Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not the actual victims. Terrorism is theatre.1
A Symbolic Affinity?
Is there a symbolic affinity between media coverage and terrorism? Do they feed off and exploit each other? Unlike news coverage of other domains, coverage of terrorism in terms of the focus on terrorist incidents, various terrorist outfits, the publicity generated, the dissemination of information and an analysis of the terrorists' motives and behaviour, raises critical questions of ethics, causation and dependence. A symbiotic relationship has often been posited, and would mean that both media and terrorism feed off and exploit one another for their own narrow interests.
Terrorism as a distinct activity is custom-made for the mass media. Arresting footage and ‘sound bytes’ in the visual media and unsettling photographs and quotes in newspapers and magazines drive both the media’s and terrorists’ interests. Since major terrorist incidents are rich in dramatic, shocking and tragic human-interest, the news media tends to ‘over-cover’ such events,2 though without any attendant depth of treatment or approach. Instantaneous communicative capacity and the domination of imagery over substance, consequently, gives a whole new meaning to the episodic twists and turns of a terrorist movement.
The Chattisinghpora Massacre
Executed to coincide with (then) President Bill Clinton’s visit to India, the Chattisinghpora massacre was believed to have been intended to focus international, and particularly US attention, on Kashmir, and to force the Indo-Pakistani ‘dispute’ onto the agenda of discussions at Delhi and during Clinton’s brief stopover at Pakistan. The near hysterical and frequently distorted coverage of the incident and its day-to-day follow-up secured these objectives admirably, though not, perhaps, in entirely predictable ways.
On March 20, 2000 – the day Clinton arrived in New Delhi on an official visit to India – 35 Sikhs were allegedly killed by suspected Pakistan-backed terrorists at Chattisinghpora in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).3 Reports mentioned that approximately 17 suspected terrorists dressed in army fatigues had killed the Sikhs, a hitherto neutral community in the State.4 The reportage was constructed centrally around ‘the biggest/largest ever massacre’5 with deftly combined references to an under-equipped security force (SF) labouring to combat cross-border terrorism and generalised images of the ‘Clinton visit’. There were also prominent reports of unverified allegations that the incident had, in fact, been engineered by the Indian Army or some covert Indian agency.
On March 25, 2000, all major newspapers and the visual media networks reported the arrest of a local ‘terrorist’ Mohammed Yaqoob Wagay, who was allegedly the conduit and guide for the Pakistan-based terrorist outfits responsible for the Chattisinghpora massacre.6 The media was unanimous in reporting that it was a major breakthrough for the security forces (SFs). Quoting the Union Home Secretary Kamal Pande, the media reported that according to Wagay, the incident was perpetrated by a joint group of terrorists belonging to the Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM).7 Reports citing the Home Secretary indicated that Wagay had confessed that he "participated in the carnage"8 and had disclosed the names of others involved in the massacre.
The coverage at this stage appeared entirely to be led by, but not faithful to, official disclosures, and was distinctively uninformed and inaccurate. While certain sections of the media indicated that the arrested person was a local conduit,9 others reported that he belonged to the Lashkar-e-Toiba.10 The awry factual documentation of the arrest is discernible in one of the reports conversely asserting that the arrested person was "the Hizb-ul-Mujahideeen kingpin responsible for planning and executing the brutal massacre…".11 The initial reportage on the incident, however, had followed the government line that the incident, carried out to cast a shadow on the Clinton visit, was planned and perpetrated by predominantly foreign mercenaries. In emphasising the spectacular nature of the incident, headline style reportage also led to a great deal of gratuitous glamourisation.12 It was to be repeated later when five suspects who were said to have participated in the massacre were killed at Panchaltan, Pathribal, approximately 13 km from Chattisinghpora.13
On March 28, news reports14 mentioned that five ‘foreign mercenaries’ allegedly identified by Wagay as the killers of Sikhs were killed in an ‘encounter’ during a joint army-police operation on a lone hut atop a hill at Panchaltan, Pathribal, close to Chattisinghpora. Interspersed within these narratives, a sub-objective – security force denials that the slain suspects were labourers15 – was being drawn out rather efficaciously by the media. Reports mentioned that the five ‘foreign mercenaries’ killed were, in fact, seasonal labourers working at a nearby brick kiln. Observations regarding the identity of those killed at Pathribal assumed significance in the light of the firing by security force personnel on a group of protestors at Brakpora16 on April 3, 2000, in which eight persons were killed and approximately twenty injured. The protestors were demanding the exhumation and DNA testing of the bodies of the suspects killed at Pathribal. Commentary on the Brakpora firing emphasized the human suffering of the locals and the victims. The coverage on Brakpora coincided with the J&K government’s order on April 5, 2000, for the exhumation of the bodies of the Pathribal suspects.17 The coverage generated images primarily of ‘oppressive’ security force personnel bearing down on crowds of protestors, and the poignancy of human suffering.
With the announcement18 of a judicial inquiry by the J&K government to probe the Brakpora firing incidents, the media focus shifted to the apparent motives of the probe and the discourse on the allegedly excessive use of force by the SFs. Reports attempted to deliberate on the possible political moves and the rationale underlying such a probe, the first of its kind since militancy erupted in the State.19 Questions on the state’s credibility vis-à-vis human rights were sought to be linked to the announcement of the probe. Certain sections indicated that the probe was meant to assuage the protestors.20 Reports also dwelled at length on the past record of similar probes and proceeded and reiterated the presumption that the whole exercise was futile.21
The sequence of actions and reactions following upon Chattisinghpora, and their coverage in the mass media, must be assessed within the context of the fact that such unbridled acts of terrorism constitute a political statement, and have a substantial political intent. Increased and intrusive media coverage is, at once, part of such an intent, and itself becomes an element of the dynamics of its realisation, as it inevitably leads to a global focus on the theatre of conflict, and increasing pressure on the government to generate responses – such as the initiation of steps to secure international mediation (one of the objectives of the Chattisinghpora incident) – that would further the interest of the extremist cause. The killing of 35 Sikhs at Chattisinghpora was an act of sufficient magnitude to make audience attention inevitable. With the backdrop and timing of the act – the Clinton visit, in itself a media event – such attention was infinitely magnified. The dramatic vignettes that followed, often a microcosm of the larger incident, ensured that J&K received considerably greater coverage in the international media than it could otherwise have secured. The sensational and oversimplified scenario projected through the media created images and pressures that were entirely divorced from, and uninformed by, the realities on the ground. Worse, the follow-up reportage was even thinner on facts than the original story, suggesting a displacement of critical perspectives on the scourge and character of international terrorism. The allegations that Wagay "participated in the carnage",22 for instance, were never followed up, and there was no further scrutiny or analysis of his role, or even of his identity as a member of the HM, its ‘kingpin’ or as the ‘Butcher of Anantnag.’
