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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Counter Terrorism & electronic media.

The begining of my career coincided with electronic media revolution in India which took off in the decade of 90s. I started my career as a junior reporter in a 20 minutes daily news capsule which was produced by a private production house and aired by government owned television channel Doordarshan. This production house later transformed itself into a 24 hours news channel and few years later it launched few more such channels. The style, manner of presentation, choice of words and selection of the content appealed to Indian masses, which till few years back had no option other than Doordarshan. Private news channels came up with choices for people, they facilitated to provide the people point of views other than that of the government’s. People got an alternative against government’s instrument of propaganda. As the popularity of private news channels increased, their number multiplied. This led to a media revolution in the country. It was the revolution which influenced the lifestyle and the thinking of people, the revolution which supported campaigns against corruption, the revolution which influenced all the 3 arms of the government, the revolution which campaigned to save life of a poor farmer’s son who fell into a deep pitch dug up for a borewell  and it was the revolution which showed terrorist attacks live non stop for hours.

As a television journalist I have covered around 9 terrorist attacks including 26 November 2008 multiple attacks on Mumbai. The fiercest criticism of news coverage by television channels has been from none other than a variant of media, the print media.
Accusations have been made that electronic media has been insensitive towards the victims and their families, news channels indulge in speculation and rumor mongering, they sensationalize trivial information and while covering attacks they unknowingly support the terrorist organizations by showing the action live. While you cannot dismiss all such allegations as baseless and exaggerated, it will be an error to tag the role of electronic media as damaging to the counter terror efforts. In fact, 24 hours news channels have played a role which has supported the agencies involved in counter terrorism and have also played supportive role in the judicial process of such cases. Moreover, most of the allegations levelled on electronic media are also valid for the other forms of popular media.

Taking case study of 26/11 Mumbai attacks alone there are several instances where electronic media has demonstrated a very positive role right from the beginning. Few weeks after the attacks J.P.Dutta, the chief of National Security Guards (NSG) admitted in an interview to a weekly magazine that it was due to news channels he got an idea that the attacks in Mumbai was not just a petty gangwar, but a terrorist attack. After seeing visuals on television and listening to the information that hundreds of rounds have been fired (which is unusual in a gangwar), he started his preparations to move to Mumbai, hours before he got an official order to do so.

In was due to the continuous coverage of news channels that the world got an idea of the magnitude of attacks in Mumbai. People rushed to hospitals to donate blood after it was announced in news channels that victims of the attacks were facing shortage of blood.

During the attacks, few terrorists got in touch with a national news channel and spoke of their demands which were tutored to them by their handlers. The airing of conversation between news anchors and the terrorist was strongly criticized, but it was due to this conversation that investigating agencies were first able to analyze the accents of terrorists and concluded that they belonged to Punjab province of Pakistan. Moreover, later during the trial, the editor of that news channel deposed as a witness. While punishing accused Ajmal Amir Kasab, the special court acknowledged the testimony of that editor. Photojournalists of several publications who had clicked pictures of Kasab and his accomplice Ismail at CST station also deposed as witnesses in the court.

Post attack it was due to analysis and aggressive coverage by the news channels that the lack of preparedness of security forces and lax attitude of ruling politicians was exposed.
Media became an instrument of ventilation of public anger thereby preventing any other form of reaction by the public which has been provoked several times earlier.

However, while covering terrorist attacks media has bungled too. A day after 26 November attacks, few news channels again started flashing that a fresh group of terrorist had attacked CST railways station and other locations in south Mumbai. However, this turned out be a rumor. Similarly, on 25 August 2003 when bomb blasts happened at Gateway of India and Mumbadevi Temple of Mumbai, it was reported that 4 blasts have happened instead of 2. This was a result of the initial confusion as one of the locations where blast took place was known with more than one name. (Blast outside Mumbadevi Temple was also reported as blast in Zaveri Bazar because geographically both are adjacent to each other. The closest railway station to this spot was Marine Lines, which was taken as the third location.) However, all the news channels corrected themselves within few minutes.
It is true that news channels in their endeavor to lead with visuals and information often compromise with credibility unintentionally during such events.

The role of electronic media while covering the attacks was also discussed by the security agencies. Concerns were raised on the live coverage of commando operations at Nariman House. It was pointed out that media coverage was helping the handlers of terrorists stationed in Pakistan. The handlers were able to know the strategies and positioning of the commandos from the footage shown on television and they instructed their men accordingly. It was decided that in case of such attacks in future the access to media on location will be controlled and live coverage of the attacks will be discouraged. However, News Broadcasters Association(NBA) a self regulatory body is expected to play a decisive role during such events.

