​​How the fog of war has blinded journalists to their roles

02 March, 2019

Wars create heroes out of individuals who show great courage. But wars also create clowns who clothe themselves in patriotism, and strut and fret their hour upon the stage. The rising tensions between India and Pakistan over the past few weeks have resulted in many of the latter, at least on this side of the line of control. On 14 February, a young Kashmiri man named Adil Ahmed Dar rammed his vehicle full of explosives into a security convoy carrying Central Reserve Police Force jawans in Pulwama, killing at least forty personnel and wounding many more. Since then, journalists in India, in particular on television, have discarded their mufti and their objectivity—though not many had it in the first place—and wrapped themselves in the Indian tricolour. Their jingoistic calls for war began soon after the Pulwama attack, and reached a fever pitch over the past two days, during which India conducted air strikes at Balakot, a town in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, followed by a dogfight with the Pakistan Air Force the next day.

It is necessary to differentiate these journalists from those who expressed sympathy for the CRPF jawans and their families, which is compassionate—nobody deserves to die the way they did, even if it can be argued that the jawans were aware of the risks their profession poses. Some journalists understandably expressed their condolences. But for others, emotion began to colour their reporting, blurring the lines between the professional and the personal.

Indeed, the affliction that took hold of some newsrooms was baffling. Network anchors fell over themselves to outdo one another’s displays of patriotism, complete with bizarre visuals of landscapes enveloped in billowing smoke, graphics that would be hazardous to those suffering from epilepsy and hashtags dripping with patriotism, shattering any barrier that may have existed between a state-propaganda channel and a credible news network.

Their zeal is worth putting on record—a task that the media blog Indian Journalism Review undertook on its website. Some anchors, such as ZEE News’s Sudhir Chaudhary and Network 18’s Anand Narasimhan took to Twitter to parrot a slogan popularised by the recent Bollywood film Uri, which has since been employed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s politicians—“How’s the josh?” The official account for the channel Times Now posted a tweet about “mazboot Bharat”—strong India—taking on “naya Pakistan”—new Pakistan, which the channel’s editor-in-chief Rahul Shivshankar retweeted. He doubled down on his sentiment in his prime-time debates—loud affairs promoted with hashtags such as “India Strikes” and “PakFakeClaims.” His colleague Navika Kumar expressed her glee at India’s air strikes in a response to a tweet by the Pakistani singer-actor Ali Zafar, in which the latter had praised a speech by Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan. Kumar asked if Zafar was “speechless” after the Balakot strike. She sprinkled her tweet with ten Indian flags for good measure. She also tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian Air Force, lest her patriotism go unnoticed. Sumit Awasthi of ABP News posted on Twitter that India had been patient for too long, and it was time to show “shaurya”—bravery.

Adding to the hall of shame, Anjana Om Kashyap of Aaj Tak tweeted a couplet, saying, “O enemy, you better realise, you will lose the game when we play it.” Rahul Kanwal, who only a few months earlier enthusiastically participated in a “reconstruction” of a supposed operation against Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh, eagerly tweeted “Jai Ho,” followed by “Pakistan stunned into disbelief.” Marya Shakil of CNN-News18 went a step further—she chided the opposition for praising only the IAF, saying Modi’s political will deserved credit as well. Gaurav Sawant, the executive editor at India Today, urged the army to not stop at one blow, but to strike “hard and deep,” and “strike again & again.” The veteran anchor Rajdeep Sardesai was relatively restrained, but joined those singing encomiums to the air force, terming India’s strike “a remarkable operation” that deserved “kudos.” Bhupendra Chaubey, also of CNN-News18, saluted India’s “brave warriors,” and Rohit Sardana of Aaj Tak announced that no proof of India’s air strike was needed as Pakistan had confirmed it took place.

Unsurprisingly, Arnab Goswami, who heads Republic TV, added loudly to the chorus. In accompaniment to high-pitch debates where Goswami announced that Pakistan had been shell shocked and the Jaish-e-Mohammed “blasted,” his channel began collecting messages for the jawans, with the hashtag, “#SaluteOurForces.” Others took this opportunity to enact what appeared to be childhood fantasies of being soldiers—a reporter at TV9, a Telugu channel, for instance, spoke of a declaration of high alert in the states bordering Pakistan, wearing military fatigues and carrying a toy gun. To be fair, this valour was reciprocated across the border, where two Pakistani anchors presented the news dressed in navy and military uniforms, their make-up intact. An honourable mention must be made of a Pakistani anchor who repeated “tauba tauba” 22 times in 151 seconds, while protesting about Indian farmers who said they won’t export tomatoes to Pakistan—surely a distinguished service beyond the call of duty.

Not one of the fulminating television-news anchors exhibited the criticality demanded of their profession. The ridiculousness of their antics aside, the conduct of these journalists severely eroded whatever credibility they previously held.

When the veteran newscaster Barkha Dutt, too, joined the chorus of broadcast journalists cheering the IAF’s strike in Balakot, Andrew Buncombe, a former Asia correspondent for The Independent in London, asked her if it was wise for “a hugely influential, independent-minded journalist to be cheering military action by anyone.” Dutt replied, “I am an Indian journalist who cut my teeth reporting war from the front line. I have no faux neutrality about my country being engaged in a decades old low grade war by Pakistan backed terror groups.” She extended her “full support” to the Indian Air Force, adding, “This is not war mongering. Its justice.”