The appearance of reports in a piecemeal fashion tends to create a bland and unquestioning acceptance of the narrative on the evolving scenario. The continuing nature of the incident – as also of the news cycle – necessitates an objective ‘recapturing’ or reassessment of the incident in its entirety, but this rarely happens and the media continues sourcing for ‘side-narratives’, even as the original incident is pushed into the background by the succession of events. For the media, the context appears as a mini-series – Sikhs killed; suspects killed; protestors killed – with an apparent ‘break’ created at each ‘stage’. Fragmentation may be construed here as one of the reasons for the over-simplification in media presentation of the Sikh massacre. The exploration of additional or side-narratives ought to have been an amalgam of inter-related aspects in the specific context, but was seldom treated as such.
The sourcing of such side-narratives is simply not complete enough to encapsulate the entirety of the incident and its linkages. Thus, as the media began to focus on the Pathribal incident, it excluded further sustained analysis of the massacre. Interestingly, the killing on March 29, 2000, of six more suspects in the Chattisinghpora incident,23 did not receive any comparable coverage since the media thought that the ‘hunt’24 had already plateaued. In a continuous news cycle, the Press never rests to sum up and reassess, but is forever pushing forward, grasping at the latest twists and turns in the episodic succession.25 As the intensity of the incident began to deepen, media intrusiveness increased with a preference for the sensational.
Terrorists have a strong vested interest in converging abnormality and in the projection of a distorted picture. This is why the mass media have a heavy responsibility not to assist them unthinkingly in furthering this objective,26 especially since the presence of several simultaneous themes and the rush of high profile coverage creates immense dramatic focus without any corresponding accuracy in the images projected, or any meaningful contextualisation of the events.
The Chattisinghpora incident was intended to prick the diplomatic conscience of the international community ‘to do something’ or as George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, put it, albeit in a different context, "we force people to ask what is going on?"27 With a grand background, the violent act at Chattisinghpora underscored the continuum of the terrorists’ goals and the inadequacy of the media and international response that allows a massacre of innocents to define its agenda in favour of the perpetrators of such an act.
The post-Chattisinghpora phase witnessed an extraordinary discourse in the media, a rarity in India. With a surfeit of inter-connected events and a complete lack of authoritative sources to base reportage on, the contours of the Pankaj Mishra – Prem Shankar Jha debate28 are an interesting sample of journalism at its worst, as a range of post-factum assumptions were applied to the question whether the Indian Army or agencies had ‘organised’ the Chattisinghpora incident. Mishra blamed the Indian intelligence agencies for the incident,29 while Jha attributed it to the Pakistan-backed LeT and HM terrorists. Mishra’s narrative in his ‘Paradise Lost’30 argues that "the number of atrocities in Kashmir is so high, and the situation in general so murky that it is hard to get the truth," and on this tenuous basis proceeds to hypothesize that the involvement of Indian agencies in the massacre "lends weight to the … suspicion that the massacre in Chitisinghpura was organised by Indian intelligence agencies in order to influence Clinton…" There is no suggestion in Mishra’s arguments that he secured or sought to secure any evidence, or to consult and assess Army or official sources to arrive at his conclusion, neglecting the most fundamental rule of objectivity in reportage from theatres of conflict – that one should not treat all parties as the same, particularly when all the parties are not the same,31 and that a fair hearing should be given to every party before a conclusion is reached. More significantly, where no conclusion is possible, proposing unsubstantiated hypotheses and guessing at the possible is hazardous, if not mischievous, and certainly does not contribute to a reasonable and reasoned debate.
‘Mass Rape’ at Kunan Poshpora
The degree to which the media can be ‘played out’ by interested parties – especially overground groupings sympathetic to the terrorists, and on emotive issues – is well illustrated by the case of the alleged mass rape of women during a cordon-and-search operation by personnel of the 4th Rajputana Rifles of the 68 Mountain Brigade at Kunan Poshpora on the night of February 23-24, 1991. The incident generated much controversy and enormous publicity given its linkages with human rights and alleged security force excesses.32 The charge was that "not less than 23 but possibly up to 100 women of all ages and conditions…. were raped by one to seven men at a time…. often in the presence of their children and families."33
The news coverage of the incident crystallised on February 24, 1991, with the national media carrying front page stories, primarily drawn from a range of images and welded together into a specific perspective that established the framework for much of the coverage and debate that followed. Through various news devices – arresting headlines, photographs, descriptive language and a juxtaposition of items – media reportage on the Kunan Poshpora incident converged around the single aspect of presumed human rights violations by the security force personnel. Media narratives also projected evocative images of the allegedly intoxicated state of the security force personnel, and the forced assembly of the village men outside their houses.
Reports mentioned that a fact-finding delegation headed by Chief Justice Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi, which investigated the incident on March 17, 1991, had stated that police authorities had not permitted the women to be clinically examined and that normal investigative procedures were not followed by the concerned authorities.34 There were also indications about a delay – adequately reported by the national media – in registering a complaint of the alleged mass rape and consequent moves to ‘cover up’ the incident.35 Subsequent to the J&K government's inquiry – conducted by Divisional Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah – findings of which became public on April 10, 1991, conclusions were drawn that the women had not reported the incident immediately, and that eleven of the women who reported also admitted that there were too few soldiers in the unit to have committed the number of rapes reported.36 Government sources while releasing the report also stated that the villagers were sympathetic to the militants and that they had concealed weapons for them. These claims, press reports indicated earlier, were false since no arrests for possession of illegal weapons were reported from Kunan Poshpara.37
The Kunan Poshpara incident as reported by the media raised questions vis-à-vis the complexities faced by media personnel in reporting terrorism. While the fact-finding delegation supplemented the media reportage, the subsequent Habibullah report found the villagers’ claims to be riddled with contradictions.
