India: Brickbat for Commercial Channel on Terror Coverage

The terror attacks in Mumbai left more and more implications in Indian society. The latest casualty may be the electronic media, operating in the world’s largest democracy. Soon after the terror strikes on India’s financial capital, society was of the opinion that excessive media footage of the Mumbai episode only helped the terrorists. A lawmakers committee proposes statutory regulations on electronic (also print) media, keeping an eye to the larger interest of the nation.

Meanwhile, a media study observed that the Union government-run DD News covered the November Mumbai attacks in a less sensational manner than any other commercial channel. The 24 hours news channel of Doordarshan highlighted the terror acts in the most restrained manner. Conducted by Newswatch, a media watchdog based in New Delhi, the study also indicated that many private television channels made theatrical (meaning worst) coverage out of the horrible act of terrorism.

Mumbai was seized for nearly 60 hours during the last week of November by ten Pakistan-based Islamist terrorists, and nearly 200 people were killed. 22 foreign nationals died, including American, British and Israelis. Nine terrorists (one was captured alive) were gunned down by the security forces, and a few brave personnel also lost their lives. The horror was however multiplied through the live telecast by a number of news channels almost around the globe.

The incident sparked massive outrage against the terrorists as well as the administration, which was reflected in all media outlets of the country. Understanding the gravity of the situation, Newswatch decided to carry out a survey on people’s thinking on the reportage issue of the episode. The survey was conducted over a web-based interface during December 3 to 6. The response was overwhelming, and 9,906 responses were selected for the Analysis.

“Shortly after it dawned on all and sundry that what was initially thought of as only a gang war, was in fact a concerted attack by terrorists on the night of November 26, 2008, the eyes of the nation, and the world, were trained on Mumbai. The coverage of the attacks was to become a watershed in India’s television history. But hardly had the first night wore on, signs of criticism of the coverage began surfacing,” said Subir Ghosh, who edits the Newswatch portal.

The highlights of the survey included that 74 per cent (of participants) felt that the reportage-presentation was theatrical.

Arup Ghosh and Shireen of NewsX were voted as the cool (responsible) anchors/reporters, but amazingly the glamorous Barkha Dutt of New Delhi Television was described as the worst anchor by the participants. In most segments, DD News, run by Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) was observed to be the least sensational.

“This survey is based on people’s perception of the television coverage. It is not a content analysis project, technically,” Subir clarified adding that ‘since this was an online survey the results would also mean the opinion gathered was that of India’s Internet users only, and not that of the people as a whole. The survey results, unfortunately, leave out rural India from its ambit. In that sense, this survey is as elitist as the coverage of the attacks was made out to be by most detractors’.

The extensive and minute to minute live coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks drew the attention of a parliamentary committee too, which took ‘note of the recent direct live telecast of the sixty hours Operation Black Tornado by the security forces to combat terrorist attack in Mumbai particularly on Oberoi Trident and Taj Mahal Palace Hotels and Nariman House, by news channels’.

The Committee on Petitions of Rajya Sabha under the Chairmanship of Shri M. Venkaiah Naidu, which prepared its 132 report on the petition regarding misuse of right to freedom of speech and expression by print and electronic media and the need to restrict it under article 19 (2) of the Constitution had recently been to the upper house of Parliament. The committee’s observation included ‘live feed of air dropping of NSG commandoes on the rooftop of Nariman House which had taken away the element of surprise and was critical and crucial in the operation of Black Tornado’.

It appears that the live footage shown by TV channels to the viewers could also have been used as free intelligence input to the perpetrators sitting far away from the place of incident who allegedly guided the attackers to take appropriate emergent measures against the positions of security forces through satellite/mobile phones. Such live feed of Commandoes being air dropped directly endangers the success of operations and safety of hostages as well as security forces, it added. The Committee noted that the live coverage was partially restricted later because of some good sense prevailing with suitable advisories.

Needless to mention, self regulation by media otherwise was not in place. The Committee expects the media to treat information of a sensitive nature carefully and endeavour to ensure that the interest of the Nation and the lives of security forces and hostages in such operations are not jeopardized by live telecasting.

The Committee, after going through a series of wide consultations with the Press Council of India, representatives of regional print and electronic media, eminent journalists, legal luminaries, ministries of Information & Broadcasting, Home Affairs and Law & Justice, formulated a host of recommendations.

In one of its recommendations, the committee expressed its opinion that the ‘electronic media should not air information gathered through sting operation unless and until there is ample evidence to conclusively prove the guilt of the alleged accused; if it is required in the public interest, the version of the alleged accused should also be aired simultaneously and with equal prominence.

Where a sting operation is found to be false and fabricated, the media company ought to be given stringent punitive punishment commensurate with the damage caused to the innocent individual. It is however not the intention of the Committee to recommend curtailment of the freedom of the Press and it is also not in favour of a constitutional amendment, as prayed by the petitioner but at the same time the abuse of the said freedom by a section of the media for creating sensation, achieving pecuniary benefit and enhancing their TRPs, has to be checked in the public interest, it added.

The right of media always comes with a duty – to report fairly, objectively and accurately. That duty attracts restrictions and limitations which protects the right of an individual. The Committee is of the view that freedom of the press is essential for the healthy functioning of democracy; however, democracy comes with responsibility. Freedom of the press casts a responsibility on media as well.

The committee has also expressed concern over the repeated display in the media, of human corpses in natural calamities, accidents, incidents of bomb blast, arson, etc., which causes negative psychological impact on viewers. News channels in many foreign countries do not telecast the footage of dead bodies. The Committee desires that a similar approach may be adopted by the news channels in India also.

Self-regulation is an ideal situation but it may not be effective to regulate the media particularly in the scenario of growing competition amongst the channels for supremacy in the business of ratings, the Committee felt and voted in favour of having statutory regulations in place covering the print and electronic media, in the larger interest of society, on the model of the Press Council of India vested with more powers.

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist, who contributes to NewsBlaze and various media outlets throughout the world.