AN OPEN LETTER TO THE DELHI UNION OF JOURNALISTS (DUJ)
I read with interest your report expressing concern over the falling standards of reporting as evident in the manner in which the police operation at Batla House on September 19, 2008 was reported by various newspapers and TV channels in the Capital. (http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=3360&mod=1&pg=1§ionId=1&valid=true ).
2. Before 9/11, the intelligence agencies and the Police of the world avoided premature briefings of the media on the investigation into terrorism-related cases lest such briefings give the terrorist leaders and their State-sponsors an idea of what the agencies and the police knew from the interrogation of those arrested.
3. After 9/11, as a result of tremendous public pressure to show that their investigation is progressing, they have started briefing the media officially even as the investigation is in progress. This could lead to very embarrassing situations as one saw in connection with the case relating to the arrest of a number of persons of Pakistani origin by the British Police in August 2006 on a charge of planning to blow up a number of US-bound planes by smuggling on board liquids of every day use which can be converted into explosives and the case in Australia relating to the arrest of an Indian Muslim doctor on suspicion of his involvement with the attempted terrorist strike outside the Glasgow airport in June,2007.
4. In the British case, many of the arrested and prosecuted suspects were acquitted by a jury on the ground that there was no evidence that they were planning to fly to the US. In Australia, an enquiry established that the arrest of the Indian Muslim was wrong.
5. Mrs.Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, believed that publicity was the oxygen of terrorists. When she was the Prime Minister, she had banned any reference to individual leaders of the Irish Republican Army by name in the Government-controlled electronic media and she kept a tight control over the interactions between the Police and media in terrorism-related cases. Since 9/11, these restrictions and controls are no longer there.
6.After 9/11, there has been a tremendous interest in the media and in the public regarding terrorism and terrorist networks. News about terrorism sells----whether in the print or electronic media. The more sensational, the better. Nobody---neither in the Police nor in the media--- is worried that they may be red in their face tomorrow if what they reported today proves to be wrong tomorrow. They calculate that public memory is short and won't remember tomorrow what they report today.
7. After the Mumbai blasts of March,1993, Sharad Pawar, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, had set up a co-ordination committee chaired by him, which used to meet in his office every evening to review the progress of the investigation and decide what should be told to the media and what should not. This committee used to instruct the Commissioner of Police of Mumbai as to what the media should be told.
8. The purpose of this exercise was, firstly, not to poison the public mind against the Muslims as a community, secondly, not to give the terrorists not yet arrested, including Dawood Ibrahim, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) the benefit of knowing who had been arrested and what they were telling the police during the interrogation and, thirdly, to avoid embarrassing situations if evidence of today was found wrong tomorrow. It took the Mumbai Police, assisted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), 17 months to complete the investigation and establish a complete chain of evidence against the accused---those arrested as well as those absconding. Only then senior officials of the Union Home Ministry held a big press conference at New Delhi in August,1994, to share with the media the results of the investigation. Later, Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister, was unhappy even with this press conference. He felt that too many details had been given out which could benefit the ISI and help it in covering up its tracks." We should have kept the ISI guessing. What was the need for mentioning all these details?" he asked in a note which he sent to S.B.Chavan, the then Home Minister, after reading the sensational stories carried by the media the next day.
9. Since 9/11, one has been seeing all over the world a mushrooming growth of what are called embedded journalists because of the media interest in terrorism. The term embedded journalist, inter alia, refers to journalists, who enjoy privileged access to the powers that be and the chiefs and other senior officers of the intelligence agencies and the police and in return for this are prepared to disseminate any story given to them without applying a critical mind to it. Some months ago, the "Guardian" of London had come out with an article on some Al Qaeda analysts in the West, whose credentials require closer scrutiny. Similarly in the US, there were references to embedded journalists who let themselves be used by officials of the Bush Administration for disseminating allegations about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and about the links of Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda. These allegations, which were played up by the embedded journalists, were subsequently found to be false.
10. In India, as a result of the mushrooming growth of TV channels and the competitive pressure for sensational stories, the evils of premature briefing even before an investigation has been completed, different police officers talking to the media without a proper control over them, the lack of political control over the media briefings etc have been growing.The police start briefing the media within a few hours of an arrest without giving themselves time to verify the statements made by the arrested persons and analysing the evidence collected. This not only results in a media trial of the suspect even before sufficient evidence justifying a charge-sheet is collected, but also damages the credibility of the police and the intelligence agencies due to contradictory assertions by different officers.
11. One could give the following examples of the kind of embarrasing situations that could arise:
In 2002, the Mumbai Police claimed to have arrested an Indian Muslim, who was allegedly working for Al Qaeda and had undergone flying training in Australia. This could not be substantiated.
In 2006, the Mumbai Police held a high-profile press conference at which they claimed to have established that the ISI had orchestrated the suburban train blasts of July,2006, with the help of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI). Their claim was subsequently discounted by M.K.Narayanan, the National Security Adviser, in a TV interview. Now, we are told that investigation has established that it was, in fact, the Indian Mujahideen ( IM) which had carried out the blasts. If what we are told now is correct, what we were told in 2006 was wrong and vice versa.
In their recent press conference, the Ahmedabad Police said that it was the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was now operating under the name IM. The Delhi police claimed subsequently that the SIMI, the IM and the LET were operating in tandem. They thus resurrected the LET, which had disappeared from the media headlines for some time.If one read carefully the transcripts of the press conferences of the Ahmedabad Police and the Delhi Police, one would find contradictions in some material particulars. Such publicly-exhibited contradictions play into the hands of the terrorists.
We have had so many masterminds initially projected on the TV screens and in media columns and then downgraded.Initially Abdul Suban Quereshi alias Tauqueer of Mumbai was projected as the IT whiz-kid of the IM. Some TV channels even projected him as India's Osama bin Laden. Then, one Shabaz Hussain of Uttar Pradesh was projected as the real IT whiz-kid. Now, four Muslims of Pune are projected as the real IT whiz-kids. To point all this out is not to question the claims of the Police, but to draw attention to the pitfalls of premature media briefings before the investigation is complete. One understands that the police officers of today are under tremendous pressure from the media to give sound bytes and there is hardly any centralised control of the investigation and briefings.
12. There is a need for clear-cut instructions by the Government to the police and the intelligence agencies on media briefings and for strict enforcement of those instructions. Similarly, the media too should examine the post-9/11 evils which have crept into media reporting on terrorism and lay down a list of do's and don'ts for the guidance of the media.
13. This may please be read in continuation of my earlier article titled "Al Qaeda Striptease" of August 29,2004, at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers12/paper1103.html and http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/FI01Df03.htm (l8-10-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Directior, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )