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 Firstpost.com, 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.”