....."The pioneers of a warless world are the youth who refuse military service"....... - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Confused coverage, damaged credibility

by Kalpana Sharma

Following severe criticism of media handling of the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai you’d think media coverage of the recent blast at German Bakery in Pune would be different. But the same kind of speculative and insensitive reporting has been witnessed once again, says Kalpana Sharma

Fifteen months after the terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008, and after much introspection about the role of the media during and after such an attack, one would have imagined that some lessons would have been learned. But a survey of the media coverage of the February 13, 2010 terror attack on the German Bakery in Pune, where 15 people have been killed, suggested that the media coverage tended to follow predictable patterns.1

The characteristics of the 26/11 media coverage that came in for discussion were:

  • Speculative writing: The media went into overdrive trying to guess who was responsible for the attack, basing most reports on unnamed “sources”.
  • Insensitivity: The visual media was criticised for its insensitivity not just towards some of those who survived the attack and were too traumatised to speak to camera, or had lost loved ones, but also for being insensitive to security concerns in the manner in which they gave minute-by-minute coverage despite requests for delayed transmission.
  • Psuedo-nationalism: In the weeks after the attack, some in the media appeared to lead the way in demands that the government take “action” against Pakistan. Instead of keeping emotions in check, the media played a role in heightening hostile feelings towards Pakistan – without differentiating between people, the government and jihadi elements in Pakistan.

This time around, some of the same kind of speculative writing was evident in the first few days following the blast.

‘Blast part of LeT’s Karachi Project? Hand of Indian Mujahideen seen all over’ headlined the Mumbai edition of The Times of India on February 15. On the same day, DNA Mumbai led with: ‘Finger point to LeT-backed IM’ and ‘Laskhar signature in bakery blast’. And ‘Directed by LeT, executed by IM?’ asked the Hindustan Times on its front page.

All these papers quoted “sources” who suggested that these groups were responsible for the blast even as the Pune Police Commissioner was quoted as saying that nothing could be said until the forensic evidence had been analysed.

Even on the forensic evidence, the media played out the confusion by quoting multiple “sources”. So while one newspaper spoke of how RDX was used in combination with ammonium nitrate, another said it was only RDX, a third speculated on whether a remote device was used, and a fourth suggested that if a particular kind of remote device was used, it would be a “first” for the Indian Mujahideen, the main suspect as such a device had only been used by terrorists in Kashmir. Depending on the source, and whether the source was located in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, or even Lucknow in one instance, the stories were different in their detail.

Even as this guesswork continued into the second day after the blast, The Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent, Nirupama Subramaniam, received a phone call from a person calling himself Abu Jindal who claimed that the Laskhar-e-Taiba Al Alami had carried out the strike because of India’s refusal to discuss Kashmir in upcoming talks and because India was an ally of the US. The caller said the group split from the Laskhar-e-Taiba as it took orders from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

All newspapers carried this story on their front pages on February 17, giving details of the conversation between Subramaniam and the caller. Yet, interestingly, The Hindu itself had a joint byline front-page story from Islamabad and New Delhi by Subramaniam and Praveen Swami that did not carry so many details. Nor was it evident from the story that the call had been received in Islamabad. You could almost believe that it could have been made to the Delhi-based Praveen Swami instead. The difference in the reports carried by other newspapers and The Hindu was quite intriguing and it was not clear why The Hindu chose to play down its exclusive. Could it be because of the “sources”, quoted by all papers, that either dismissed the claim as a red herring or said such a group did not exist?

On February 18, another angle to the story appeared in some newspapers. Hindustan Times, for instance, carried an elaborate second lead headline: ‘Who are the men behind the strike?’ Accompanying it was a box item outlining why India had to worry as there was a new outfit specialising in bomb attacks. And the story spoke of a group that no one else in the media had ever mentioned before. According to the HT story, a new Al Qaeda-backed outfit called Jaish Al-Mujahideen Fi Al-Iraq (JAMFAI) could be involved, and quoting sources in the home ministry, the story reported that the breakaway group claiming responsibility for the Pune blast was formed after LeT tied up with JAMFAI.

Another name that kept cropping up in all media reports was David Headley, the man detained by the FBI in the US and charged for his role in the 26/11 terror attack. Headley is supposed to have visited Pune in the months leading up to 26/11. Interestingly, while the front page of Hindustan Times gave details about JAMFAI, on an inside page was a story with the headline ‘Probe confirms Headley link’.

DNA on February 18 did not carry a single story on the blast on its front page but on an inside page had a headline similar to that in HT: ‘It’s official: Headley plotted Pune’. But then went on to speak of the Bhatkal brothers of the Indian Mujahideen and their role. The lead paragraph of the story went like this:

“The Pune blast is the culmination of years of effort by the Bhatkal brothers – Iqbal and Riyaz. Step by step, the brothers made inroads into the city to establish a flourishing business of jihad. It was only after the Indian Mujahideen (IM) network was busted in 2008, did security agencies get an insight into how deep their network was. As it is becoming clear that the Pune blast was the handiwork of Riyaz and his foot soldiers, security agencies know that they are up against a highly-motivated enemy.”

So five days after the blast, the names that kept recurring were LeT and IM and now some new names like JAMFAI and Laskhar-e-Taiba Al Alami. The Indian Mujahideen Kashmir had also claimed responsibility for the attack.

The only newspaper to suggest that perhaps the perpetrators of the blast were not necessarily the IM was The Hindu that carried a report on February 19 saying that a Hindu right-wing group like Abhinav Bharat, which has been responsible for other similar blasts, was also under the scanner. No Mumbai-based newspaper carried any such story.

By February 19, several newspapers carried stories about the connection between the alleged member of the Indian Mujahideen, Shahzad Ahmed, who had been picked up by the police from Azamgarh in UP in connection with the encounter killing at Batla House in Delhi last year, and the Pune blast. Hindustan Times claimed that Ahmed knew that a blast had been planned in Pune.

But by February 19 the story had slipped off most of the front pages and the stories on the blast focused on the survivors or those who had been killed. The speculation had dried up.

On the second issue of insensitivity, this time the visual media was once again criticised for following the wounded into the hospitals and speaking to them even as some of them were clearly traumatised. No one seemed to care about the personal dignity of these injured persons as television lights picked them out. Finally, the police had to intervene and instruct hospitals not to permit journalists inside the wards where the injured were being treated. So clearly, television channels had not arrived at any code of conduct on this aspect of a post-terror strike situation and continued along the same lines as in the past.

The difference this time has been the absence of the kind of pseudo-nationalism one saw post-26/11. This could partly be due to the location and the size of the attack being much smaller and far less drawn out than the Mumbai attack. One can hope that it is because the media has understood that its job is not to whip up emotions at such times.

However, it could also be because this time around, the government seems to have learned its lesson and was clearer with information and with a line of command to speak to the media. Officials were speaking the same language, were cautious and did not pin blame on anyone. They stuck to the fact that the blast needed to be investigated.

But the speculative writing in the first few days illustrates, yet again, the dangers of single-source stories, where media competition makes journalists seek out people within investigative agencies or the police and run with the stories without waiting for further substantiation from at least one other source. As a result, you get either a spurt of similar stories, clearly from the same source, or multiple speculative stories from competing agencies. The readers are left confused and the media’s own credibility is damaged by such writing.

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