Three days of Mumbai terror reporting

The media behaved as if the country was so terrified it came to a standstill. As if Madhya Pradesh did not go to polls, as if Delhi did not vote, as if a former Prime Minister, V P Singh, did not pass away
ANJALI DESHPANDE and S.K. PANDE of the Delhi Union of Journalists detail their observations.

(This is a synopsis of the follow up report on Media, terrorism and ethical reportage that we are following up since the serial blasts in select parts of the country, on behalf the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) and its media centre and ethics council.  We are releasing extracts in public interest)

 

At the outset we offer our condolences to all those who lost their lives in the fight against the planned terrorist attack that shook India.  We salute in particular the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to save the sovereignty and integrity of the country, in what is clearly a planned heinous terrorist attack with wider ramifications. We support the call for restraint reporting, for terrorism has international and national linkages and is often used to destabilise countries. The initial role of some of the media was to grab the eyeballs rather than ask questions and reflect all facets of life as they unfold without adding to the tension strife and trauma in such situations.  In some cases the ethics evolved over the years was thrown into the dustbin.  Add to it all the fact, that when some restraint began more than a touch of jingoism took over. 

 

If there is one thing the electronic media helped in particular to do in the last three days was to bolster the confidence of terrorists and to give them a sense of achievement far greater than their action may have provided them.

 

The Times of India continues to aid the cause with sensational reporting two days after the operation is over. On November 30 the TOI had a chilling banner headline "There is Nobody Alive Here" with a four column black and white picture of the Harbour Bar of the Taj in shambles. The want of colour accentuates the feeling of dread that the picture inspires, especially contrasted with a little file picture of the same bar, in colour, inserted at the bottom of the big picture as an inset or a pictorial footnote so to speak.

 

The media behaved as if the country was so terrified it came to a standstill. As if Madhya Pradesh did not go to polls, as if Delhi did not vote, as if a former Prime Minister, V P Singh did not pass away, as if nothing else happened in the country. This may be a very insensitive thing to say but the major English dailies today are writing as if food writer Sabina Sehgal Saikia’s contribution to India was greater than that of V P Singh. (We are eating better thanks to her asserts Veer Sanghvi, (HT November 30) forgetting that half of India barely manages to get one meal a day.) Such is the lasting hatred the Mandal Messiah inspired in the self obsessed upper and middle classes of India.

 

Writing just the day after the rescue operation at the Trident in Mumbai was over, Shekhar Gupta chose to tell us how many times he had stayed in the Trident and how much its staff knew about his quirks (IE November 29). There seems to be a competition between editors to tell us how familiar they are with these prohibitively expensive hotels. Understandably then nobody asked the four MPs who barely escaped from the Taj why they were to hold a Parliamentary Sub Committee meeting in one of the most expensive hotels of the country? Was no room available in the parliament Annexe?

 

From the Beginning

 

When the undeclared war on Mumbai began unfolding on Wednesday November 26, 2008, the Government and the media especially the television media seemed to have joined a race to prove who is the more irresponsible of the two, the one elected by the people or the other thrust upon the people of India. The media’s claims of self restraint are always made after it has done everything to damage people’s lives, investigations and its own credibility. If there was one time when the government could have used its powers to take the telecasts off the air by cutting off the waves this was it.

 

As a body of journalists the Delhi Union of Journalists cannot and will not ask for censorship but as some of its members watched the live media coverage grew more and more desperate knowing not where to turn for relief.

 

The News and Broadcasters Association, set up to ensure ethical reporting, was conspicuous by its absence of any advisory, directions or advice. TV channels continued to telecast sensitive information jeopardising peoples’ lives. They told everyone where the commandos were approaching the Taj and the Trident hotels from; they showed us just where the commandos had landed on the rooftop of Nariman House. They also helpfully let us know that the electricity connection to the Nariman House was cut off. And that the NSG had night vision equipment, and would launch an attack at night! As if the backers of the desperadoes on their brutal murder spree were not watching TV and keeping them updated. Those who argue that viewers can use the remote to not watch what they find unethical or irresponsible should note that many in India did, people went to offices and went to vote but the TV all the same managed to give important information to the backers of the terrorists who were glued to their screens. The remote is not the solution to such irresponsibility.

 

In fact Times Now reported on November 27, around 6 P M that the terrorists were being given updates by people in other countries ‘who are watching TV’! Despite this the live coverage continued uninterrupted and continues even now. In fact so responsible is the media that Ritu Sarin writing for the Indian Express November 28, the day after the operation at the Trident was over, that she took advantage of people going inside the hotel to slip in!