Journalistic credulousness in cases such as the Kunan Poshpara incident is rooted in an endemic mistrust of the establishment and a desire to seek out evidence of errors or misdeeds among persons in authority. Frequently under scrutiny, the SFs fail to respond adequately to unfounded allegations. In the Kunan Poshpara incident, even as the official investigation was in progress, the media continued with its reportage, questioning the credibility and intent of inquiries, and prejudging the case against the Army.
An Inquiry Committee constituted by the Press Council of India38 later explored the charges of misreportage by the media relating to human rights violations by the security forces. The Commission noted that one of the women who had reported the rape informed the Press Council of India Committee (PCI Committee) that she had delivered a baby three days after the alleged rape incident. The Committee observed that the District Magistrate (DM), Syed Mohammed Yasin’s Report,39 noted that the baby had been delivered three days before the alleged rape. The Committee also examined a videocassette40 in which 25 women and some men of the village recounted the incident. The same woman is reported to have stated in this cassette that the baby was delivered six days before the incident.
The Committee also noted that the confidential report sent by the DM to the Divisional Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, on March 7, 1991, was deliberately leaked to the Press, and subsequent coverage on the incident quoted the DM as saying that "the armed forces behaved like violent beasts… A large number of armed personnel entered into the houses of villagers and at gun-point gang-raped 23 ladies without any consideration of their age…."41. The Ministry of Defence immediately denied the press reports.42 The media reports about the Divisional Commissioner’s alleged outrage at the incident and his supposed resignation in protest were also found to be untrue by the Committee.43 The DM in his meetings with the Committee pointed out that he had recorded the observations of 23 women, and the Committee opined that "the emotional trauma he witnessed in the village appeared to constitute the circumstantial evidence on which he based his report in which he had recommended a fuller inquiry…. Newsmen subsequently took the alleged incident as proven fact because the DM had said so and a FIR had been filed."44 The Committee also records a senior J&K media person as saying that, in a conversation after the incident the DM is reported to have admitted to three rapes, but felt compelled to report 23 fearing a threat to his life.45 Reviewing the evidence, the PCI Committee concluded:
Journalistic emphasis on descriptions of what is visible can easily create distortions and confusion in the meaning that is constructed by audiences because much of what occurs in terrorist events is invisible to journalists.50 More often than not, journalists reconstruct the events through a reliance on information from authorities and victims and relations who are rarely present at the time of the incident, and each of whom is a party to the conflict. Their knowledge of events is ordinarily limited to the overt violence and its immediate aftermath, and not to the sequence of events itself. The problem is compounded by the fact that the national media relies on local stringers whose understanding of the terrorist incidents are skewed by personal bias and an inability or unwillingness to identify the actual interests underlying specific incidents. The integrity of sources is, in fact, a severe and persistent problem. For instance, The Daily Excelsior, a Jammu and Kashmir-based daily, on July 18, 2000, carried a news item with a headline "2 freed from militants’ clutches". Another Jammu and Kashmir daily, Kashmir Times also carried the news item on the same day with the headline "2 youngsters rescued from militants". Apart from the distinguishing headlines, both the news reports had the same language – indeed, were a verbatim copy of each other. The stories were probably based on an army release or an agency report; but if this was the case, then the effort to pass these off as stories emanating from their own correspondents is clearly an act of dishonesty – either on the part of the correspondents themselves, or on that of the newspapers.
The Vortex: Punjab and Northeast
In his discourse on the relationship between media reportage and terrorism, Michel Wievorka rejects the construct of a symbiotic relationship, and proposes four alternative relational modes, the last of which he describes as total break, and which is best explained in terms of a coercive agenda pursued by the terrorists vis-à-vis the media.51 A total break entails that terrorists regard any dissenting media as an enemy to be punished and destroyed.52 An illustration of such a coercive relationship is provided by the six-page ‘code of conduct’ for the Press issued by the Sohan Singh Panthic Committee53 in Punjab, which was published by certain newspapers on November 22, 1990. The ‘code of conduct’:54
The publication of the Press ‘code of conduct’ alongwith other55 suppressive ‘codes’ on the use of Punjabi language for all official purposes, enforcing various ‘social reforms’, declaring Amritsar, Anandpur Sahib and Damdama Sahib as ‘holy cities’, a dress code for college girls and school children, etc., elicited instant and widespread compliance. The publication of such revanchist ‘codes’ was also directed towards securing a larger communicative reach, since conventional forms such as letters, posters, proclamations or oral messages possess a limited comparative efficacy.
The threats issued by the Panthic Committee was reinforced by the chilling murder of R K Talib, Station Director, All India Radio (AIR), on December 6, 1990.56 The unnerving nature of the ‘code’ and the methods of its imposition is discernible in the testimonies of editors and correspondents to the Press Council Sub-Committee57 which confirmed that they had no doubt about the seriousness of the threats received. By and large, they took recourse to safety through silence. The larger sense of insecurity prevailing within other professional groups – including empowered segments in the administration and justice system – made them ponder, "Why newsmen as a class should act or react differently from civil servants, judges or other sections of society."58 Unwillingly and under duress, a major section of the media in Punjab was compelled to adopt the ‘code’. The only newspapers to defy the ‘code’, openly and totally, were the two leftist Punjabi papers, Nawan Zamana (published by the Communist Party of India) and Lok Lehar (published by the Communist Party of India - Marxist), six radical left (Marxist-Leninist) weeklies published from Ludhiana, Patiala and elsewhere,59 and the Hind Samachar-Punjab Kesari group.60
Prior to the repressive ‘code’, Sikh terrorist outfits had made deep inroads into the media in Punjab with the forced publication of the full-text of the 21-page Sukha-Jinda letter to the then President of India, R Venkataraman, in the last week of July 1990.61 Consequent to the text being despatched by terrorist outfits to newspaper offices with an emphatic threat in the event of non-publication of the full text, a majority of the newspapers in Punjab carried abridged versions on July 27, 1990. The Tribune and Dainik Tribune (in Hindi) carried abridged versions, but the Punjabi Tribune, one of whose correspondents had received a direct threat carried the complete text.62 According to the Verghese Committee findings:
Coercion, however, is not the only relational mode, and collusive arrangements play an equal part in the dynamics of terrorist-Press relations. Apart from their intimidating tactics, the terrorists in Punjab were also able to win-over and influence Press correspondents in key positions. Evidence of collusive networks emerged in the context of certain Press personnel in the vernacular media reportedly assisting in finalising the Resolution on Khalistan and also working for the Sohan Singh Panthic Committee.66 Instinctively or as a tactical move, the terrorists felt at ease with and cultivated the vernacular media, since such inputs were directed at projecting the legitimacy of the ‘struggle for Khalistan’ among the rural constituency.
