The decision by various TV channels to broadcast live an ongoing anti-terror operation on the last day of UP polling raises many questions about the intent of their coverage.
On March 7, a low-intensity blast on the Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train left eight people injured. What initially appeared to be an ordinary incident quickly snowballed into a major terrorist attack a few hours later. ‘First ever ISIS attack in India’, ‘Ujjain train blast links traced to Lucknow’, ‘Attackers send train blast photographs to Syria’, the headlines flashed.
Soon, another set of reports surfaced. Suspected ISIS-affiliated terrorist Saifullah was killed in a shootout with the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) in Lucknow. It was speculated that two more terrorists might be hiding in Thakurganj, Lucknow.
Several developments have taken place in the story since then. On March 7 and 8, it was the lead story on all the channels and in the newspapers. As the last phase of polling in UP was underway on March 8, all news channels primarily focussed on the alleged encounter along with coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s visit to the Somnath temple in Gujarat.
Once the polling was over, the maha-breaking news took a U-turn. By then, there were reports that both the UP police and Union home minister Rajnath Singh could not officially confirm the existence of links between ISIS and Saifullah or any of the other alleged terrorists.
On what basis had the media run the story then? The reports were based on statements made by Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and state home minister Bhupendra Singh. All the major news channels kept tracking the story until the final 40 seats in UP had finished polling.
What is the justification for broadcasting such misleading information about the Thakurganj encounter through live streaming or deferred telecasts a few hours before and on the day of polling? Is the coverage of the alleged terrorist attack not a violation of the government’s guidelines which prohibit the live telecasting of any anti-terror operation?
The third, untold story of the day
Though the encounter and Modi and Shah’s Somnath visit were given wall-to-wall coverage, the channels did not seem so eager to ‘break’ a third significant story of the day.
A special court of the National Investigative Agency (NIA) acquitted the 2007 Ajmer blast case’s prime accused Swami Aseemanand and six others, while convicting three men, including an RSS pracharak of planting bombs in the city’s famous Muslim shrine. The acquittal of a controversial figure like Aseemanand, who has time and again confessed to his crimes, has left civil society as well as the legal fraternity astounded. Of the three men held guilty by the NIA court, two – Devendra Gupta and Sunil Joshi – have been identified as RSS pracharaks. Joshi was murdered in December 2007, apparently by his own comrades who were keen to cover their tracks. The matter was reported extensively on web portals and in print media, but not on national television.
An orchestrated hype?
The question one must ask here is whether this was an orchestrated media stunt – did news channels intentionally create the phantom of Islamist terrorism and the threat of an alleged Indore-Ujjain or Lucknow ISIS module? Was it done at the time of polling to help certain forces mobilise the votes of the majority community against a particular section of society?
Was it this pressure that pushed the UP police into hastily killing the suspected terrorist – from whom only a locally made pistol was recovered – instead of arresting him?
For nearly 20 hours, the news was telecast as ‘breaking’ on various news channels. Some even invited several self-proclaimed security experts to hold lengthy debates on their shows, where they dissected the various aspects of the attack.
None of the debaters raised questions about why this news was being telecast without any official confirmation from authorised sources like the home ministry or the UP police, that too on March 8 until polling had ended. Also, why didn’t the Centre or the concerned authorities immediately issue a clarification?
A regional channel in Uttar Pradesh was the first to broadcast live, followed quickly by several major channels. Some channels tried to act ‘wise’ and presented the images from the operation as a deferred telecast. Some others borrowed visuals from the aforementioned regional channel, some from ANI, while others covered it with their own teams.
Even if some of the channels did have a ‘deferred’ telecast, the footage was certainly shot even as the operation was underway. This means that the security forces and senior officials allowed TV channels to cover the operation even while the operation was on. This despite the fact that the government has prohibited the live coverage of any anti-terror operations in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
A high level expert committee made the recommendation after an investigation revealed that live telecasts from the areas around the Taj hotel during the anti-terror operation had caused heavy losses to the security forces – both life and property – including the NSG.
It is also important to remember that the government recently sought to ban NDTV India for a day for allegedly going against these norms in its coverage of the Pathankot attacks. This order was eventually put on hold following severe backlash from the media and civil society groups.
The coverage of the Thakurganj operation was quite superficial, making it difficult to decipher how and where it was being carried out. In the visuals that were aired live and later, journalists can be seen casually chatting with security forces personnel, standing only a few feet from the apparent site of the operation. It is not often that one gets to see such a calm, easy and stress-free encounter. After the alleged ISIS terrorist was gunned down, all the police could recover from his hideout was a local pistol made in Munger, Bihar.
It remains to be seen what the investigation into the operation will reveal. But what has clearly been revealed in the last phase of the 2017 assembly polls in UP – where the prime minister of India dedicated three precious days to campaign in just one city – is the manner in which an irresistible snack consisting of ‘Islamic terror’ and pooja was confected by the media for the benefit of voters.
Urmilesh is a senior journalist and anchor of the popular Rajya Sabha TV show ‘Media Manthan’, India’s only television programme to critique the functioning of the media
This article has been translated into English by Naushin Rehman from the Hindi original which appeared in The Wire in Hindi.