On 27 February, after reports emerged that Pakistan had captured an Indian wing commander, Abhinandan Varthaman, and videos of him in custody began to circulate on social-media platforms, Dutt said she was overwhelmed by the composure and dignity he displayed. She then criticised “hashtag warriors frothing at the mouths in television studios.” While Dutt was right in condemning broadcast bullies who claim to be journalists, I pointed out on Twitter that by aligning herself closely with the armed forces, she, like the blustering anchors in TV studios, had wrapped herself in the national flag, obscuring the divide between reporters and morale boosters.

“I support our armed forces against terrorism. That is not being a war monger, sorry salil,” she responded. “I am not a hyperventilatimg (sic) studio stud and receive death threats from mobs often enough for you to know that. but I stand with justice. And our military on this.”

Dutt’s stance raises profound questions about the role of journalists during conflict—of what it means for them to declare allegiance or support for a nation and its armed forces. The nature of conflict reveals why this is a dangerous proposition. Governments have great incentive to lie during wartime and conflict, and a prevailing jingoistic atmosphere often forces people to take sides. In the fog of war, truth remains elusive, and often at variance with what “our” own side claims, and what “we” want to be true—even the use of possessive pronouns takes on added meaning. The role of journalists, then, is to remain sceptical, and to question and challenge all assertions, “ours” and “theirs.” Journalists know that anyone telling a story has a motive to do so, which might include exaggerating claims, suppressing the truth, and sometimes, lying outright. So they are supposed to go only as far as facts take them—cross-check what they have learned or been told; write what they can verify; and then publish what they have found, without fear or favour. This could also mean antagonising the government—it means the official spokespersons may no longer return a reporter’s calls, may no longer invite them to a drink, may no longer pass on the bits of information that result in exclusives.

There is no doubt that the attacks that Dutt has faced from trolls on social-media platforms are horrendous, and that her attackers and harassers who have made violent threats must be brought to book. In that, I stand by her. But this has nothing to do with her public remarks on the recent violence in Kashmir—to suggest so is to conflate two issues. Showing unqualified support for the armed forces, as Dutt and other journalists have done, raises questions about their impartiality to report a future defence corruption scandal, or military atrocities against tribals, lower-castes and women, or excessive use of force against civilians. The record of the Indian armed forces has been exemplary in many conflicts, but it is far from perfect. The continued use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in parts of India, the conduct of the armed forces that led to the long protest of Irom Sharmila, the actions of army officer Leetul Gogoi in Jammu and Kashmir—all are examples of behaviour unbecoming of a professional army. By pitting terrorists against the forces, Dutt creates a false binary—terrorist attacks against civilians are always wrong, but the conduct of the armed forces is not always right.

In her responses to me and elsewhere, Dutt insisted that supporting the air force is not the same as war mongering. That’s debatable—what should not be debatable is whether it is the job of any journalist to support an army.

In the United States of America, this divide was once considered so sacrosanct that a breach made the nation sit up. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, the journalist and newscaster Walter Cronkite crossed the bounds of his role to hold his government to account upon realising that it had lied to its citizens. Cronkite termed the war a “stalemate.” After watching his special, the United States president Lyndon Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Not long after, the president began speaking of moving “towards peace” in Vietnam, and announced that he would not run for re-election. A few weeks after the broadcast, the My Lai massacre took place, in which the American army killed nearly five hundred Vietnamese civilians. News of this was suppressed for about a year—it broke to great public outrage. The downward slide of the government’s perception that began with Cronkite swelled: newspapers defied court orders, and in 1971, they published parts of the Pentagon Papers, raising questions about the army’s actions in Vietnam; movie stars such as Jane Fonda campaigned against the war; students marched. Military spokesmen’s credibility suffered so much that journalists began to call the 5-pm news conferences in Saigon “five o’clock follies.”

A generation later, when the American government was beginning to regain the public’s trust in its overseas actions, the country’s politicians decided to invade Iraq. The media appeared to have forgotten its lessons from Vietnam. Now they tell us, sighed Michael Massing in his 2004 book of the same name, castigating the American media for its failure to question, probe, and challenge government assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be used against America.

Indian journalists need to reflect on their conduct, statements and tweets—about where they would like to be seen after the guns have fallen silent. Who contributed to turning the mood of the nations so ugly? Do they want to land on the side of Cronkite, who led his president to reconsider, or have the record show that they spent wars asking too little of their establishment?

Opinion writers have the luxury of carrying their views, and indeed their patriotism or prejudices, on their sleeves, but other journalists—in particular, reporters, anchors, correspondents—must fiercely guard against these temptations to ensure their credibility. Indeed, they have opinions, but it is essential to keep these aside and report facts backed by credible sources. It is the failure to do so that contributes to the profession being compromised as it is today, with some journalists becoming conduits for stories or opinions that the government wants planted.

The past few days are proof enough—we have witnessed a glaring contrast between the restrained briefings of government officials, often parsimonious with details, and the abundance of stories attributed to unnamed “sources,” which greatly impact the public mood. On 28 February, after Imran Khan announced that Varthaman would soon be released from Pakistani custody, networks in India went into overdrive, terming Khan’s gesture a victory for Modi. Thundering from their studios, without citing any sources, several anchors claimed that Khan’s decision was forced by Indian diplomacy. Dutt attempted to pour cold water over the gloating by calling it “dumb and needless,” but, as is their wont, the network anchors appear to be in no mood to listen.