Since the terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed 40 CRPF personnel and the subsequent military response, there have been two distinct narratives in the media. On the one hand is an uncritical group of people who constantly whip up patriotism and construct nationalism in a narrow sense. They are keen to reduce journalism to propaganda. On the other is a set of professionals who continue to retain their commitment to the core values of journalism and opt to report events instead of becoming a tool of war.
Reporting war and conflict
The reportage and headlines of The Hindu exhibit a commitment to facts as well as a desire to minimise tension between two neighbours. Here journalism is a public good and refuses to become an instrument of deceit. The headline of Feb. 28, “IAF plane shot down, pilot taken captive by Pak. army”, was both appreciated and vilified by readers. The people who felt that the headline was not patriotic enough drew their inspiration from many broadcast journalists. I would urge them to watch senior journalist Sashi Kumar’s video, “Parasites of prime time”, in which he clearly establishes how dominant TV channels have become cheerleaders for hate politics and intolerance.
My friend and the founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, Aidan White, never tires of pointing out a simple fact: that journalists who work in or near a conflict zone see first-hand the brutal and inhumane consequences of war. The act of bearing witness helps them refrain from promoting propaganda based on what he calls “skewed notions of romantic patriotism or tribal allegiance”. There is a huge corpus of literature on war and conflict journalism. One fact emerges from such literature and from war reporters — from the time of the World Wars to my colleagues who have covered more recent wars in the neighbourhood: those who bay for blood are far removed from the sites of violence and do not have a sense of the loss and pain experienced by families. In his insightful book, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley gives us an important warning: “The sad truth is that today government propaganda prepares its citizens for war so skilfully that it is quite likely that they do not want the truthful, objective and balanced reporting that hero war correspondents once did their best to provide.”
Fact and fiction
Soon after India’s air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, many TV channels citing anonymous sources claimed that the attack across the LoC killed 300 terrorists. However, when the official version was put out, the government spokesperson refused to speculate on the number. Meanwhile, international media persons, who have access to Balakot, visited the site. Their findings made a mockery of many of the tall claims that were being made from India’s TV studios. In this newspaper, a sober and responsible analysis was made much before Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s capture. For instance, in his comment piece, “India’s options after Pulwama” (Feb. 19), Happymon Jacob examined the option of using strike aircraft to carry out precision strikes in locations across the LoC. He presciently warned: “But such air incursions are likely to be detected and intercepted by Pakistani radars and air defence systems. If an aircraft is shot down or pilots are captured, it could become a bigger headache for the government. Pakistani retaliatory strikes cannot be ruled out either.”
Writer Namita Gokhale made an important observation recently: “One of the greatest life learnings of the ever-contemporary Mahabharata is the lesson of the Chakravyuh and the consequences of entering it without full foreknowledge.” Her tweet doesn’t apply only to governance and military affairs, but to journalism too. The very act of verification that differentiates this profession from all other forms of communication tells us not to be an Abhimanyu, one who knew the entry strategy but not the exit one.
Indian journalists have made some of the most incisive arguments against the pernicious idea of embedded journalism (the practice of placing journalists under the control of one side’s military during an armed conflict). The difference between journalism and propaganda lies in the language that is used in reports. Ethical journalism will report the killing of a soldier as the killing of a soldier and refrain from using loaded propagandist words like martyr.
A.S. Panneerselvan is the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu and an adviser to the Ethical Journalism Network. This article has been republished with permission. Read the original here.