Coverage of the Mumbai Hostage Crisisby Indian Media: A Lesson
The Bloodbath: Mumbai under Attack
The carnage in Mumbai on the 26th of November 2008 has been coined as India's 9/11 whilst other press headlines marked the horrific event as “the longest running horror show” (Khallur, 2008). This terror attack at India's financial heart claimed 172 innocent lives while wounding 250 people in a series of gun fires and hand grenade attacks (Ibrahim, 2009). An Indian militant group named Deccan Mujahedeen1claimed responsibility for the simultaneous attacks targeted at multiple sites which left Mumbai reeling as a “bleeding city” (Dodd, 2008).
Rarely had the Indian media faced the kind of monumental challenges it did during the coverage of the Mumbai attacks. The question that every media organization should have asked itself ought to have been where to draw the line. Instead, in the midst of the rampage that resulted in mass bloodshed, the media turned a terrorist act into a soap opera for the television screen (Thussu, 2009). The coverage of the Mumbai attacks showed how national interest and security can be put to risk and human lives jeopardised by indiscreet and unguided reporting (Divan, 2009).
Ethics Jeopardized: Indian Media's Unethical Response
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The Mumbai attacks coverage set a low unique benchmark in the history of commercial journalism. It proved that critical objectivity, dispassion, and professional journalistic detachment all departs when the demand for high TRPs rise.
Inevitably, the coverage revealed intense gory competition that exists amongst the news channels. The urge to outdo each other's reporting; get the ‘exclusives' and the ‘breaking news' were the prime aspirations. Television channels capitalised on the human trauma and turned it into a ‘reality show' (Gupta 2009). Broadcasters sensationalised their reports and in the process sabotaged the rescue operations and the national security of the country by revealing sensitive information without control or manifestation.
All the news channels played on a similar ‘theme' in their coverage of the massacre. A series of slimy talk shows which voiced the opinions of several handpicked social glitterati, the details of the rescue operations portrayed by poor CGI, continuous telecast of the firing and bombing by the terrorists and focused broadcast of the inebriated human bodies exposed the underbelly of the Indian media characterised by “plasticity” and “obscenity” which, according to Jean Baudrillard, “is no longer the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden, or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible, of the all-too-visible, of the more-visible than-visible” (Baudrillard 1981).
Newswatch, a media watch-dog in New Delhi, undertook a study to analyze the coverage of the attacks. It found that Doordarshan, the public television broadcaster of India, was the least sensational and most controlled in reporting the events when compared to commercial television stations (Thakuria 2008). The survey undertaken by 9,906 respondents revealed that 74% felt the reporting was theatrical and over sensational. The message that the media overtly sent out through its coverage was largely that “Pakistan is the enemy” and “Our politicians are villains” (Chandran 2008).
The media failed to understand the nature of the attacks and blatantly blamed Pakistan. The national flag was often used by the broadcasters as a visual backdrop with viewer's text messages expressing anger at the politicians or Pakistan, scrolling at the bottom of the screen (Chandran 2008). Aaj Tak and CNN-IBN played Bollywood songs from war movies during the news updates, thereby, giving it a showbiz feel (Chandran 2008).
A Year On: The Situation Today
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
It's been over a year since the attacks in Mumbai happened but it's still tricky to critique if the Indian media learnt its lesson from the coverage. A true analysis won't come out unless the media faces an equal upheaval task of such extreme responsibility and enormity. However, the media's coverage of the recent German Bakery blast in Pune on the 13th of Februrary, 2010 suggests that there is not much progress in media's walk towards true ethical grounds. 2
To cite certain examples from the media's coverage of the Pune blast:
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
Aaj Tak, a 24-hour national news channel in India, aired a special programme on the German Bakery Blast titled Pune ka Project Karachi (Pune's Project Karachi) on 17 February, 2010. The programme freely showed gruesome visuals of charred dead bodies at the blast scene.3
NDTV India, one of the most respected news networks led by Prannoy Roy, telecasted a programme titled “Terror Returns” on 13 February. It portrayed the horrific death of two siblings from Kolkata, 19 year old Anindhyee Dhar and her 23 year old brother Ankik Dhar. The programme was like a gloomy Bollywood tale with melodramatic undertones. The shots of the family mourning were inter-cut with shots of the blast scene, as the sad Bollywood music played in the background - the voice over spoke about the deaths in an overtly sympathetic tone. 4
Headlines Today, the English sister channel of Aaj Tak, carried a short special titled “The Last Reunion of 5 Friends”. The programme used sad Bollywood music in the background with visuals of mourning relatives. The candid photographs of the deceased were used as fillers in the video.5
In addition, some of the reporters even tried interviewing the survivors just moments after the blast. However, the Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh was stern and asked the media personnel not to interact with the survivors. He quoted:
"It is absolutely against national interest. It might create problem in investigations. We have requested all hospitals not to allow this. So this is my request and don't do this. Not only am I requesting, as a police officer, I am directing you. This is an official direction to all of you and if anybody does not follow it, he or she will have to face it." 6
The coverage of the Pune blasts shows us that the media is yet to learn from its ethical mistakes. Aaj Tak, voted as the “most trusted news source in India” 7 should be far more responsible rather than continuing playing the death tale of innocent lives in a grand Bollywood style.
