The Indian soldiers who attacked terror targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir may have returned home without any fatalities on their side but there is one casualty that the surgical strike did cause on our side of the border: Indian journalism has been left grievously injured.
Marching right behind the special forces who crossed the Line of Control to deliver “five slaps” on Pakistan – to use defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s phrase – most news channels have crossed the line that separates journalism from PR and worse.
If one channel is trying to get its anchors to end their bulletins with a ‘Jai Hind’ sign-off, another has created a ‘war room’ for its staff to play soldier – complete with an anchor wearing an imitation ‘flak jacket’ to shield him from enemy fire as he plans his own surgical strikes on Pakistan.
Even before the army operation, NewsX declared via its editor-in-chief that the channel would no longer be referring to Pakistan as ‘Pakistan’ on its prime time show but as ‘Terror State of Pakistan’. On its part, Times Now has led the charge against the presence of Pakistani artistes in India and has even demanded that diplomatic relations with Islamabad be downgraded.
It’s too early to tell what this surge of nationalist reporting has done for the ratings of these channels but the aggressive manner in which they have led the charge against analysts and opposition politicians who suggested the government provide more information on the surgical strikes has drawn praise from Amit Shah, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BJP’s position is that it was the army which decided to go public with the news about the strikes and that asking for more information would lower the morale of the army and undermine national security.
As a news organisation that always kept its head when others around them lost theirs, NDTV was one of the few channels willing to discuss the strikes rationally –with several of its studio guests making a case for the government to release more information. But in a dramatic turnaround which suggests the channel has bought into the BJP’s arguments about the danger of asking questions, NDTV has now declared that it would no longer air “any remarks that risk security for political advantage.”
On October 6, the channel decided not to telecast an interview with Congress leader P. Chidambaram – who as a former home minister and finance minister was a member of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet committee on security for a decade – because he was critical of the Modi government’s political handling of the surgical strikes the Indian army had conducted across the Line of Control in Kashmir last week.
In extracts that played out on the channel on Thursday morning, Chidambaram criticised statements made by defence minister Manohar Parrikar in the aftermath of the September 29 surgical strikes and noted that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had since cautioned his ministers against thumping their chests on the issue.
The full interview, which Chidambaram had recorded with NDTV’s star anchor Barkha Dutt, would be broadcast in the evening, viewers were told. Except that it wasn’t.
Dropping Chidambaram’s interview wasn’t the only act of censorship at the channel that day. Editors were instructed that Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s statement in Uttar Pradesh about Modi trading in the blood of Indian soldiers was not to be run on the channel either.
In an email on October 6 to all of the channel’s journalists across the country, NDTV’s editorial director Sonia Singh explained the new editorial policy:
Across the NDTV network, we have decided we will not give space to the bizarre political bickering that has broken out on the surgical strikes…..no debates, no airtime of my strikes vs yours, give proof etc…whether it is opposition or the govt….only the army…..to explain this.. here is a gfx we should carry today as the lead in our bulletins….…[name redacted], please can this be designed…here is the text….
INDIA ABOVE POLITICS
National security cannot be compromised by politics
Our Army cannot be doubted or questioned or used for political gains
The current political debate threatens to do this
NDTV will not air any remarks that risk security for political advantage
The ‘gfx’ was prepared and highlighted at the top of the 9 pm news bulletin on Thursday night. For some reason, the second point – about not questioning the army – was dropped from the graphic (see above).
In keeping with the new editorial policy, the channel will no longer allow politicians and other guests to question the strikes on air.
The Wire sent a series of questions to Radhika Roy, co-founder and chairperson of NDTV, and Sonia Singh, on Friday afternoon – right after BJP president Amit Shah’s press conference was telecast on the channel.
1. What prompted NDTV to announce a new editorial policy as mentioned in its message ‘India Above Politics’?
2. Was it true that the decision to not air Rahul Gandhi’s remarks was taken pursuant to the new editorial policy?
3. Extracts of P. Chidambaram’s interview to Barkha Dutt were played during the day on October 6 but the full interview was finally never broadcast. We understand that this decision was also taken in keeping with NDTV’s new editorial policy. Is this true? Was Chidambaram saying things that compromise national security?
4. Doesn’t NDTV’s refusal to telecast statements by a former home minister or by the leader of the main opposition party amount to censorship of the news on your part?
