Praveen Swami’s legacy of “sources” journalism

Praveen Swami is considered one of India's foremost journalists on the national security beat, even though his reportage relies heavily on unnamed sources. Dhruba Dutta
07 March, 2019

In the aftermath of the recent conflict between India and Pakistan, mainstream media in India has been awash with claims and counter-claims about the details of the Indian Air Force’s strikes in Pakistan’s territory, and the circumstances surrounding the aerial confrontation between the two nations. Eager to take sides, many in the media have made crucial claims relying predominantly on unidentified sources, evidence that is yet to be verified, and even published outright fabrications.

Among the purveyors of such unverified information has been the news website, which is currently led by Praveen Swami, a group consulting editor at Network 18, the media conglomerate that owns the website. Swami enjoys the reputation of being one of India’s leading journalists on the national-security beat, based on almost three decades of reportage, a lot of which relied on unnamed sources in the intelligence agencies. Most of his career has been spent with The Hindu group—an association that began in the early 1990s, and continued intermittently until 2014. He spent the next few years at The Indian Express, which he quit abruptly in late 2018 amid speculation that a contentious story on Kulbhushan Jadhav—a former Indian navy officer currently facing a death sentence in a Pakistani prison—was the trigger for his departure.

In 2013, I reported for The Caravan on India’s compromised national security beat. I noted in the piece that reporting on the “natsec” beat in India has always been a murky business, centred on a transactional relationship between the reporters and their sources in the security establishments. The glamorous nature of natsec reporting also ensures that they keep their sources completely anonymous, and are rarely questioned by editors. These reporters rely heavily on leaks, and the price for access is publishing information without much regard for its provenance. The beneficiaries of these dynamics are India’s security establishment and its government, which, on matters of national security, prefer to function without public scrutiny and accountability.

Swami, whose work I analysed in the 2013 report, fits neatly into this pattern. “If there is one infallible indicator of what the top Indian intelligence agencies are thinking or cooking up, it is this: Praveen Swami’s articles,” a 2010 report by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, a human-rights group, said.

Swami’s reports are based mostly on unnamed sources in intelligence agencies, and make big claims with recurring narrative patterns. I wrote in 2013 that his pieces often flaunted details that would have been difficult for any journalist to discover first-hand, all presented in neat, confident narratives. His work has since continued along similar lines. On 26 February, as the foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale announced that India had conducted an airstrike in Balakot, Firstpost had carried one of the first reports on the strikes. The article claimed that, “according to defence sources, IAF fighter jets not only targeted the JeM camp, but also Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen camps near Muzaffarabad.” These sources further claimed that there were six more targets “including Chakothi, Balakot and Muzaffarabad” and that five terror camps were also “targeted at Kangar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.” The article was attributed to “FP staff.”

A week after the government claimed Indian forces had carried out surgical strikes on terror-training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on 29 September 2016, Swami wrote a story for The Indian Express, where he was Strategic and International Affairs editor at the time. The story claimed to include “information which the governments of India and Pakistan have not made public.” The article, however, only confirmed India’s claims of the strikes. Swami claimed in the report that he sent questions to five people, “using a commercially available encrypted chat system,” who visited the villages that were apparently attacked during the strikes and spoke to the residents. Swami described them as “eyewitnesses.”

One of the stories Firstpost published after the recent fracas was by Francesca Marino, an Italian journalist. Marino’s story claimed that 35 people were killed in the strikes and mentioned that “the eyewitnesses were contacted by this correspondent using encrypted communication.”

Swami’s 2016 Indian Express story included this bit about a vengeful sentiment among the ranks of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, following the surgical strikes:

Friday prayers at a Lashkar-affiliated mosque in Chalhana, another eyewitness said, ended with a cleric vowing to avenge the deaths of the men killed the previous day. “The Lashkar men gathered there were blaming the Pak Army for failing to defend the border”, he said in one message, “and saying they would soon give India an answer it would never forget”.