Where specific terrorist outfits failed to influence or terrorise journalists or otherwise secure their propaganda objectives, they started their own publications. J.S. Rode, a former Jathedar (chief priest) of the Akal Takht, started a pro-terrorist newspaper Aj Di Awaz from Jalandhar. A letter written by the then Pakistan-based Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, Chief of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), to one of his associates in November 1991, details the various components of the terrorist agenda vis-à-vis the media:
Much of what was written during the phase of recurrent violence in Punjab had a powerful undercurrent of propaganda accruing to the terrorists. The vernacular media in the State was also responsible for the inordinate coverage provided to statements of terrorist leaders and the moral absolutism they sought to impose, and the emphasis on martyrdom and religious fervour. Certain sections of the local media – who published terrorists’ speeches and photographs of their ‘martyrs’– may be construed to have acted as a force multiplier for the terrorist outfits.
The terrorists also relied on certain sections of the foreign media to openly preach sedition and propagate terrorism. It was necessary from the terrorists’ perspective to sustain the support of expatriate Sikhs. Moreover, these publications could not be influenced or pressured by the Indian state, as laws in these countries were different from those in India. Various terrorist outfits launched publications in Europe and the USA to propagate their ideology and to serve as a fund-raising mechanism.68
In Punjab, the role of foreign television channels was limited since airwaves were still government controlled and the current surfeit of news channels was still to come into being. But, radio programmes, especially broadcasts from abroad, provided substantial publicity to the terrorists’ agenda. Mention is made in this context, of the role played by Ankheela Punjab, a radio programme run by Billu Hansra from Canada.69 It consistently carried interviews of terrorists and the leaders of their front organisations to cater to the expatriate Sikh populace. Ankheela Punjab’s broadcasts in the form of interviews with the leaders of terrorists outfits and the dissemination of information relating to their activities and agenda was, to a large extent, linked to the emerging foreign operations of Sikh terrorist organisations.
On August 10, 1990, the Punjab government sent a circular to all newspapers instructing them not to carry ‘objectionable advertisements and subversive writings’ as these were liable to attract a number of provisions under the Indian Penal Code and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act 1987 (TADA). The government also stated that it did not wish to employ these penal provisions, and preferred to leave it to the newspapers themselves to exercise due discretion.70 However, all District Magistrates were empowered to enter newspaper and related premises and seize or forfeit papers and publications violative of Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Sec 95 CrPC).71 Thus, within the space of a year beginning with the forced publication of the Sukha-Jinda letter in July 1990 to the above-mentioned Punjab government order, the media was caught in a quagmire. Given their conflicting agendas, one of the parties – either the government or the terrorists – was bound to be displeased with the what was printed at one point of time or another.
Thus, the Chandigarh administration seized copies of an edition of The Tribune on February 2, 1991, for carrying a news report on the ultimatum issued by the Panthic Committee, which listed certain named officials for ‘dire punishment’ if they failed to switch to the exclusive use of Punjabi in all matters, as demanded by the Panthic Committee.72 Consequent to the report being dropped in subsequent editions after the administrative action, the Panthic Committee issued a three-page directive addressed by name to Punjab and Chandigarh-based editors threatening them with execution if they did "nothing to resist what was described as Government censorship."73
In response to the action taken against Ajit in Jalandhar, its editor Barjinder Singh wrote to the Press Council of India (PCI) on March 28, 1991, providing clarifications to the effect that his newspaper was being discriminated against.74 The PCI scrutinised one of the news item (February 7, 1991) that was impugned and found that it carried a bandh (strike) call in Amritsar and Gurdaspur, issued by the Khalistan Armed Force, a proscribed terrorist outfit. The PCI concluded that the news item could scarcely be regarded as ‘news’ or ‘another point of view’, which was one of the points of defence of the Ajit group. The Ajit in its February 26, 1991, edition carried a report entitled ‘Panthic Committee opposes Press Censorship’ containing a threat from the Panthic Committee (Zaffarwal) that the terrorists would ‘impose counter-censorship to oppose Government censorship’ with effect from March 15, 1991.75 Although the Ajit group defended the report by indicating that The Times of India had also carried the story albeit under a different header,76 the aforesaid news report distinctly carried forward the agenda of terrorism. The Verghese Committee notes that a case was also registered by the Chandigarh administration against The Times of India under TADA for publishing an item on January 18, 1991, based on a press note issued by the Sohan Singh Panthic Committee.77
The media in Punjab, consequently, had to manoeuvre through a troubled structure of restrictions imposed by the administration and ‘censorship’ by the terrorist outfits. With regard to the former, the Verghese Committee discerned that not all Punjab editors and journalists felt aggrieved by the government’s notification regarding the use of Sec 95 CrPC. It cites the editor of a leftist newspaper Nawan Zamana as saying:
With the waning of support base of terrorist groups and increasing popular revulsion against the use of extremist violence, these groups have now begun to cultivate the media more vigorously to secure legitimacy. The mushrooming of insurgent groups81 in the region has also led to the phenomenon of small and medium newspapers – usually the vernacular Press – being supported and sustained by terrorist groups. These newspapers provide publicity and ideological succour to the terrorist outfits.