Another confrontation between media and law enforcement agencies was seen post triple bombings in Mumbai on 13-07-2011. After the blasts most of the news channels started procuring cctv and mobile phone shot footages from the blast sites. Television is a medium of visuals and such footage add to credible story telling and making viewers comprehend the sequence of events. As soon as the channels started flashing the video, Anti Terrorist Squad(ATS) of Maharashtra state faxed a note to all the news channels which worded- “ This is earnest plea to the media to not publish, display or telecast any cctv footage or cctv coverage of the bomb blasts incidents dated 13/07/2011, that is unfortunately being telecast in certain television channels. Doing so may lead to the disclosure of identity of the witnesses in this important case leading to the exposure of such witnesses. This case is being investigated under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 amended in 2008 and there are several provisions in this act to protect the identity of witnesses. Hence, in the view of above investigation such request is being made.”

Although, “the earnest request” made by the ATS was acknowledged by NBA and its member channels, the same was followed by a court order next day which strictly warned the channels against showing any cctv footage.

India news channels (except 2) followed a similar diktat post 26-11-2008 Mumbai attacks when video recording of the interrogation of accused Ajmal Amir Kasab was leaked. At the same time cctv footages of Taj and Oberoi Hotels and audio conversations between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan also reached some news channels. However, news channels were not able to utilize them much as the ATS restricted their airing by marking such material as evidence. The case also exposed the internal rift existing within Mumbai Police.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Viswas Nagre Patil was one of the first police officers to respond to the attack on Taj Hotel on the night of 26 November. He challenged the terrorists by holding a simple revolver in his hand not aware that terrorists had advanced weapons and loads of hand grenades with them. He lost one of his man in the initial encounter. All this action was being recorded by the cctv cameras installed at the hotel. Few weeks later, DCP Patil organized a press conference to give details on the security of hotels in his jurisdiction; however, upon being requested by some journalists he also officially provided them the copy of cctv footage of Taj Hotel. When news channels started relaying that footage, it irked many other senior police officials of Mumbai Police. They believed that by distributing cctv footage to media DCP Patil was trying to portray himself as a hero because the footage only showed him confronting the terrorists. Serious objection was raised especially by the crime branch which was investigating the case. The crime branch planned to nail the DCP on charges of indiscipline and leaking the evidence. Accordingly, summons were issued to the news channels asking them to depose before the crime branch and tell the name of the person from whom they procured the footage.

Media refused to respond to the summons of the crime branch. For some media persons it seemed ridiculous that one arm of the police was providing them cctv footage and another arm was asking from where did they get it. Such action by the crime branch exposed the lack of co-ordination, lack of communication, internal rivalry and jealousy prevalent in the police force. At the first place, police should have internally decided whether to provide such footage to media or not and secondly, once the footage was aired then there was no point in harassing media persons to settle personal scores. After political intervention the matter was put to rest and no statement from media persons was recorded.
Another case which highlights the role of media in terrorism related cases is that of e-mails sent by terrorist organization Indian Mujahideen. To multiply the impact of its terrorist actions Indian Mujahideen realized the utility of electronic media. It created a media cell for its one way communication with news channels. Indian Mujahideen used e-mails to own up responsibility for the bomb blasts it executed in various cities of India during 2008. One of its first e-mails was sent 5 minutes before the serial bombings in the city of Ahmedabad on 26 July 2008.  Through that e-mail sent to a national Hindi news channel, Indian Mujahideen claimed that it was avenging the killings of Muslims during Gujarat riots of 2002. After analyzing the mail it was concluded that the content of mail which ran upto 14 pages was generated by somebody who appeared to be well educated, had good command over English language, kept track of current affairs and had enormous hatred in his mind which was reflected from the choicest of abuses he used in the mail. During the investigations it was found that the email was sent by hacking wi-fi network of an American named Ken Heywood residing in New Mumbai. Media cell kept on sending emails to news channels after every bombing by adopting the same modus operandi till 4 of its members were arrested in September 2008 by the crime branch of Mumbai Police.

News channels have co-operated with the investigating agencies and have forwarded the emails of Indian Mujahideen to them as soon as they were received. Such emails played a key role in tracing and apprehending few members of the terrorist organization.

The Indian electronic media is in a nascent stage and is still learning. Like the US and western media, Indian news channels also now refrain from showing graphic visuals of dead, blood and human remains on the spot of terrorist attacks and protect identities of witnesses and minor victims. Many news channels have decided that henceforth no platform will be provided to any terrorist or gangster and their live interviews will not be shown. With the time channels have also understood that late news is always better than wrong news.

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