He authored a Firstpost story on 1 March this year, which spoke of a similar sentiment among the leadership of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, whose training camp is believed to be target of India’s recent Balakot strike:

Speaking at a JeM rally in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa on 28 February, JeM founder Masood Azhar’s brother, Abdul Rauf Rasheed Alvi, better known as Rauf, confirmed that India had attacked “our headquarters”, and vowed revenge.

Then on 2 March, Swami published a report on Firstpost claiming that “Pakistan Air Force Wing Commander Shahzaz-ud-Din, the F-16 pilot shot down in a dogfight over the Nowshera sector, is reported to have been lynched by a mob who mistook him for an Indian airman.” The story was based entirely on a Facebook post authored by a man named Khalid Umar, a London-based lawyer.

Two days later, Swami confidently told Zakka Jacob on CNN-News18 that “the lack of credible information and controversies has led to this toxic situation where whatever gains we have had are being eroded by political mudslinging.” The next day, reporters from the news websites Asia Times and Newslaundry checked the claims made in Swami’s story, and found them to be entirely false. By then, the story had gone viral.

When somebody asked Swami on Twitter if he would withdraw the story, he brazened it out: “I did a story based on on-camera testimony from Khalid Umar in London. Saikat Datta and Kunwar Khaldune have done a great story which seems to debunk that testimony, as I tweeted earlier. When new facts emerge, I change my opinion. What do you do?” he tweeted. At the time this was published, Swami’s fake story was still available on Firstpost’s website.

Reproduced below is an extract from the 2013 piece, in which I reported on Swami’s legacy of authoring unverified news reports.


OF ALL THE NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTERS working today, 45-year-old Praveen Swami is the most well known. Swami, the strategic affairs editor at The Hindu, began his career making documentaries on Khalistani terrorists in Uttar Pradesh, in the early 1990s, and then joined Frontline, where he reported on the insurrection in Punjab and an intensifying war in Kashmir. This was the period when India’s national security beat took shape, as newspapers (and the country’s first wave of cable television news shows) began to devote reporters to covering the hostilities. With allegations of a nuclearising Pakistan facilitating insurgents in both states, the conflicts seemed to pose an unprecedented threat to South Asian security. Journalists who made contacts with the intelligence agencies during this time— like Swami, whose pieces were often neat, confident narratives, rich with detail that was otherwise hard to find—soon increased their stature in newsrooms and the national media.

In the subsequent decades, Swami has gained a reputation for his searching political analyses and for an academic style of journalism bolstered by wide reading, especially in history. The former IB chief Doval, who became close to Swami late in his career, wrote that he saw a “researcher’s doggedness and an intellectual’s curiosity” in the journalist, “traits an intelligence professional normally frowns on!”

But Swami has also been criticised for his proximity to the country’s intelligence agencies, especially the IB. “If there is one infallible indicator of what the top Indian intelligence agencies are thinking or cooking up, it is this: Praveen Swami’s articles,” a Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association report from 2010 said. “Each time the security establishment wishes to push a certain angle to this bomb blast or that, Swami’s articles appear magically, faithfully reflecting the intelligence reports.” A former R&AW official, who lamented his agency’s inability to cultivate journalists as effectively as the IB, concurred, calling the IB’s relationship with Swami “a great operation.” “They have intellectually won him over,” the official said. “That’s the best kind of operation, you know.

Swami’s critics find this intimacy seeping out in his writing. His reporting relies heavily on generic unnamed sources—“investigators believe”, “sources said”, “according to police”—and there’s a belligerence and one-size-fits-all Islamophobia to his analyses that seems of a piece with the security establishment’s dominant worldview. In Delhi’s media circles, there are several widely-circulated rumours about Swami’s relationship to the IB. One claims that the agency did him a great favour early in his career, and that he remains indebted to it. Another says the IB has a dossier with which it is blackmailing him. Although these rumours are totally unsubstantiated, and Swami denied such claims, they capture something about just how closely Swami is thought to have toed an agency line.