The publication of underground literature – under duress or otherwise – often makes the media a conveyor belt of the ideas of various terrorist and secessionist groups. The vernacular media in the Northeast has often been accused of obliging proscribed groups by publishing, verbatim, the press releases and propaganda literature of such organisations.82 Reasons for such a phenomenon are not far to seek – the obsession with underground outfits83 and their literature within the context of the competitive environment of journalism in conflict situations that propels them to push controversial, sensational and speculative stories. The problem is deepened further by the fact that the vernacular media lacks the professionalism required for reportage from theatres of conflict.
Reprisals and the threat of reprisals against media personnel whose coverage is considered inadequate or unfavourable by the terrorists is another reason why the media often ends up toeing the terrorists’ line. In October 1999, A. Lalrohlu, editor of a Manipur daily, was killed by unidentified terrorists.84 Brajamani Singh, editor of Manipur News, an Imphal-based English daily and President of the All Manipur Journalists’ Association, was killed by suspected terrorists on August 20, 2000.85 On October 26, 1998, the Assam Police claimed to have foiled a possible attempt on the life of D.N. Bezboruah, editor of The Sentinel and a harsh critic of the ULFA.86 The office of the Pan Manipur Youth League (Pan MYL), which publishes Lamyanba, was attacked by unidentified terrorists on August 25, 2000.87
Coercive pressure is also exerted on the Press by the government. The archaic Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act, 1911, has often come in handy for this purpose. The then Nipamacha Singh ministry in Manipur used this Act in April 2000 to arrest N. Biren, editor of Naharolgi Thoudang,88 a vernacular daily. Ajit Bhuyan, editor of the Assamese-language daily Asomiya Protidin has been the target of repeated arrests since August 199789 under the National Security Act, though this is not necessarily because of what he publishes in the paper. Bhuyan, in fact, has been linked by the authorities to the outlawed ULFA, though charges have never been proved. Similarly, Prakash Mahanta, a reporter based in the Central Assam district town of Nagaon, was arrested on February 7, 1998, on charges of allegedly aiding the ULFA. In this case, however, the arrest was subsequent to a series of reports filed by Mahanta on alleged corruption and other irregularities in the ruling Asom Gana Parishad-led government.90
In order to understand the relationship between the media and insurgency in the Northeast, mention must also be made of certain student and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that operate as part of an extended collusive network with the terrorist groupings. The Shillong Times, for instance, published a letter containing 35 questions addressed to a ‘students’ association’ in Shillong, Meghalaya. The students’ outfit admitted to the ‘collection of tax and free petrol’ in the city, but refused to answer the rest of the charges listed in the letter.91 In Arunachal Pradesh, The Eastern Citizen, a local daily had to close down for a week as a result of the aggressive response of certain ‘NGOs’ after these were criticized in the paper. Similarly, on October 31, 2000, a violent attack was made on Gabriel Wangsu, the editor of The Dawn-Lit Post in Arunachal Pradesh.92
The government also exerts other patterns of pressure against the media, including the denial of advertisement support to newspapers. This is particularly crippling for the small and medium papers.93 Geoffrey Yaden, editor of the Nagaland Post, a leading English daily in Nagaland, observes: "We experienced the worst of times when the government blocked advertisements and subjected us to all kinds of pressure, accusing us of siding with extremist groups. Why should the government be afraid of what appears in the newspapers? The government has its own machinery to counter such reports."94
There is also another, less noticed but more complex distortion in the reportage on terrorism and conflicts in India’s Northeast: the arrogance of the mainstream or ‘national’ media (read, the Delhi Press) vis-à-vis the region. The neglect by the national Press is compounded by its fitful and exclusive focus on incidents of violence that contribute to an image of a simplistic and undifferentiated ‘Northeast’ depicted as an area of continuous and overwhelming violence. This evidently neglects the enormous diversity of the States in the region, and the many areas of peace and relative development within even those States that are afflicted by strong insurgent and terrorist movements. The exclusive focus on violence underplays the normal and peaceful developments in the region, and projects an imbalanced and poorly informed perspective that underlines discontent and furthers the alienation of the people of India’s Northeast. There is, clearly, enormous need to secure a more balanced coverage and perspective on events in this troubled region.
Kargil: The First Televised War
The Kargil War caught the government and security forces unaware, even as it did the media. Media reportage on Kargil, India’s first ‘televised war’, cut across the normal divisions of stance and style and converged around a single dramatic image of a nation at war.
The security force establishment deemed it fit to clamp down on any kind of news coverage in the initial phase of the Kargil War. The imposition of restraints was primarily justified in terms of the logic of operational security. Commencing with indications of heavy infiltration on May 3, 1999,95 and the Pakistani attack at an ammunition depot in Kargil on May 15, 1999, till May 25, 1999, when the Indian Army permitted its first official media coverage,96 the media was barred from any kind of access to the theatre of conflict. The decision to allow media coverage after May 25, 1999, albeit for a short while before another clampdown was imposed, was influenced by the perceived advantages of the media acting as a ‘force multiplier’97 or to ‘win the battle for hearts and minds’. The clampdown was eased when the security establishment began to realise that the entire exercise was proving counter-productive.
However, on the night of June 4, 1999, the Army Headquarters (AHQ) in New Delhi abruptly cancelled travel permits of Press personnel proceeding to the Kargil front. No justifications were provided by the AHQ, except an unsubstantiated brief that certain photographs appearing in the media had disclosed Indian gun positions.98 Operational security justifications nonchalantly conceded during the Kargil War appear skewed in the post-factum explanations by the government. Nevertheless, the failure of understanding was not restricted to the Army’s handling of the Press, and extended to the character and content of reportage as well. The Kargil Review Committee Report observed that "the full dimensions of the Kargil episode and its implications were not gauged or properly appreciated by the media for weeks after the first discovery of the intruders until the Indian Air Force was committed on May 26."99
In addition to the restraints imposed on the domestic media, the government also proscribed the website of the Pakistani daily, Dawn, and the Pakistan Television (PTV).100 The mass media responded feebly. The then Information Broadcasting Minister, Pramod Mahajan was given space to clarify the government stand on censorship in Indian Express with a news item: 'Why I blocked Pak TV?'.101 The same daily, in a vacillating stand in an edit-page article entitled ‘Let the media witness the mess’, made a fervent plea to allow Press personnel to cover the war from the scene of firing.102 The Kargil Review Committee Report records that the ban imposed on the Dawn website and PTV "appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction and not particularly well considered."103
Censorship and propaganda are, of course, integral techniques utilized by all governments at war – even the most democratic. Their efficacy, as opposed to that of an informed internal debate, is a matter that has seldom been objectively assessed. Indeed, even where the media has been given relatively free play in situations of war – as in some of the phases during the Kargil conflict – it has tended to play into the hands of the establishment and to place national and security considerations above the imperatives of freedom of information and reportage.
