Are journalists anti-national if they ask questions at a time of crisis, even war? Or is their professionalism suspect, if they do not ask questions? I raise these questions at the end of an extraordinary fortnight that has ended with two nuclear powers in South Asia teetering on the brink of war.
Ever since the February 14 suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, that resulted in 40 Central Reserve Police Force jawans being killed, mainstream Indian media, especially television news, has scaled new heights of hyperbole and hysteria.
One could dismiss this as amusing if it was not also dangerous because it has fueled the political narrative of hyper-nationalism in this election season. The immediate fallout of this was the attacks on Kashmiris – students, workers and traders – by the Hindutva brigades of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and others.
In the long term, it is likely to be a factor in the impending elections. It is already clear from statements by Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah and others that Pulwama and its aftermath will be milked to the full for electoral gain.
Pulwama: No questions asked
After the February 26 strike by the Indian Air Force on the suspected base of the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, apart from the troubling media narrative that went into the theatre of the absurd with TV anchors donning military fatigues while hosting bulletins, there are at least two other aspects that need attention. One relates to the media, and the other to how this government handles important information.
First, why did the media not ask even the obvious questions after Pulwama and the February 26 strike, and instead reproduce incremental pieces of information doled out by “sources”?
For instance, on the day of the Pulwama attack, the media was understandably not given access to the site. Only grainy pictures of the blast site were available, and the media had to depend on briefings by the security and intelligence agencies.
Yet, even before an official briefing, there were reports in some sections of the media about the quantity of explosives that had been used. This ranged from 350 kg, to 80 kg to 35 kg and less. Even the colour and the make of the vehicle used for the suicide bombing were reported.
How was such information available when the forensics had not been done? Did no one ask? Surely, no such information can be considered credible, and hence should not be reported before evidence has been collected and analysed. But, as in previous such occasions, the Indian media tends to suspend disbelief and willingly reproduce unverified, contradictory and speculative information that usually suits the government of the day. Credible media houses the world over would pause before rushing to publish unverified details of this kind.
Predictably, on February 25, it was officially confirmed, after forensics had been done, that the vehicle used was not a Sports Utility Vehicle, as most media reported (one even mentioned the make), but a smaller vehicle, a Maruti Ecco van, which had not more than 30 kg of explosives.
For more detailed analysis of media coverage post-Pulwama, read these two reports: The danger of multiple stories: an assessment of the facts and reporting surrounding the Pulwama attack and Narratives of rage and revenge in India.
Also, while there were murmurs about intelligence failure, journalists were not asking or trying to find out whether that was the case. Even Opposition parties sat on their hands for fear of being dubbed anti-national. Thus, Pulwama passed with dramatic images of the funerals preceded by the coffins first being brought to Delhi. The media did not even question why it was necessary to make families wait to conduct the last rites of their loved ones while the ruling party and the government capitalised on the optics.
IAF strike: No questions asked
And then there was February 26, when in the early hours of the morning Indian Air Force fighter jets reportedly dropped 1,000 kg of bombs on a hilltop that apparently housed one of the training facilities of the Jaish-e-Mohammed.
India held an official briefing mid-morning that day. It consisted of a carefully worded statement read by the Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale. After he finished reading it, no questions were allowed. Even the obvious question about whether the Balakot that he mentioned was the one in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province or the Bala Kote near the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch district, was not answered, allowing the speculation that had begun earlier in the day to continue.
The official statement did not mention how many people were killed in the attack. Yet within hours, the media reported that 300, 350, even 600 people had been killed. Did no one bother to ask that if indeed so many had died, would Pakistan have been quiet about it? How did India know the precise number of casualties within a few hours of an aerial bombing? And if it was a facility run by the Jaish to train terrorists, was everyone working there, including support staff, also terrorists? Were there no local civilians employed? If they had died, would there not be ripples in the town of Balakot or the surrounding villages? These are so many obvious questions.
In any case, this too was overtaken by the events of February 27, when in a skirmish between jets of the Pakistani Air Force and the Indian Air Force, an Indian fighter jet was shot down and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistan. At least, momentarily, this calmed the war talk by hyper-nationalist television anchors in India.
Even information about the pilot’s capture came first from Pakistan. As expected, the Indian authorities denied it and then confirmed it in a short official briefing by foreign ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar. Mysteriously, at the briefing Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor was seated next to Kumar but was not invited to speak.
As in the previous day’s briefing, no questions were entertained. Additionally, in the 48 hours since the news of the Indian attack and the Pakistani retaliation, not a single senior person from government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made any official statement. By way of contrast, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan gave a televised address and pleaded for peace and talks.
By deliberately minimising official communication, and maximising unofficial messages through a receptive media, the government of India has left dozens of questions unanswered. At a time when fake news abounds, for the government to sidestep its responsibility and release half-baked information through “sources” to the media, is inexcusable.
Indian media: Line of no control
To come back to the question asked at the beginning of this column: Are journalists anti-national if they ask questions during tense times? The answer to that is, why should journalists worry about their “nationalistic” credentials? A journalist, irrespective of personal political beliefs, is supposed to be independent, curious, sceptical and rigorous. This has nothing to do with whether they support “the nation” or even the armed forces.
Yet, hyper-nationalism has infected the media to such an extent that leading television anchors took to social media to affirm their support for the Indian Air Force, as if by doing so their legitimacy would be established. In no democratic country with a free press, are journalists expected to sing praises of the armed forces or to bay for the blood of the “enemy” as part of their journalistic work. The Indian media has evidently crossed a new “Line of no Control”.
Write to the Readers Editor at email@example.com.