In India-Pakistan air strikes and ensuing prime time frenzy, facts and journalism have been casualties

The one casualty we can be certain of in the aftermath of the surgical strikes on 26 February is facts. It is often said in Pakistan that the Indian media is more pro- government and more submissive to a nationalist stream of thought. Last week’s coverage somewhat bears this out.

Opinions hold sway and guessing games are rife in the post-truth age. One main reason is that the barebones Indian official readout by the foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale did not give any details of the casualties inflicted or provide images. The magic number of 300 or 350 killed in the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) camp at Jabba Top near Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was attributed to sources and not even the department the sources came from is mentioned. So where did this number emanate from, which is now being mentioned across the globe? Some media have whittled down this number to 20 or even 40, but in the absence of a concrete official number, we really don’t know.

The other thing no one knows or has been told from a credible source who is named, is the extent of damage. Was the JeM training camp demolished, and on what basis are reports saying there is aquatic training — a swimming pool and some 20 ex-army trainers? This seems based on older reports of the camp which existed in 2004. Few sources are quoted, except in one case which had access to intelligence reports/information.

So, for the most part, looking back over last week’s fast developing news, we don’t know so many things about this surgical strike, much like the earlier one in 2016. The first confusion was over where Balakot was located, since there are two places with that name — one along the Indian Line of Control. The foreign secretary in his readout did not clarify this crucial fact, though it became clear quite soon. All we know is that it was a non-military pre-emptive strike, based on credible intelligence reports that Jaish-e-Mohammed was planning another strike. The foreign secretary only said “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis being trained for fidayeen (suicide) action were eliminated.” No number was given out. And so, it was left to sources to step into the breach.

 In India-Pakistan air strikes and ensuing prime time frenzy, facts and journalism have been casualties

Celebrations after India announced pre-emptive strikes were carried out in Pakistan in retaliation to Pulwama attack. PTI

Also, was this an active JeM training centre? Some reports indicate it was. The subsequent briefing by the defence top brass only indicated there was proof but the government would have to choose to share it.

Fair enough, but that did not stop TV channels from jumping the gun and speculating on the numbers. The images of little fighter planes crisscrossing screens on both Indian and Pakistani TV channels were supposed to remind us of the war-like situation. It was mostly annoying, along with the rant that most TV anchors indulged in. According to an article in The News Minute, a Telugu channel, TV9, showed a news room designed as a “war room,” with an anchor dressed in camouflage with a gun in his hand. It can’t get worse than that, or can it?

Even after the last surgical strike in 2016, the war was mainly played out in TV rooms, with anchors wearing flak jackets. All this must make us duck for cover and cringe. Yet, we didn’t learn any lesson from reporting that earlier surgical strike and once again, the media had to rely on what the government put out. This time too, we threw all journalistic caution to the winds.

The lack of complete information from the Indian government, and selective leaking of the figure of 300 by “sources” led to the confusion. The media which went to Balakot, notably Al Jazeera and Reuters were not allowed to visit the madrasa. The Reuters report said that the board of the JeM was taken down, and the military stopped them from going to the madrasa, which local people said was a place for children to study in.

The constant replaying of pictures of an empty crater and some chopped trees put out by Pakistan has now made the Indian attack a butt of jokes. Credible information is not only required before a surgical strike, it is also necessary for the media to file their stories. This is something that the government needs to take seriously. A bland read-out may serve little purpose. In this case, it has caused mayhem, with all sorts of claims being made by these nebulous sources.

The other problem is that for the Indian media, direct verification is not possible as there is a dim chance of any Indian journalist being allowed to the site. A similar thing happened during the 26 November, 2008 terror attack, when no one from Pakistan could come to Mumbai and report. While there was all-round condemnation of this attack from Pakistani civil society, it makes a difference if you are allowed to report on something as devastating as this strike was.

Hamstrung by little information from official sources, lack of access to the actual place, and fed by sources and speculation, the media had a choice: to honestly state that it didn’t know or couldn’t verify the numbers or some of the statements put out by officials was one way out, but that would be too much to expect in an era of breaking news. Even when nothing is happening, as for instance during the long wait on Friday to see the captured Indian pilot’s release at the Wagah border, TV reporters at the site had to fill in the boredom with nonsensical statements — “someone is coming through the gates” or “something is happening, but I don’t know what exactly” and speculation for the delay — including statements that it was worrying. The wages of non-stop TV.

However, not all the media has stooped to spreading misinformation. In fact, some TV channels also took the trouble to say that the official number of those killed in the surgical strike is not known. Questions are also raised by media practitioners on the manner of reporting this strike. But most of TV and also the channel mentioned earlier are on a free-for-all mission, where the objective is to attain stratospheric decibel levels based on their own perception, which is not much, of what the truth ought to be.

Things are not exactly ideal on the Pakistani side either, although they do have the advantage of going to the site and checking the truth of the Indian claims. The question is if anyone was allowed into the JeM camp/madrasa, though the Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) spokesperson said that it was an open site and anyone could go there. In his address to a joint session of Parliament, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan praised his country’s media for its responsible reporting, adding that the media there was covering war and conflict since 2002, and so they knew the implications of war-mongering. Not so the Indian media, he said, which was war-mongering, and he was afraid something would happen just by watching the broadcasts. He implied that had the Indian media seen what its counterparts had (in Pakistan) in terms of bloodshed, they wouldn’t be doing this. No one, Khan said, wins a war; one shouldn’t even think of it.

While there is much jingoism including advocating the use of a nuclear bomb, this doesn’t seem to constitute the opinion of the people, who for the most part, are against war and for peace. The first demonstrations for peace and anti-war were in Pakistani cities, and people demanded the release of the captured Indian pilot. In India too, there are sane voices, but they tend to be shouted down in the frenzy to promote revenge.

However, the idea of revenge was articulated in unmistakable terms by a journalist during the press conference by the ISPR spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor on 26 February. The first question from a male Pakistani journalist was, “Sir, the Indians are behaving like drunk moneys and jumping all over the media … isn’t it time to shut those monkeys up?”

The journalist said that India hit a faraway hill and some trees, and asked if Pakistan should do the same to match the Indian strike — that is, bomb a faraway hill and some trees. To this, Major General Ghafoor, using the journalist's words, said that they would "shut these monkeys up," but in the "Pakistani way," with no lies, etc.

The questions at the Foreign Office briefings which, as Indian journalists posted in Islamabad, we were allowed to attend, were sometimes on these lines — journalists asked about the RAW hand in bomb blasts in Islamabad and so on. But for the most part, no one was hostile against Indian journalists and on the contrary, made them feel at home.

While Indian journalists had been posted in Pakistan for over 20 years, and both India and Pakistan earlier allowed media representatives to be stationed in each other’s countries, that is no longer the case. Since May 2014, when the two Indian journalists reporting for The Hindu and Press Trust of India were asked to leave, there is no Indian media presence in Islamabad. Since 2011, New Delhi also has no Pakistani correspondents. So, even a rational media exchange is no longer possible, though journalists do visit.

Despite a free media that both countries boast of, even this practice has no traction. Being able to travel and report freely reduces doubt and suspicion. The fact that it is no longer possible only fuels more doubt and misgivings.

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Updated Date: Mar 02, 2019 18:30:22 IST