 

Ambivalence

Some ambivalence and debate within the newsrooms of TV channels was evident from the way they behaved. In its 11 A M bulletin on November 27 NDTV India (Hindi) said they were not telecasting live from outside the Trident in Mumbai because the police had requested them to stop live coverage. It said the police had told them that the coverage could affect the ongoing operation. The anchor said that that is the reason they were not going to telecast the scenes outside the Trident. Before you could laud this decision to withhold news in the interest of the security of people, the security of the commandos and others fighting this latest attack and society at large NDTV English choked out our words of congratulations.

 

NDTV English continued showing the operation. It also took us to the scene outside the Trident. There Barkha Dutt spoke to the Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil asking him for details. She asked him whether there were any Indians among the hostages. RR Patil said he could not disclose information for it could affect the security of the people held hostage. Patil also pointed out that firing from outside could give away the direction from, which security forces were approaching the building. Despite that the channel showed where the commandos were hiding behind pillars! Barkha then asked Patil if there is any information about who is behind this attack! Patil hesitates then says firmly that they have some clues but he will not disclose them now and will talk about it at the ‘proper time’. Soon NDTV India was back to telecasting the scenes live. Whatever happened to the earlier decision to not telecast live in the interest of the ongoing operation?

 

Zee news similarly was ambivalent. It kept suspending live telecasts only to resume it soon. What it lost in this way it tried to amply make up for by using the backdrop of close up shots of flames leaping up. These were shots of a window of the Taj that had caught fire and these were being used long after the fire had been extinguished. So if the terrorists wanted any allies in spreading fear and panic, there was the television media at hand and not even wanting to be paid for its services.

 

There was ample evidence that the authorities had requested the media to keep some distance and some information to themselves. Despite that shortly before 12 noon, November 27, on Times Now an experienced and senior journalist, Arnab Goswami, made the announcement that one terrorist has been caught alive and has been jointly interrogated by the three forces including the RAW. How can any media professional be allowed to forget that those who planned this audacious operation could also be watching and would take appropriate measures to cover tracks the moment they realise that one of the attackers is probably giving out information?

 

Exclusive news, for the terrorists?

 

Irresponsibility knows no bounds. On November 27 all the channels were gleefully telling us that the authorities had found a ‘sat phone’. Effectively ensuring that any further calls to that phone would not be made. Who knows what information could have been gleaned had the backers of these desperadoes not known that one of the satellite phones was with the authorities? Around 6 PM the same day NDTV India reporter Neha Jain got close to the rubber dinghy dragged from the sea and said to have been used by the terrorists, giving a detailed explanation about how and where it was found floating. Then she placed her hand on a wooden structure fitted onto the boat to tell us this is where the engine is and the authorities have found no evidence or marks of any model number or engine make to give them a clue where those things were made. Thank you Neha, the boat at least has one set of fingerprints now! Where were the authorities? Was there nobody to ensure that reporters do not mess with what could be evidence?

 

Even the next day, on November 28, sense had not dawned. It seems the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had issued an advisory by then that obviously had been ignored. We did have the anchor of NDTV India asking its reporter outside the Taj to get away from there, save his life. "In fact I appeal to all of you to leave the scene, go away. Your lives are more precious than any news", said the anchor. To no avail of course. Soon an AFP reporter was injured. And there was the usual scramble to get shots of the injured journalist, not any attempt to help him on his feet and to an ambulance. What a most unedifying sight.

 

The raft the terrorists are supposed to have used was shown any number of times on all the channels but no journalist asked the Deputy Chief  Minister of Maharashtra and other top authorities who visited the site what the coast guards were doing? Why did they not notice any suspicious people on a raft? And whether we need more coastal patrolling. Fishermen are said to have alerted the police to the arrival of suspicious people at the seashore. Luckily no TV journalist tried to interview any fisher folk for such witnesses’ lives could be endangered. Predictably the next day’s Indian Express carried the picture of the fisherman who had spotted the boat and alerted the police. Will the media ever learn please?

 

Before investigations are completed TV channels had launched into detailed stories of the route the terrorists had taken with maps and dotted lines marking the route from the sea, all in place. Who says the media does not work hard? In fact the media did not sleep at all. Reporters just did not seem to want to leave the scene sucking at the horrific narcotic of watching terror at close quarters.

