet of the accused now in judicial custody.

Finally, let me come to the Haneef case. I think we all know how clear were the double standards of our response. We lauded the Australian media, civil society and judiciary. But again, barring a couple of pieces, there was very little introspection about how we would have handled a similar case here. Would we have given the person charged with being an accomplice to terror the benefit of the doubt? Or would the media have condemned him because the state said so and allowed him to rot in jail? You just have to go back and read what the media wrote about Iftikhar Gilani of Kashmir Times, who was locked up for nine months for having allegedly violated the Official Secrets Act or how they reported on Prof S. A. R. Geelani, who was implicated in the Parliament attack, to understand this point.

To sum up, I think the media in India is at an important crossroads. With the acceptance of the new definition of news – as anything that sells – reporting on issues concerned with terror becomes all the more tricky. In the desire to beat the rival, anything goes, any bit of information, true or false, is put out to ensure that you have that little bit more than your rival. The basic tenets of cross checking information, or waiting until you get proper confirmation, is not followed anymore. As a result, you get this confusion of newsbreaks that often add up to nothing. They leave the reader with very little real information and a whole lot of names and scenarios that seem to be straight out of a work of fiction. And it does absolutely nothing to enhance either the credibility of the media or the state.

The so-called terror attacks have throw open to scrutiny not just the media but also the arms of the state like the police and the intelligence agencies, the judiciary, and our society that ultimately provides the ground on which the seeds of terror can be sown. We in the media can at least ensure that we are not abettors in the process of creating more angry and disillusioned individuals and groups.

I want to end by quoting from a thoughtful article by Ramesh Thakur that appeared on The Hindu’s edit page on August 30. Writing about the Haneef case, Thakur spells out lessons that India can learn from it. He begins with the leaking by the Australian establishment of selective extracts of Haneef’s interrogation. The other side managed to get the entire transcript. He suggests when faced with such a choice, it is better to go with the full document because the people leaking it are not the ones with something to hide.

He suggests scepticism about the claims of governments that they are safeguarding public safety against the threat of terrorism and that they are not curbing human rights or civil liberties. He points out the importance of an independent judiciary that will uphold the law.

And, most relevant, in the present context, the importance of a free, instinctively sceptical and investigative press. He points out that journalists picked out the holes in the government’s version of events because they were “inquisitive and questioning journalists who did their homework instead of merely recycling government press releases and background briefing…Many journalists had become used to being treated like mushrooms by the Howard government – kept in the dark and fed manure every once in a while. No more.”

He emphasizes the importance of a robust civil society and the role of citizens. He concludes, “No sectarian identification along the lines of race, religion, caste, but solidarity with a human being unjustly hounded by a bumbling police and a mean spirited government. When can we be confident of like injustices producing similar outcomes in India? Do we dare have the dream?”

I think we must passionately believe that such a day is possible. But only if we pause now and think about where we are headed.

1 comment:

radio lighthouse... said...

sheesh. you have touched on so many things that media carefully chooses to ignore while reporting. and the prolonged trials don't help the situation much. the generation that finally gets to hear about ishrat or khwaja will be the one which will have no memory of the incident.