The Way Forward
A few weeks after the Mumbai attacks, the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting turned over an amendment to the existing Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Rules of 1994 to introduce limitations, among other things, on coverage of wars or violent law and order situations. However, the media criticised the government for the failures and started a huge debate - the Prime Minister held the draft law.
The News Broadcasters Association's proposed self-regulation was a welcome move but not an ultimate one. The fault lies in the fact that the guideline binds only the broadcasters who are willing to be part of the association or follow the rules - thus enforceability is still a challenge. Secondly, with the advancement of the technology every citizen is enabled to be a journalist by writing on his own blog or posting live pictures or video on the internet. Thus some regulation should be laid down that binds even the newest form of journalism.
The Indian media should take note of the BBC's editorial policies for terror attacks, war and similar emergencies. The guideline clearly defines that in cases of hijacking, kidnapping, hostage taking and sieges they should be aware what they broadcast or publish can be accessed by the perpetrators. Special emphasis is paid on the ethical issues and the reporters are not allowed to interview the perpetrators live on air, broadcast any video or audio provided by the perpetrators and also delay broadcasting live material of sensitive stories. The broadcasters are liable to listen to the advice of the police and are accountable to add information, withhold or completely black-out the news if the situation demands. There is an emergent need of similar guidelines in India.
The problem not only lies with the code of conduct but also with government's irresponsibility. During the Mumbai attacks, the government was clueless about the consequences of live coverage. Sensitive information volunteered by top officials including security personnel were being aired across all channels. The government needs to design a special protocol authorising who should speak to the media in such situations and who should not.
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To end, media crackdown, censorship and hard imposed regulations on the media behaviour during such crises is not a credible solution. The government regulation on the media has the dangers of erosion of media into a state agent which could take the route of appeals for patriotism or state propaganda against the enemies. The recent happenings have shown us that self-regulation in the time of ever-accelerating profit marathon for higher TRPs are a disaster. Unless the state and the media work in harmony, the media will never realise its ethical responsibilities. Until then, the corporate media will continue to make bloodbath of such national crises just to maximise their profits.
- Evidence suggests that Lashkare-Taiba (LeT), a terrorist group based in Pakistan, was re-sponsible for the attack (Rand Study 2009:11)
- Blast rips Pune's German Bakery, The Times of India 14 Feb, 2010
- Pune ka Project Karachi,Aaj Tak, 17 Feb 2010 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psmj_bQb2hQ
- Octo and Ankhi, NDTV, 14 Feb,2010 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TClFku3I9JY
- The Last Reunion of 5 Friends, Headlines Today, 15 Feb 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggr6MjvQzKg
- Don't speak blast victims: Pune police chief to media personnel, 14 Feb 2010, The Times of India, Pune http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/Dont-speak-blast-victims-Pune-police-chief-to-media-personnel/articleshow/5573650.cms
- BBC Poll: Trust in the Media - Country Profiles, http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/bbcreut_country.html
Baudrillard, J (1981): The conspiracy of art. In: Lotringer S (ed) Semiotext(e). MIT, New York.
Chandran, Rina (2008): “Indian Media Under Fire for Mumbai Attacks Coverage”, Reuters, 5 Dec 5, http://in.reuters.com/article/topNews/idINIndia-36891720081205 (23/02/10).
Dodd, Vikram (2008): “Bleeding City Comes Out Again to Honour the Dead”, The Guardian, 1 Dec, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/01/mumbai-terror-attacks/print, (24/02/10).
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Thankuria, Nava (2008): “India Brickbat for Commercial Channel on Terror”, American Chronicle, 16 Dec, http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/85145, (25/02/10).
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Wilkinson, P (1997): “The media and terrorism: a reassessment.”, Terrorism Polit Violence 9(2):51-64.