 

No wonder then that drunk on this flow of adrenaline the media forgot to ask many questions. They did not ask the authorities what is the coast guard supposed to be doing if such boats and terrorists can land in the financial heart of the nation? They did not ask why three senior officers of the ATS Mumbai were travelling in the same car? All three, Karkare, Salaskar and Kamte were shot dead by terrorists whose car they then hijacked in an unsuccessful attempt to get away. Are there no rules in place to ensure that senior investigators travel separately to make their elimination tough if not impossible? They still have not asked this question.

 

There are so many questions they have not asked. For instance in the evening of November 29, PS Oberoi, chairman of the Oberoi group in a press conference asserted that no terrorists had booked into the hotel, no terrorist had checked in as a guest. The obvious question to ask him was how did he know? Did we hear that question asked? No, we did not. How can Oberoi assert this before the investigations are complete? It may be necessary for the image of the hotel (oh, please, our security system is foolproof) but it certainly is not good for impartial investigations.

 

Silly Questions?

 

When you are so close to an event you can be excused for your mind getting benumbed. Naturally you can’t think and you make many mistakes. That thanks to the live coverage we got to know. Some of these examples truly stand out. On November 27 a young man told Barkha that his sister was inside the Taj hotel and he had come to see what was happening for he had not been able to get in touch with her. "Are you worried", asked Dutt! As if he was there to celebrate. And just when he began elaborating on the kind of things that worried him she cut him off! For instance he said he wondered if they were being allowed to use the toilet. "That is of minor concern as long as she makes it out safe", declares Dutt! So is she the one who is going to decide what kind of worries a man should have when his sister is possibly a hostage inside? And please, we should be avoiding questions to the relatives of those missing like ‘How does it feel when someone has possibly lost his wife or child one cannot expect such a question to a trauma stricken person.’

 

Such incidents were aplenty, that could have been hilarious had they not been part of an unfolding tragedy. When people rescued from the Trident walked out India TV zoomed on a father with a little baby in his arms. The anchor went breathless with excitement. "Look at the little baby, that little innocent", he said repeatedly just in case viewers were looking elsewhere. Then he went on to say "ek masoom bachchca jo shayad yeh apne dil ki baat kah bhi nahin sakata!" Just as well that the six month olds can’t talk or the masoom would certainly have been in for a bad time with a mike in its face!

 

The only competition the media had was from the authorities. On November 28, around noon a commando, in black, even his face wrapped in a black kerchief gave a blow by blow account of the operation! The vice admiral of the Navy went into a TV studio (NDTV?) to give us details of what the Marcos (short for Marine Commandos) were doing and had done while the operation was still on! Not to mention our then Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil who told us all just how many NSG commandos had left Delhi on the night of November 26 and what time they had landed in Mumbai. They left at 2.30 and landed at 5 AM he said. No questions asked about the propriety of such information being given out during the operation. Who will ask such a question when those who should be asking are themselves involved in giving out sensitive information?

 

This is not to say that the media should not cover the events. But they can easily record and keep some for later. Such recordings can also provide crucial inputs to investigations and can also ensure fair investigations by not letting the police cook up stories later with impunity. However withholding news may sometimes be the most ethical decision to make in the larger interest of society and the security of the nation.

 

Instead some TV journalists were concentrating on speculating about those behind the attacks.

 

Finally, we earnestly feel that there has to be an internal media code for reporting terrorism, and barbarism taking into account in the making of a new world disorder or inflaming internal passions and at times suggesting something more then even an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth approach that could put even the Nazi jingoes to shame.  Some of our journalists turned politicians appearing on TV definitely did so and anchors enjoyed the jingoism.  One should also not forget that there is something known as an international war on terror project part of which was felt in select parts of the world after 9/11 creating a new world of disorder.

 

Before extreme measures are envisaged by jingoistic politicians, it is time that the Press Council be turned into a Media Council with more teeth giving representation to all forms of media with experts from media and judiciary thrown in for a balance. It should be autonomous with some known members of civic society also thrown in.

 

 

24x7 reporting of terror has indeed been has also been a traumatic experience for our colleagues. Some of them really did a good job under the circumstances.  A fine all round colleague with a zest for life is no more. With our criticism of the reportage we reiterate our demand that there should be immediately a risk insurance cover for journalists on such hazardous missions.

 

PS: How was it that RDX was found at the CST terminus just yesterday (3/12/2008) and all along our media was concentrating on VIP Hotels without even finding out what else was happening in commonly used places?

 

(Anjali Deshpande is a well-known freelance journalist.  S.K. Pande is the Chief of Bureau, India News Network, President of the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) and Director of its Media Centre. Both are associated with the Ethics Council of the DUJ)

 

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