There is, nevertheless, a visible tendency towards the voyeuristic component – trivial and sensationalised news – and this was catered to by many sections of the media, particularly by the visual (electronic) media during Kargil. Indeed, ‘Cricket and Kargil’ converged when India played Pakistan in the World Cup Series in England on June 8, 1999. With headers like "India, Pakistan to ‘fight’ it out today," for many spectators and journalists alike, an India-Pakistan cricket match seemed ‘the next best thing to a war.’104 Consequent to an Indian victory over Pakistan in the match headlines gasconaded, "Reborn India kill Pak."105 At the other end, the visual media primarily through a ‘collage technique’ gave uneven coverage to the cricket ‘battle’. In sensationalising – through strong evaluative characterisation and emotive-adaptive means – the convergence between sports and war, the mass media during Kargil was attempting to inflate the significance or alter the texture of the war for the audience. The attempt, more often than not, was to ‘compose’ presumptions that sought to change the actuality of the event, with a lack of focus on issues that increasingly came to be construed as intrusions. The same patterns of triumphalism were to be repeated later when the Indian Army's re-capture of Tiger Hill coincided with the victory of the Indian tennis duo, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, at the Wimbledon Tennis tournament on July 4, 1999. One of the headlines: ‘From war to Wimbledon, its India’s day all the way’ is an apt illustration of the trivialisation of reportage.106 In this, the electronic media set the standards, with the print media struggling to keep pace, confirming James Adams’ observation: "As the television media trivialise the news, so newspapers have to seek ways of presenting their information in a lively and exciting way to their audience. That has meant not just a narrowing of the focus but a concentration on the trivial, the marginal and the irrelevant in the search for excitement."107
The return of six tortured bodies of Indian soldiers by Pakistan on June 10, 1999, is an incident,108 which, in addition to inflaming passions (the perceived force multiplier effect), also revealed the loss of restraint and objectivity in the media. Siddharth Vardarajan observes that:
Unfortunately, the mass media is found wanting whenever it comes to discussing bias and the resulting distortions. Such a critical discourse is seen as undermining the perceived integrity and objectivity of journalists reporting on terrorism and would also cast a shadow of doubt over the motives of the organisations that print and broadcast their material.111
However, a lack of integrity or the presence of questionable motives is not a necessary ingredient to skewed media coverage. The distorted portrayal of conflict scenarios is at least partly due to the emotional bias of journalists covering such incidents, partly due to the corporate structure of the media in India, and also due to the timeframes of reportage and the sheer imperatives of novelty that are placed on reporters. A large proportion of media persons also tend to possess a stunted understanding of the dynamics of terrorism – the result of a limited understanding of its present context and an ignorance of history. Objectivity – the core value of the journalistic systems, and one that is presumed to be inviolable – may in a certain sense be unobtainable, but the effort to achieve it is much of what gives the practice of journalism its social utility and undoubted nobility,112 and Indian journalism has tended to display a lack of the necessary will for such an effort.
The media and the official propaganda machine, despite much chafing, did achieve a significant and surprising synergy during the Kargil War. Surprising, because it is not in their nature for the military and the media to be entirely comfortable with each other. Bernard Trainor traces the roots of this tension to lie in the fundamental nature of these institutions:
The Army also filed a complaint with the PCI against The Asian Age for publishing three articles between July 21 and July 22, 1999,117 which the Army claimed were ‘against the standards of journalistic ethics.’ It also alleged that the daily had not resorted to sufficient care or caution in verifying the authenticity or credibility of the articles. Once again, dismissing the complaint the Press Council held that the major crisis that the country faced during Kargil was an occasion for the authorities and the Press to come together and work in the best interests of the country, and that this was possible only if there was an unhindered flow of authentic information from authorised persons.118 In the absence of such information, the Press has no option but to depend on secondary sources. To the extent that the writer is satisfied with veracity of the source and the information, the report is in the national interest. The PCI also observed that the impugned reports – including the full version of the Army – were comments on the conduct/actions of the holder of a public office, and that such action/conduct was open to public scrutiny.119
The Kandahar Overkill
The eight-day hijacking incident of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 – the longest hijacking incident in South Asian aviation history – culminated in the terrorists-for-hostages swap on December 31, 1999 at Kandahar in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The incident assumed deeper significance since it was the first ‘televised episode’ of its kind. Here again, the dominant theme in the media coverage was the attention paid to the plight of the hostages and their relatives. More than mere words, it was visual imagery that communicated the most significant and persuasive elements of the continuous, unrelenting, reportage. Evocative images combined with the drama of headlines such as ‘Flight full of honeymooners’120 and ‘Sky savages kill, flee.’121 A majority of the national media carried dramatic front-page pictures of the flight, which illustrated and confirmed the image created by the headlines and the text. At the other end, the visual media instantaneously began to construct the incident in a context that was emotionally charged, even hysterical, and laden with symbolism. In order to secure greater audience attention, the underlying drama was augmented through the ‘use of theatrical paradigms that were readily understood by the viewer’. 122
Day two of the crisis – in the wake of the killing of a passenger by the terrorists, and the freeing of 27 others in Dubai –saw the increasing projection of poignant images and arresting coverage which gradually began to position the audience in terms of a shared affectedness with the bereaved family of the passenger killed and the relief of those released. The coverage on day two also focussed on the government’s viscidity, with the Prime Minister stating that ‘India won't give in to terrorists’ and personalized inputs on the pilot of IC 814 – ‘Captain Sharan is a tough pilot.’123
By heightening the emotive content, the mass media not only gained the attention of the audience, but also gradually provoked feelings of protest against the government's inability to find a quick solution to the crisis. The abruptness of the incident and the disruption it was seen to be triggering – on the eve of the ‘millennium’ hype – heightened tensions and perceived pressures. Reportage on the crisis was a round-the-clock crescendo of television news bulletins, specials and newscasts that were dominated by the ‘weeping mother syndrome’. Coverage of the trauma of terrorist victims and their families saturated the media, and built public opinion to a climax that forced the government to yield to the terrorists’ demands. The visual medium, in particular, created the ‘dramatic concretisation of images and scenes’ that drew the viewer into the events and consequently invoked powerful emotional responses even in individuals far removed in time and space from any direct personal threat.124
