MEDIA WAGES INFOWAR
Next only to the Gulf War and the Kargil conflict, the hijacking of Indian Airlines' IC 814 has become every satellite network's infotainment dream. The region's 24-hour cable news channels stole audiences away from Bollywood films (absurdly being telecast simultaneously on Doordarshan and Nepal TV as the crisis unfolded). You had a choice of watching news as it endlessly tracked the plane hopscotching from Kathmandu, Amritsar, Lahore, Dubai to Kandahar, or you could watch a Bollywood re-run.
The voracious appetite of round-the-clock television news brought the drama into our drawing rooms, seemingly in real time. This meant that every speculative lead had to be pursued, every rumour had to be aired. Description of the trauma of hostages was punctuated by commercial breaks for saris.
The critical line between news and enter-tainment was once more blurred as it had during Kargil war and the Belgrade bombing. The technological leaps of the information age allow us to hop back and forth between real violence and reel violence, making it difficult to tell the difference between the two. They are separated by station breaks, or the flick of a remote.
TV privileges the live event. And against the backdrop of "live" footage numbingly repeated, rumour is upgraded to fact, prejudice replaces reasoned judgement, and half-baked analyses of dangerous hawks drive formal policy positions.
So the Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh at a press conference takes his cue from a speculative report by Zee's Kathmandu man about five "heavily armed" hijackers simply crossing the tarmac from a Pakistan International Airlines flight in Kathmandu to the waiting Indian Airlines flight. And then Zee, reporting the foreign minister's press conference, doesn't bother to say that by this time it had been confirmed that the two flights were at least six hours apart.
Not many questioned facts, especially if it neatly fit the official Indian line about Nepal being a "hotbed" of ISI activity. Frustrated by the stalemate in Kandahar, it looked like Pakistan and Nepal were easy scapegoats for New Delhi. Hijackers, we were told, were of every nationality except Indian. Subsequently, the term "Muslim" hijackers was used. The Kalashnikovs and explosives with which the hijackers were said to be armed, gave way to a vague pistol, a knife and maybe grenades as the released passengers came out.
Glibly, commentators tossed as "fact" that in the last six months, 22 Kashmiri terrorists had been nabbed in Nepal. They publicly and irresponsibly introduced a Nepali pashmina trader who was on board as one of the hijackers. It had now become difficult not just to tell the difference between news and entertainment, it was getting difficult to tell the difference between misinformation and disinformation.
Details such as permission to land at Lahore being given at the intervention of Jaswant Singh, or the fact that the plane had first wanted to land in Lucknow were irritants to be ignored. Given the demonisation of Pakistan, com-mentators on the satellite news channels chose to disregard information filtering through, and clung to their prejudice about Pakistan delaying permission for a special Indian aircraft to overfly Pakistan and go to Kandahar. The delay in a negotiating team reaching Kandahar, was interpreted as linked with the Taliban wanting to be the spokesmen for the hijackers.
Much was made of the report of the Taliban refusing to allow an Indian commando unit to come to Kandahar. It took a veteran Afghan watcher Rahimullah Yusafzai of the BBC to clarify that Afghan pride would not allow anyone else to conduct a commando operation on their territory. It was not sympathy with the terrorists.
On the sixth day of the hijacking drama when the negotiating team was in place in Kandahar, the media was full of praise for Talibanised Afghanistan's principled stand against the hijackers. TV channels which just the night before had shrilly linked Taliban ideologue Mulla Omar with Osma Bin Laden suddenly began commending his stand to storm the aircraft if the hijackers killed any of the hostages.
One casualty of all this is the promise that an emergent regional TV network would help build understanding and awareness among the peoples of South Asia. Instead, it has shown that the regional footprints of channels like Zee, Star and Pakistan Television in times of crisis simply deepen prejudices on all sides.
Like Kargil, India's first war in a media society, the hijacking drama too has proven media's tendency to get trapped in super patriotic jingoism. Today, infowar is recognised as the fourth front of war in societies where the technology for manipulating propaganda and perception have reached an advanced stage. During the Kargil war, the Indian media as "force multiplier" waged war on that fourth front. The 24-hour news channels have brought in the CNN-isation effect of saturated
but superficial (and usually manipulated) coverage. Kargil demonstrated the self-induced willingness of the Indian media to be super patriots first, and journalists second.
Indeed the linkage with Kargil was overtly made on Zee News when it featured the parents of the 'martyred' Lt Vijendra Thapa to exhort the relatives of the hostages to be patient. The funeral of the killed hostage Rippin Katyal was reminiscent of the endless spectacle of the funerals of the those killed in Kargil.
Just as in the Kargil coverage any discussion of the "why and wherefore" was closed, in the hijacking drama the root of the problem—Kashmir—was blacked out. The blame was heaped on the weakest link—Nepal as the base for ISI anti-Indian activities. Indeed, the first decision by the Indian cabinet as the hijack drama unfolded was to make the petty and bully-like move to stop all Indian Airlines flights to Kathmandu. Nepal had to be punished, to the extent of crippling its tourism industry, for allowing "security lapses". Few in the Indian media asked if after the eight previous hijackings from Indian cities, similar bans were imposed on those cities. Nepal has been judged and lynched by the Indian media, which seems to relish picking on someone much smaller, and to strike when the opponent is down.