In November, I went to meet Swami in his office at the Press Trust of India building in Delhi. He had just rejoined The Hindu group, where he has spent most of his career, after an eight-month stint as the national security analyst at CNN-IBN and Firstpost. His office was still empty, and he was in a very good mood. During our 90-minute conversation about the national security beat and his work, he was affable if a bit pedantic, responding to criticisms with an uneasy smile.

Swami told me he has “an old-fashioned liberal view” of the world, though he also said his ideas “do not fall neatly into any camp”. He explained his personal politics by paraphrasing Sumedh Singh Saini, Punjab’s director general of police, whom he described as “a student of history and a very controversial police officer back in the day.” (Saini has an abduction and murder case pending against him in a special CBI court in Delhi, relating to the disappearance of three people from Ludhiana in 1994, and was accused of at least one other human-rights violation during the years of the Punjab insurgency.) “I know the borders of nation states change all the time,” Swami said. “Maybe there will be a Khalistan tomorrow, or not. I am not particularly bothered. But if somebody thinks they can run around with a Kalashnikov shooting at people in my area, they have another thing coming.” (Ajit Doval and Saini are both thanked in the acknowledgements of Swami’s book, India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947–2004.)

This philosophy fits with the ultimately favourable view Swami has taken of acts such as state-directed torture, the importance of which he came to appreciate during his years stomping around Punjab and Kashmir. “In our popular culture, the torturer is almost always a sadist or a coward; a concentration-camp commandant or dictator’s deranged sidekick: never a soldier who is, after all, one of us,” he wrote in London’s the Daily Telegraph, where he was briefly the diplomatic editor in late 2010 and 2011. Wikileaks had just published documents about Western forces resorting to torture in Afghanistan. “Much of the torture the leaks detail does not appear to have been driven by sadism,” he added. “It was carried out in the hope of ending the depredations of terrorists who have killed tens of thousands.” One outraged reader commented, “You need mental help, Praveen.”

Swami’s hawkish stance is a large part of why critics call him an apologist and shill for the country’s intelligence services. He dismissed the notion. “I wish I was working as closely with the agencies as people think I am,” he joked. “I would be much happier if there was an actual debate about these things as opposed to personal invective.” He feels he has been unfairly singled out by critics of the security beat, and explained that what he reports is not exclusive: “Ninety percent of what I wrote, you will find it in plenty of other papers as well. My peers, like Shishir Gupta and Saikat Datta, often complain saying, ‘We wrote the same thing but nobody is cribbing about it on the net.’” He also presented himself as more discerning than his critics allow. The worst thing about the national security beat, he said, is “you have to listen to lies from morning till evening from everybody concerned. From this mess, somehow it is your job to try and distil what seems plausible.”

Swami’s account of himself is perhaps more level-headed than his work. In 2003, for example, he broke a story in Frontline that later earned him the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust award for outstanding political reporting. His work proved that a much-lauded counterterrorism operation undertaken by the army in the high ranges of Poonch in Kashmir was fake. “Barring the usual muttering about intelligence failure, the media have let it be known that a great victory has been won in the face of overwhelming odds,” he wrote. “Now here is the unhappy truth: Operation Sarp Vinash [Snake Destroyer] is a hoax that is unprecedented in the annals of the Indian Army.”

“It is hard to know just what the Army’s authorised version of Operation SarpVinash actually is,” he added, “because officials have put out irreconcilable figures and accounts, much of it from behind a veil of anonymity.” He then went on to criticise other newspapers’ coverage: “All these early reports had two common features: they cited no on-record sources, and the term Sarp Vinash was nowhere used.” He added, “reports of helicopter strikes and terrorist-held fortifications had provoked hysteria among New Delhi-based journalists.”

