Prime Minister Narendra Modi and we in the media have work to do

Pathankot terror False ululation must be replaced by trust and respect
Voices Opinion Sunday, January 03, 2016 - 20:33

The government of India has to set up a central media and communications system – like the nerve centre in the human body – faster that you can finish reading this sentence. That is the message following the Pakistani terror attack in Pathankot, official information on it and the way we in the media have covered the tragic event. Even as the operations continue, oracles including former diplomats and bureaucrats, started guessing games in the media about who knew what – in other words, pinning blame without a thought for families of the dead and those still on the job. We also apportioned responsibility without any way for the people to know what to believe. One reporter said his sources could not confirm the operation was over while another said his source confirmed it is over.

In a situation like this, the source must be identified by name or office. We owe that to the people, we owe that to journalism. There cannot be any guessing game or “you heard/saw it first here” competition when national security is at stake. Erring on the side of caution in situations like these must become an instinct. Maybe it is time to look at “live” coverage of terrorist attacks because most of us in the media are not trained to do this and some of us have given precious security information away compromising national interest. The government has recently issued an advisory on this – this must be discussed and applied in all newsrooms. To not do so would be irresponsible and irreverent. Other democracies have done it. So can we.

We at The News Minute (TNM) have written often about the need for the Narendra Modi government to set up robust channels of information to the media and beyond. We have also turned the mirror on ourselves seeking to identify areas where we can do better.  Inadequacy of form and content on both sides and absence of a conversation about the gaps is a deadly combination, one the country can ill-afford especially during terror strikes.

Compare the Pathankot attack with Charlie Hebdo and the recent Bataclan attacks in Paris. I was following live reporting of the latter two just like the one now in Pathankot. The difference is like chalk and cheese. In the case of Chalrlie Hebdo, the terrorists had dispersed after decimating almost an entire newsroom.  Media coverage was constant but not intrusive, there was no double guessing, no moral outrage and no gratuitous expertise as the anti-terrorist squads and politicians went about their work. The terrorists who had also taken hostages at the Jewish grocery store in the city were neutralized almost as quietly as the rest. The office of the French President and the interior minister were the only points of briefing and they said very little. Whatever information any journalist may have had in Paris was not touted as ‘breaking news’ and discussions followed after word that the government had completed its work. The attacks in Bataclan were similarly reported except for the video of a journalist who happened to be near the theatre. Calls for help and search for friends was all that was audible and visible other than the terrorists’ gunshots. In the unfolding horror, there was respect and restraint.

Trust and respect between the media and governments are two-way streets. They cannot be ordered - they have to be earned on both sides and reasons must be transparent. The government has to put a system in place and publicly identify and empower a source of information for the media so that when the next Pathankot happens (that is the unfortunate reality of our sub-continent) we know where to go. We need that one steady voice which is at once reassuring (for the people) and authoritative (for the media). The government must also discipline its own ministers to not shoot from the hip at the first opportunity. The urgency for all members of the government and opposition to speak with one voice cannot be over-stated. The other is the dire need for us in the media to respect that identified source and remain respectful for however long the task requires. There will be time for all the rest. A media that leaks like a sieve is a terrorist’s dream. A media that is not knowledgeable and does not respect restraint is fertile ground for rumour.

In the immediate aftermath of the Pathankot attack, some opposition politicians and experts questioned the work of the National Security Adviser (NSA), the Home Minister as well as heads of India’s armed forces. I will let you take a call on that.  In the meantime, think of those who do not have the luxury of ululating on national television because they stand guarding India’s frontiers. 

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