Mumbai Attacks in the Indian Media

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The carnage on 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 the financial heart claimed 172 innocent lives while wounding nearly 250 people in a series of gun fires and hand grenade attacks. The Indian militant group named Deccan Mujahedeen claimed responsibility for the attack which was targeted at multiple sites simultaneously across the city, including famous hotels, an urban cafe famous with the foreigners, a Jewish Chabad centre, hospitals and a railway station. Mumbai turned out to be a "bleeding city" where hundreds "lit candles to remember the dead and to help deal with the trauma the city suffered" (Dodd, 2008).

Rarely had the Indian media been tested or faced the kind of monumental challenges it did during the coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks. The questions that every media organization should have focused on should have been to show or not to show, how much to show and how to show? 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 by the Indian television news channels showed how national interest and security can be put to risk and human lives jeopardised by indiscreet and unguided reporting (Divan, 2009). The 60 hour long siege telecast has been a subject of great criticism in India and abroad.

Ethics jeopardised:

The Mumbai coverage set a low unique benchmark in the history of commercialism journalism. It proved that critical objectivity, dispassion, and professional journalistic detachment all departed when the demand of high TRPs came running and profit proved to be the main goal.

Inevitably, the coverage of the events proved the intense gory competition that exists amongst the news channels. The urge to outdo each other's reporting, to get the 'exclusives' and the 'breaking news' were the prime aims. 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 focussed on a similar 'theme' in 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, that according to few is 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 based in New Delhi, undertook a study to analyze the coverage of Mumbai attacks by the Indian media. 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 television coverage was criticised as "TV terror" (Pepper 2008). 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 full 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). Considering the state of tension between India and Pakistan, this cultural reference was misused and was irresponsible in influencing the anger amongst the public.

Few of the channels such as Aajtak and CNN-IBN even played Bollywood songs from war movies during the news updates, thereby, giving it a showbiz feel (Chandran 2008).

The analysis:

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.

John Powell:

It's difficult to critique exactly if the Indian media has learnt its lesson from the Mumbai attack coverage. A real analysis won't come out unless the media faces a 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 the media's walk towards correct ethical grounds.

To cite certain examples:

Aaj Tak (Till Today), a 24-hour Hindi news television channel run by the TV Today Network Ltd is one of the leading national news channel in India. On the 17th of February, 2010 Aaj Tak aired a special programme on the German Bakery Blast titled Pune ka Project Karachi (Pune's Project Karachi). The programme carried gruesome visuals of charred dead bodies at the blast scene.

NDTV India, one of the most respected news networks led by Prannoy Roy was also a part of the bandwagon. The programme titled "Terror Returns" telecasted on the day of the blast, 13th February, 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 high 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 with a sympathetic tone.

Headlines Today, the English sister channel of Aaj Tak continued with its insensitive reporting. A short special titled "The Last Reunion of 5 Friends" carried the same 'theme' as followed by NDTV India. The programme used sad Bollywood music in the background with visuals of mourning relatives. The candid smiling photographs of the deceased were used as fillers in the video.

In addition to this, some of the reporters even tried interviewing the survivors just moments after the blast. However, unlike other times, the police were stern to react and the Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh asked media personnel not to interact with any of those injured being treated in hospitals saying, "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." Knowing the sticky nature of the Indian media, he was severe to say, "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."

The coverage of the Pune blasts shows us that the media is yet to learn from its mistakes. Aaj Tak, voted as the "Most trusted news source in India" edging out the Government sponsored Doordarshan should have been far more responsible in its coverage. However, they continued playing the death tale of innocent lives in a grand Bollywood narrative.

Where are we going wrong?

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 live coverage of wars or violent law and order situations, disclosures about security operations, live interviews with victims or hostages, security personnel or inciters of the crime. However, the media came out and criticised the government for the failures and created a huge debate over the issue - the Prime Minister had to succumb to the media pressures and held the draft law.

The News Broadcasters Association had proposed a self regulation guideline for the media. It was not the ultimate move but a welcome one. However, recent events have proved it to be false. The fault lies in the fact that it binds only the broadcasters who are willing to be part of the association or follow the guidelines - 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. We have seen such cases with the Mumbai and the recent Pune blasts. Thus some regulation should be laid down that binds even the newest form of journalism.

The Indian media should take notice of the BBC editorial policies for terror attacks, war and such emergencies. The guidelines clearly define 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 themselves. Special emphasis is paid on the ethical issues and the reporters are not allowed to interview the perpetrator live on air, broadcast any video or audio provided by the perpetrator and also delay the broadcasting live material of sensitive stories. The broadcasters are liable to listen to the advice of the police and can even add information, withhold or completely black-out the news if the situation demands. Since there is a lack of stronger guidelines and editorial policies in India and with the problem not only lies with the code of conduct but also with the irresponsibility on part of the government. During the Mumbai attacks, the government was clueless about the consequences of live coverage and 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.

To conclude, media crackdown, censorship and hard imposed regulations on the media behaviour during the 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 is a disaster. Unless the state and the media work in harmony the media will never realise its ethical responsibilities in this mad race of profit making industry. Until then, the corporate media will continue to make bloodbath of the national crises, as it did during the Mumbai attacks and more recently the Pune blasts.