5. Contrary to your stated policy of not encouraging politics and political debate to compromise national security, NDTV showed BJP leader Amit Shah’s press conference today live. Is this because, in your channel’s view, his remarks do not constitute a politicisation of the surgical strikes, and of national security?
6. Raksha mantri Manohar Parrikar recently made a statement about how the Indian army realised its strength only after the current government came to power: “Indian troops were like Hanuman who did not quite know their prowess before the surgical strikes,” Parrikar said. In your view, is this an example of political debate that does not threaten to compromise national security?
7. NDTV sent an email to its staffers yesterday which had a fourth bullet point as part of the channel’s advisory:
“Our Army cannot be doubted or questioned or used for political gains”
Why was this line deleted from the final advisory?
8. Is it NDTV’s view that reporters and editors (not to speak of the public at large) cannot question the army any more, or even express doubts about what the army says? Or has this part of the original advisory sent by Sonia Singh to all staffers been withdrawn internally as well?
9. Will NDTV henceforth not permit on air guests who criticise the government’s handling of the strikes and their aftermath, or question their military efficacy?
10. Will criticism of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or the use of pellet guns against civilians by the security forces in Kashmir, be allowed on NDTV in the future?
In her reply to The Wire, Radhika Roy provided a general explanation of NDTV’s policy, but did not answer specific questions, especially those on Chidambaram, Rahul Gandhi, Manohar Parrikar and Amit Shah:
“Like all decisions we take at NDTV, we are driven by editorial and journalistic integrity and the belief that the political mud slinging regarding the surgical strikes without a shred of evidence was actually damaging to our national security. We do not believe that we are obliged to carry every shred of drivel that has now come to pass as public discourse. I’d also like to stress that this is part of our normal editorial policy not to provide a platform to outrageous and wild accusations that thrive only on publicity. Our statement giving our reasons is on air and I think that answers the larger question.
“As the news develops, every statement being made is run through that editorial filter. This is of course a fluid situation but the basic principle remains the same. We will investigate any story – whether it involves the army or anyone else – as long as it is based on hard evidence.
“Regarding the rest, I am astonished that internal newsroom discussions and draft mails, which may change a million times ( as I am sure they do in any newsroom) is something that should be a matter of public interest! For us the final decision and what we stand by is what goes on air.”
There is one word which stands out in Roy’s reply because of the importance she places on its presence or absence – evidence. Evidence is central to journalism. But ‘evidence’ is also the word on which the political debate of the past week has turned. While some of the demands for ‘evidence’ of the surgical strikes we have heard over the past few days are misplaced, the debate arose because the government needlessly withheld information about the operation that ought to be in the public domain in India because it is already known to the Pakistani military – such as the locations hit and the mode of attack. States that are serious welcome verification of claims that they publicly make. This is not because they are afraid their army won’t be trusted but because transparency (on details that do not compromise security) builds greater respect for the capabilities of their military.
If important political leaders – whether from the opposition or the government – engage in mud slinging or make loose statements “without a shred of evidence”, should journalists shield the public from them? Or should they report their remarks, with context, background and analysis, so that viewers or readers can form their own opinions? The danger in choosing the first option, as NDTV evidently has done, is that it becomes difficult to treat ruling party and opposition alike. On Friday, for example, the channel broadcast back-to-back press conferences by Amit Shah of the BJP and Kapil Sibal of the Congress. But by the evening, the channel’s website had only a story on Shah criticising the Congress, with Sibal’s rebuttal tagged on as two lines at the end. To be sure, both leaders played politics with national security. But only one gets his video archived prominently – Shah – while the other seems to have vanished into ether.
#Update 1: The 2-minute video clip excerpted from P. Chidambaram’s interview to Barkha Dutt which played during the day on Thursday has since been removed from the ndtv.com website.
#Update 2: Hitting out at the “fascist Modi government” for “throttling” NDTV, the Congress party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala has tweeted a set of questions P. Chidambaram has sent NDTV about what the channel found objectionable about his interview:
A fascist Modi Govt throttles NDTV from showing the truth. Dictatorship can't suppress, strangle reality. Media must standup & be counted. pic.twitter.com/tP2en6h7gr
— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) October 8, 2016