After the killing of one of the passengers, there was enormous speculation – with no available information for confirmation or disconfirmation – on whether the wife of the deceased, also travelling on IC 814, knew of his death.125 The couple was returning from their honeymoon, and this made good copy, especially in a mini-series like the one at Kandahar. Media coverage deftly juxtaposed references to the honeymooning couple with the incident-response strategy of the Government’s Crisis Management Group (CMG). The relatives of the hostages lobbying on December 28, 1999, were covered extensively. A delegation of the relatives had been granted an audience with the Prime Minister on December 27.126 The father of the passenger killed onboard IC 814 was quoted by one of the national dailies as stating, "Your inactivity is a purposeful attempt at a large-scale conspiracy. And your efforts are actually leading to further disaster."127 Many relatives, while accusing the government of callousness, were cited as saying that the government was "not making serious efforts" for the safe return of the hostages.128 A member of the delegation who met the Prime Minister was quoted as saying that the "government was taking more interest in international politics than the safety of the passengers."129
The reportage on December 27 following the storming by the relatives of a Press Conference convened by the Minister for External Affairs, Jaswant Singh, the meeting with the Prime Minister, and the dharna (strike) by the relatives was skewed in its character and predominated by a selective perception. While the emotions of the relatives were understandable, they could not constitute reasonable judgements on policy or the response mechanism that had been set up after the hijack. Yet, they were given the greatest possible prominence and ascribed an overriding authority. A news item was titled ‘Government may not bend despite pressure from relatives’130 creating a parity between the sentiments of distraught family members of the victims of terrorism and the interests of the nation. A statement by the Taliban from Kandahar, accusing India of ‘delaying tactics’ was juxtaposed with the news on the relatives’ storming the External Affairs Minister’s Press conference. Television fashioned an ‘episode’ out of the angry scenes outside the Prime Minister’s Office and Minister’s press conferences. Such ‘episodes’ take less time to construct in comparison to informed analysis; they meet the definition of hard news more squarely, and are, of course, inherently visual.131
Special reports, ‘breaking news’, and a slew of ‘expert analysts’ – operating in the context of limited primary information, charged visual content (such as the gunslinging, bearded and loutish Taliban around the plane at Kandahar) and highly speculative ‘analyses’ – inadvertently amplified panic, a significant goal of the hijackers. By day-three, all the ingredients of a media-hyped soap opera were in place – narratives of the hijackers’ cruelty and replay upon replay of relatives hounding ministers and bureaucrats for details. The hostage-takers could not have asked for, or even imagined, more spectacular publicity than what was on view.
Securing the attention of the mass media, the public, and decision-makers is the essence of an act of terrorism. It is through the mass media that the terrorist gains access to public and decision-making structures. Since the free press is a "primary conduit connecting terrorists, the public, and governments, violent spectaculars can promote and further the terrorists' goals only if they are extensively reported."132 In the context of the terrorist incidents carried out by the Irish Republican Army, former British Premier Margaret Thatcher, addressing the American Bar Association, commented that democracies should find ways to starve the terrorists of the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on which they depend.133
With the commencement of negotiations by the Indian team at Kandahar, the media coverage shifted to the happenings at the Taliban headquarters. At this juncture, a section of the print media and a host of television channels began to focus on the Stockholm Syndrome. With headings like ‘Relatives take to the streets’ and ‘Do anything, say relatives to bring back hostages,’134 the print media also joined the bandwagon of excessive coverage to the incident. The audiences were increasingly led to share the experience of the crisis through the media. At a subtle level, there was a channelisation of the trauma of the relatives through the mass media, which constructed the hijack as ‘everybody’s tragedy.’ Weimann and Winn note, "Violence is frightening, but terrorist violence is especially so because its victims are innocent. A frightened audience seeks information to help give meaning and structure to a world that seems anomic and to help control its own fear."135 This, precisely, was the frenetic participation that became possible for vast audiences, particularly through the electronic media. Since the hijack was ‘everybody’s tragedy,’ the media rendered diplomacy as ‘everybody’s concern’, creating a discourse entirely divorced from the processes of rational decision making, and imposing a timeframe that was far from appropriate to premeditated and cautious negotiation. The CMG, slow in its initial reactions, came under intense pressure not only to act, but also to be seen as acting in pursuit of a quick solution to the crisis. To the extent that procrastination is a significant feature in all hostage negotiations, this limited the options available to the government, and forced an eventual, essentially premature and sub-optimal decision on the government.
To control the intensity of the coverage of a crisis is central to any incident-response strategy. Directed towards wresting the initiative from the terrorists in the initial phase of hostage situations, policy-makers need the mass media to make decisions.136 But there were no such instrumentalist considerations factored into the incident-response strategy during the Kandahar crisis. The government’s initial vacillation and the failure to establish an effective media and public information mechanism set the stage for an adversarial relationship between the top crisis managers and the media, and for a randomised process of information acquisition and projection, devoid of all systemic controls. The failure to regulate the flow of information and an inability to adapt and react to emerging media coverage deeply affected the choices available to and accessed by the CMG. David Gergen notes, "to sustain a policy, the executive branch must also have a clear rationale for what it is doing before it acts. It is not necessary to have public approval in advance, but if public support is needed after the fact, the government must have a persuasive case that will stand up over time."137 In the Kandahar case, the government was constantly seeking public support even as it considered its options; the processes of decision making were entirely distorted by the simultaneous public appraisal and media analysis; and the government’s own shifting postures infinitely worsened the situation.