It might have been a self-diagnosis. Two weeks earlier, Swami had been singing a different—albeit equally triumphant—tune. “Over the last month, it has become clear that nowhere near enough Indian troops were marching into the mountains of Poonch,” he wrote. “Operation Sarp Vinash … has thrown up evidence that terrorists on the Poonch heights have been building up safe bases in key areas of the district for several years.” The report, in Swami’s characteristically assured style, carried intimate details of the operation. “Indian troops encountered one elaborate cave defence at an altitude of 3,989 metres, which was eventually destroyed with the use of helicopter-fired air-to-ground fragmentation missiles,” it said at one point. At another, he referred to material from the non-existent terrorists’ diaries, and discussed their non-existent “elaborate communication structure” which allowed them to “communicate with their handlers in Sialkot, Muzaffarabad, Kotli, Islamabad, Abbotabad, as well as sympathisers across India”. He listed the states to which the terrorists had placed calls. Then he added, “One photograph recovered from a killed terrorist showed him posing in front of the Parliament House in New Delhi.” Apart from quoting an unnamed trainee at a local police station, the report’s only attribution was “sources disclosed.”

When I asked Swami about such failures, he said, “I don’t have any vanity about knowing the truth. People will get it terribly wrong from time to time. We are not in the business of curricular or definitive truth. We can try through well established conventions of journalism like double sourcing and so on, to arrive at some approximation of the truth.”

At another point, he said, “The reality of life and human existence is that it is deeply complicated.”

IF ANY ONE PERIOD IN SWAMI’S CAREER cemented the view that he is too close, and too uncritical, of his sources—and that he shares the prejudices that seem to pervade many of our national security and intelligence agencies—it was probably the years from 2006 to 2008, when Hindu extremists targeting Muslims detonated a series of bombs across the country.

In 2006, Shab-e-Baraat—the holy day when Muslims pray for the dead—fell on 8 September. Between 1.45 pm and 1.55 pm, four bombs went off in Malegaon, a predominantly Muslim town in Maharashtra’s Nashik district. Three exploded in the graveyard outside Hameediya mosque, and a fourth in the town centre. Thirty-one people were killed and nearly three hundred were injured. At the end of November, Maharashtra’s director general of police declared the case solved after the state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad detained eight Muslim men, including two that were alleged to be Pakistanis. Five months later, two bombs exploded on the Samjhauta Express train, which runs from Old Delhi to Lahore. Over the next year and a half, there were at least three more blasts carried out by Hindu extremists—at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid, at Dargah Sharif in Ajmer, and again in Malegaon. In all, the five attacks killed at least 114 people and injured more than five hundred.

Much of Swami’s reporting during this time—like the reporting of many of his colleagues on the national security beat—relied almost exclusively on anonymous government sources. Few of the claims Swami reported show indications of having been corroborated, and his pieces are rife with unqualified speculations. Almost every single one attributed the attacks to Islamic terrorists—a belief from which Swami then confidently concocted a number of theories that turned out to be false. At one point, the reader’s editor of The Hindu, K Narayanan, used part of the paper’s editorial page to catalogue readers’ objections to (and defend) Swami’s reporting. “A Chennai reader complained that all the accusations against ‘suspects’ began with phrases such as ‘investigators believe,’ ‘sources told,’ or ‘according to the police’,” Narayanan wrote of one Swami article. “He advised the correspondent not to bring in his own views or the beliefs of investigators and asked the paper to take ‘appropriate steps to prevent any anti-Muslim sentiment being spread by any of its reporters’.”

The Malegaon attack in 2006 was one of the first times that Muslims in India had been targeted by terrorist bombings. On the morning following the blasts, some reports raised the possibility that Hindu radicals were behind the attacks, though these speculations were accompanied by denials from official sources. In an opinion piece in The Hindu, Swami and Anupama Katakam mentioned an April explosion at a house in Nanded, Maharashtra, in which two members of the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh’s youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, were killed while fabricating pipe bombs. “It is far too early, of course, to be anything like certain that a Hindu fundamentalist group carried out the bombing,” they wrote. “Islamist terror groups have long sought to provoke communal violence.” In the following days, many media reports discounted the possibility that Hindu terrorists were behind the blasts. “No evidence of Bajrang involvement,” ran a typical headline, in the Times of India; the accompanying report relied on the claim of a senior police officer, who said the Malegaon blasts were caused by significantly more powerful devices than those found in Nanded.

