India's media blasted for sensational Mumbai coverage
With tensions running high between India and Pakistan, the press is being urged to quit fanning the flames.
Mumbai, India — Emerging from decades of government control and regulations, India's media are quickly evolving into a boisterous, zealous fourth estate, most observers agree. But coverage of the 67-hour Mumbai (Bombay) terrorist attacks has caused unprecedented condemnation, especially toward 24-hour television news channels. Critics describe it as "TV terror" for showing gory scenes, being too aggressive, and often reporting incorrect information as fact.
"They don't need to apologize as much as they need to introspect – figure out how to operate in a time of crisis," says Dipankar Gupta, sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
On the evening of Nov. 26, well-coordinated attacks against two five-star hotels, a hospital, a popular cafe, a railway station, and a Jewish center brought the financial capital of India to its knees, leaving at least 171 dead and more than 230 injured.
In the following days, critics say, many Indian journalists were overly dramatic, sensationalist, and quick to report live "exclusives" of unconfirmed rumors. Many say TV anchors, who are minor celebrities in India, were overwrought with emotion and were quick to blame Pakistan for the attacks.
"It's high time we realize and accept that we are at fault," said Shishir Joshi, editorial director of Mid-Day, a Mumbai newspaper. "We did well getting into the line of fire, but from an ethical point of view we screwed up big-time."
Recognizing the missteps in coverage, the recently created National Broadcaster Association revealed a new set of rules for the industry last week. The guidelines ban broadcasting of footage that could reveal security operations and live contact with hostages or attackers.
The association, which represents many of the country's top news channels, hammered out the new regulations after several meetings with government officials. At the same time, India's Parliament is considering the creation of a broadcasting regulatory agency for private news channels.
Meanwhile, the story continues to develop, as tensions run high and add urgency to calls for media regulation. On Monday, India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherje insisted that Pakistan take aggressive action against those responsible for the Mumbai attacks. The Indian government is ready to "take all measures necessary as we deem fit to deal with the situation," Mr. Mukherje told a group of diplomats in Delhi.
For several weeks, India has been asking Pakistan to hand over insurgents involved with militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is suspected of masterminding the attacks. Pakistan has yet to confirm that the surviving gunman of the Mumbai attacks is Pakistani, despite reports Monday that Ajmal Amir Kasab made a statement, sent to Pakistan officials, claiming to be from Pakistan.
Television coverage of the attacks showed dead bodies and hostages trapped in rooms, revealed commando operations and positions, and reported the location of hostages at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Senior news editors are accused of playing martial music between updates and providing airtime to Bollywood actors and other members of Mumbai's chatterati. One station even aired a telephone conversation with one of the 10 gunmen.
"One of the ill effects of unrestrained coverage is that of provoking anger amongst the masses," said K.G. Balakrishnan, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of India, during a recent conference on terrorism in New Delhi.
The relatively young medium of 24-hour television news received the lion's share of criticism. "There are people on television channels who are not even familiar with the basics of coverage," says Pankaj Vohra, political editor of the Hindustan Times in New Delhi. "I think it needs to evolve itself and it will become mature as time passes."
The most maligned journalist has been Barkha Dutt, the young news talk-show host of New Delhi television. The Facebook group, "Barkha Dutt for worst journalist in the world," has attracted nearly 1,500 members since its creation following the attacks. The site accuses her of being melodramatic, arrogant, and insensitive to relatives of victims.
Ms. Dutt and other television journalists have also been criticized for focusing on the sieges at the Taj and Oberoi hotels – domains of the country's wealthy and ruling elite – while largely ignoring the train station that was littered with the bodies of migrant workers. Fifty-eight people were gunned down there.
Dutt says she finds much of the criticism to be "incorrect and mean-spirited," but concedes that there is a lesson to be learned. "If there is even a shadow of doubt of security being compromised, the industry should be willing to delay-telecast so that we can once and for all end this argument," she says.
Regulating the industry could be a joint effort between the media and government, according to critics who say the government should also share some of the fault for the sensational coverage: Journalists did not have access to secure sites and very little official information was offered.
"A media crackdown is not the answer – self-regulated media is at the core of Indian democracy," says Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Times Now television channel. "This incident should highlight the need for government and media to work together."
The media has criticized both local and federal government for failing to set up fixed police lines around hostage sites and for not providing regular press briefings.
"The [media] beast has got to be constantly fed. The information flow from government sources was terrible," said Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of the CNN-IBN news channel.
Around Nariman House, the center for Jewish life located in a neighborhood of small, labyrinthine streets, a member of India's elite antiterrorism squad brandishing a pistol chased a dozen reporters from the roof of a building opposite the siege, from where they had been perched for 36 hours. The journalists then ran across a narrow alley into an adjacent building to angle for a better position.
"In most places the police need to be trained at crowd management. Nobody expected this kind of attack, this magnitude of the attack," says Mr. Vohra of the Hindustan Times newspaper.
India's media played a prominent role in its independence movement, and for years journalism held a respected position in society.
"It's fine to say that the media overreacted and that it has become jingoistic and nationalistic. The question is why has it become like that," says Ajit Sahi, an editor at Tehelka magazine, India's leading investigative weekly. He argues that the profit motive of the corporate media houses has forced journalists out of unions by offering them twice or three times what they previously earned, though their employment is now governed by contracts that can be terminated at any time. The problem, argues Mr. Sahi, is that the current model guarantees journalists no protection, even if they object to a story being manipulated or sensationalized.
That's the accusation levied by one of India's most famous film directors, Mahesh Bhatt, against CNN-IBN's Mr. Sardesai, one of India's most prominent TV anchors. Bhatt went a step further and charged that Sardesai and his channel encroached on Bhatt's turf – fiction – after the channel played Bollywood theme songs from movies about wars between India and Pakistan during news updates.
"It's what we do in the movies – whipping up passion – and what was at stake, but a nuclear holocaust?" argues Bhatt, referring to the nuclear weapons capabilities of both South Asian countries. "You use the same tools – you keep the audience on a continuous high."