As the media instantaneously and vividly reported on each development – and even on anticipated developments – they induced dramatic anxiety responses and anxiety changes in the various primary actors. Many of these changes facilitated the terrorists’ efforts to condition and influence the public response in a direction that created pressures to secure outcomes favourable to them. The media, in this context, was actually creating a space for momentary popular impulses significantly manipulated by the hijackers as they set deadlines and shifted postures to secure maximum advantage in a situation where the ‘implementation cost’ for the government was seen as constantly rising. A failure on the part of the government to negotiate past the first deadline made the time factor critical as the incident progressed. Inevitably, the official ‘no truck’ stance gave way to a more ‘flexible’ response position.
In the penultimate phase of the incident, the media indulged in increasing levels of conjecture and speculative reportage/analysis. On December 29, there were reports of emerging strains and differences among the relatives on the incident-response strategy that was being adopted.138 The visual media, especially the privately owned satellite channels, also made assumptions – which never fructified – on December 31 that the Taliban was making moves to hold direct confabulations with the hijackers. Reports also emerged on a possible split within the group of hijackers and a consequent discourse – chiefly narrated by psychologists – on the positive implications of this ‘development’ for the Indian negotiators.139 The media was also a slew of speculative reports regarding a Nepalese collaborator on board IC 814 who had facilitated the terrorists at Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu – the alleged conduit's name and elaborate personal details were repeated on a multiplicity of channels even as the crisis was unfolding.140 With the return of IC 814 following a terrorist-swap the truth emerged that the alleged conduit was only an ordinary businessman. Such mis-reportage is essentially the consequence of a contrived exercise to secure ‘something on somebody’ to meet deadline pressures and the demands for dramatic developments in an ongoing story. The fact is, reportage on terrorism does not necessarily aim to secure even a semblance of objectivity. For a majority of journalists, in any event, ‘objectivity’ is just a question of methodology or technique, not a sustained quest for the ‘truth’. And in the highly competitive world of media – dominated by their emulous run for circulation figures and ‘eyeballs’ – truth often becomes the first casualty, particularly in high profile incidents, as instant reporting preclude the possibilities of proper verification and analysis.
While tracing the trajectory of the government response – from a hard-line posture to eventual capitulation – the question that emerges is, to what extent was this shift forced by the pattern and character of media coverage?141 It is clear that, with the time to react being gradually compressed, the mass media may have increased the pressure to arrive at a quick – indeed hasty – solution, depriving the CMG of the primary strategic tool in such negotiations: the ability to wear out the hostage takers in an exhausting process of inconclusive negotiations. The intensive media coverage created unbearable and unacceptable constraints on the CMG, and the hijackers skilfully capitalised on the intrusive media coverage to play on the natural anxieties of the relatives to induce ‘audience intervention’ to secure their demands. Vivek Katju, a member of the Indian negotiating team at Kandahar, confirms this: "The hijackers were acutely aware of how the media was projecting the issue – the excessive focus on relatives and the mounting pressure on the Government."142 The Pilot of IC 814, Captain Devi Sharan, reiterates this position in Flight Into Fear: The Captain’s Story:
Among the unfortunate spin-offs of the government’s inability to manage information and the media was a gradual erosion of its perceived psychological strength. Carlos Marighela in his Mini-manual of the Urban Guerrilla notes:
Communication has always been a central part of the management process, especially when parties to a conflict have attempted to generate consensus for their own positions through persuasion.149 Unfortunately, however, rather than minimising visible reactions, the government was becoming more obtrusive and over-concerned with orchestrating public support for it’s actions, and this exacerbated the situation in the absence of any integrated media strategy that could effectively manage public opinion. Critical distance was consequently created between the press and public, on the one hand, and the government, on the other. The CMG’s persistent silence in the face of the relatives’ increasing clamour for information paved the way for an elaborate media exercise based on contrived exclusives, including a premature and misleading television flash on December 28, 1999150, announcing the release of the hostages, that eventually exerted undue influence on the management of the crisis. In this, the government’s abject failure to create an effective information apparatus was repeatedly visible in the statements by relatives of the hostages: "Any scrap of information about our kin is welcome as it would give us some hope to hold on to;" "Is this the way to treat us? All we are seeking is some news about what is happening at Kandahar. Are we criminals that the government is treating us like dirt?"151 The final nail in the coffin was the observation: "The officials are only saying that not much information is reaching from Kandahar and they have to wait. So, it is better to watch television."152
Had the media been managed more efficiently, there would certainly have been more time available to secure the resolution – and newer opportunities would have emerged in the constantly changing situation. The Taliban, in the later stages of the impasse, had already issued a warning to the hijackers not to harm the hostages.153 Subsequently, they had stated that they would force the plane out of Kandahar if the problem was not resolved by midnight, December 31, 2000.154 In actual fact, the terrorists were under far greater time pressure, in addition to the cumulative stress of waiting under enormous tension, than the government, as the Afghan position on non-intervention became progressively untenable, given that the incident was unfolding on its soil. But none of these advantages could be pressed in the face of the mounting hysteria generated by the media circus at play in India.
The point here is not that the media are in collusion with terrorists, but rather that aggressive reporting in a highly charged situation, with the imperatives of competition between news agencies and channels as the only point of reference, facilitates the recognition goal of terrorists, who are often ‘as media-savvy as Madison Avenue publicity experts or spin doctors in presidential campaigns.’155 With the inhibiting effects of emotional coverage operating on public opinion, the government actually ceded the initiative to the terrorists.
The media in the Kandahar incident was, of course, entering uncharted territory and expanding its role as a participant and a potential catalyst in the foreign policy process. This was unprecedented, and the failure or inadequacy of the government’s response should, in some measure, be assessed against this background. This is precisely what makes the Kandahar experience critical in the crisis management perspectives and paradigms of the future. There is little to suggest that any effective mechanism that would escape the unfortunate dynamics of Kandahar has been, or is being, evolved by the government in preparation for the next possible crisis. A system of analysis and response of the role of the media in such crises must be institutionalised if the state is not to fatally limit the range of its available operational responses. The government cannot wait to understand the nuances of press behaviour only when such crises occur. Whether we like it or not, foreign policy is responding to what James Schlesinger calls ‘impulse and images’156 and the state must learn to operate effectively within this context.