In time, Swami’s coverage became less even-handed. Writing three days after the Samjhauta blast, he cited an intelligence official who said the bomb’s construction—he compared it to “a beat-up old Ambassador car with a brand new Mercedes engine”—was intended to deceive. “What might have been the purpose of deception is starting to become clear,” Swami wrote. “Jihadi organisations in Pakistan have already begun blaming the Indian security establishment and Hindu fundamentalist groups for the attacks.” In an Outlook report headlined “Rogue ISI Footprints”, Saikat Datta took a similar line, quoting an intelligence official who said, “The sophisticated circuitry in the bombs indicate the involvement of people who have access to resources, who work for a state-run organisation like the ISI.”

As the blasts continued, Swami’s confidence in his jihadist theory seemed to deepen, as did his willingness to uncritically report official statements. After the Mecca Masjid bombing, he published a story referring to an “Islamist campaign against Hyderabad.” The report made public the address of Abdul Rehman, alias Shahid Bilal, “the man the Hyderabad Police believe planned and executed” the attack—who turned out to have nothing to do with the blast. Around this belief, Swami weaved a complex aetiology for the bombing, linking a Lashkar-e-Taiba ideologue’s vow to “liberate Hyderabad from Hindu rule” with the Razakar leader Kasim Rizvi’s 1948 promise to hoist the Nizam of Hyderabad’s flag over the Red Fort in Delhi.

Tracing historical continuities between disparate acts of violence is a common Swami trope; he has used a claim that the first Islamist suicide attack occurred in India in 1565, to argue that it is no surprise India is today the “site of a major and growing jihadist movement.” Another of his typical readings presents Islamic fundamentalists as ideologically monolithic, and largely in thrall to Pakistan. Following the destruction at Mecca Masjid, he incorrectly claimed that Pakistan had been compelled by the West to rein in Lashkar-e-Taiba, and found this a sufficient reason for jihadists to target fellow Muslims: “Attacks on mosques, Islamist terror groups appear to hope, will be blamed on Hindu fundamentalist organisations—and thus provide the pretext they need to throw off the shackles.”

When I asked Swami about his incorrect, damaging reports on Hyderabad, he admitted his coverage was flawed. But, instead of questioning the veracity or motives of his sources, he justified them on the basis of other intelligence claims. “I blamed it on the Indian Muhajideen,” he said. “Shahid Bilal was intercepted on tape so we now know the basis for that suspicion. He was talking about an attack that coincided with Mecca Masjid.”

Unlike the previous bombings, the Ajmer detonation on 11 October 2007, targeted a Muslim syncretic place of worship that is also visited by Hindu and Christian pilgrims. Swami had two front-page bylines the next day. In a straight-ahead news report, he cited anonymous officials who “noted that the Ajmer attack was the most recent in a string of attacks … for several of which members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba have been alleged to be responsible.” Then, in a second, more analytical piece, he turned to self-assured speculation. The bombings, he wrote, “reflect another less-understood project: the war of Islamist neoconservatives against the syncretic traditions and beliefs that characterise popular Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.”

Less than a year after the Ajmer blast, another bomb went off in Malegaon, in 2008. During the course of the subsequent investigations, hundreds of people were interrogated. There were numerous allegations of torture. By early 2011, at least four dozen innocent people had been accused in the five attacks. Many of them spent as long as 18 months in jail. Profiling one of the falsely accused in The Hindu, Vidya Subramaniam wrote that he lost his job as a salesman in a jewellery shop on the day he was interrogated. “Today, scarred for life and stigmatised for having once been charged with terror, he sells watermelons on the pavement,” Subramaniam wrote after the man was finally released. “Others acquitted along with him feel similarly wrecked: the torture marks have faded but the memories have not.”

Reproduced above is an extract from “Known Unknowns,” by Praveen Donthi, published in our December 2013 issue. We've temporarily lifted the paywall on this piece. Read it in full here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Indian forces had carried out surgical strikes on terror-training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on 29 September 2018; and that an Indian Express report by Praveen Swami about these strikes was published in 2018. The strikes were carried out in 2016; and the report by Swami came out the same year. The Caravan regrets the errors.