A couple of months after the Kargil conflict, some intense soul-searching by the Indian print and electronic media is revealing that much of the national press meekly toed the government line and fanned war hysteria at the cost of objectivity and professional ethics. Prominent journalists have come out with scathing indictments of the Indian media and their contents are indeed shocking for what it portends.
The Times of India’s Sidddharth Varadarajan writes that Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh’s allegation—made at the height of the Kargil conflict—that the bodies of six dead Indian soldiers were “severely mutilated” by Pakistanis, was never substantiated. “Virtually every newspaper carried the gory details released by an Indian wire service without waiting for independent confirmation. Such confirmation never arrived… During the war itself, at least two newspapers received information that the allegation was highly exaggerated—probably only one of the bodies bore signs of mutilation. But the journalists who received the information, chose to remain silent.”
Varadarajan has also revealed that a newspaper and a magazine received reports from its correspondents at the war-front that Indian soldiers had mutilated the dead bodies of Pakistani soldiers in retaliation. But after heated editorial debates, it was decided to kill these stories—at least until the fighting was over.
“The Indian media was on test as to how fairly it would report and interpret. But overall, it failed miserably,” says columnist Praful Bidwai. “The general style of reports was: ’50 Pakistanis killed and 11 gallant Indian soldiers laid down their lives’. So our boys became dedicated soldiers and Pakistanis barbarians; our leaders are mature politicians and theirs prisoners of dark forces. It is upto the government to say all that. Why should the media?”
N. Ram, editor of Frontline magazine, said that the distinction between the reporter and the armyman was blurred during the fighting. “Objectivity was the biggest casualty in the coverage of the Kargil conflict,” according to another weekly, Outlook, which also said that journalists chose to become participants instead of remaining objective observers in the revered war correspondent tradition.
Analysts have also accused ‘independent’ TV news channels of becoming a propaganda wing of the state by suppressing the truth and glamourising war. Giving instances of censorship and manipulation, Bidwai said that recycled stock pictures were frequently presented as live footage.
Another commentator, Sagarika Ghose, wrote that no attempt was made by print or TV journalists “to scrutinise the role of the military from the citizens’ point of view”. TV, she said, has a duty to make sure that legions of jobless young men don’t unthinkingly give themselves to the army in order to die for their country because of a false bravado. “We were shown [puzzlingly] brave parents promising to send more sons to the front if need be. What about parents who were sad? What about parents who cried and said I want this war to stop and I don’t want my son to die?”
Analysts said that even if soldiers in Kargil couldn’t voice their doubts about the war before television cameras, reporters should have dutifully paraphrased their fears to project a balanced picture. The Indian media also failed to question the official figure of 410 dead and 594 injured in six weeks of intense fighting in one of the world’s most treacherous battlegrounds. “How is it possible that casualties on the Pakistani side were higher—as India claims—when they had all the advantage of higher ground? The Indians should have suffered higher casualties than the Pakistanis,” said Arthur Max, New Delhi bureau chief of Associated Press.
Another senior journalist of The Times of India, Jug Suraiya criticised the coverage of the shooting of a Pakistani plane in the Kutch region soon after the Kargil conflict. Wrote Suraiya: “Was the wreckage of the Pakistani reconnaissance aircraft really retrieved from Indian territory or, as circumstantial evidence indicated, was it salvaged from across the border to give the prime minister a vote-catching photo opportunity?”
“The suppression of truth…and the dissemination of half-truths and innuendoes did not save lives. All it did was undermine the reputation of the Indian media,” warned Varadarajan. Perhaps the most insightful comment came from Seema Mustafa, political editor of The Asian Age, who pointed out that the Kargil conflict exposed the warts and the moles the Indian media has managed to camouflage over the years.