Subhabrata’s Weblog

April 19, 2009

Shoes: The latest weapon in a journalist’s arsenal?

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Opinion, Politics — genomewarrior @ 5:53 am

We all sniggered and grinned when Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at the then US President George Bush during his press conference in Baghdad last year. A lot of the people who watched the video on Youtube thought Bush got what he deserved. After all, he was the architect of Iraq’s current misfortunes, the man who pushed America into a needless, and mutually devastating conflict. Lost in the cacophony of jubilation and support for Mr. Zaidi from the Iraqi people and Mr. Bush’s critics in the west, and indignation from more “patriotic” of the Americans at the act of national insult perpetrated on a sitting president of the United States of America was a more fundamental question. That same question also seems to have been lost in the controversy generated recently when Mr. Zaidi’s feat was repeated in India by Mr. Jarnail Singh, a journalist with the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran. Mr Singh was angry at the CBI’s clean chit to Jagdish Tytler in the anti-Sikh riots that raged in the country in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

The issues that drove the two journalists to act like they did, and the collective anger that they represent is understandable. The US occupation of Iraq has been a disaster. The high handed tactics in dealing with extremists, the ignorance about the Middle East of those who were making policies back in Washington, the people’s realization that the reasons for attacking Iraq were fabricated by the US, all contributed to the seething anger within Iraqi society against the Americans. Mr. Zaidi was simply a representative of that anger. So was Mr. Jarnail Singh. The merciless killing of Sikhs during nation-wide riots following the assassination of the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi on October 31st 1984. Delhi saw some of worst riots of that period. In all, more than 3,500 Sikhs were killed in 3 days of rioting. 25 years later, justice is still elusive. The people who orchestrated the riots are roaming free. The 13 convictions in this case have been of people who were simply carrying out orders from above. Those who planned and co-ordinated the carnage are still to be brought to justice. The anger and frustration of the people, particularly the Sikhs is understandable and justified. Mr Tytler, considered to be one of masterminds of the riots in Delhi, and whose involvement was strongly indicated in the findings of the Nanavati Commission’s investigation of the riots, has been given a clean chit by the CBI. His party has allowed him to file his nomination for this year’s Lok Sabha elections. People have every right to ask why the Congress has allowed him to fight elections this year, and whether the Congress-led government had influenced the CBI in exonerating Mr. Tytler from responsibility in the riots. Mr Jarnail Singh did just that. He was given a standard reply denying the Government’s involvement in the investigation and told that the CBI’s report was for the court to accept or reject. Mr. Singh was also asked not to argue on this point further. It was then that he probably got frustrated and flung his shoe at the Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram. The resulting media and political storm has taken a rather predictable course. Most sections of the media, the Sikh organizations and the Congress party’s opponents in this year’s elections justify the act and hail it as a symbolic protest against the Government’s apparent bid to cover up the matter and protect the influential politicians who organized the 1984 riots. The BJP has jumped on this opportunity to score political points on this issue while the Congress has been forced on the back foot and is reported to be reconsidering the nominations of Tytler as well as Sajjan Singh.

The question that sticks out in my mind about this whole issue, however has nothing to do with the history and the circumstances behind the way the journalists decided to vent their anger. My problem has to do with journalistic ethics. There are three “official” pillars of the Indian democracy, the Judiciary, the Executive and the Legislature. Though not mentioned specifically in any Social Science textbook, the Press forms the fourth pillar. A free, vibrant press is essential to the very existence of a modern democracy. Fortunately, in India, the press enjoys a relatively (though not nearly enough) high degree of freedom. We have a vibrant journalistic tradition that by and large takes its job seriously. Journalists in this country enjoy a range of privileges that other citizens do not have. The Press Card entitles the holder access to people and places that normally are not accessible to other citizens. In all this, there is an implicit trust that the holder of a Press Card will conduct himself/herself as befitting a member of the Fourth Estate.  And what conduct befits a member of the Fourth Estate? For starters, the realization that a journalist’s job is to convey information to people as faithfully and clearly as possible. A journalist may have opinions about issues, and he/she should convey those opinions through his/her medium. Secondly, a journalist’s pen (or keyboard, or microphone as the case may be) is his/her only weapon. If a journalist has a strong opinion about an issue, he is entitled to use only his pen as a weapon. Throwing shoes at people is not a brave act, it is the result of bad judgment. It is irresponsible behavior. There can be no justification no matter how grave the provocation for such an act on the part of a journalist. The freedoms enjoyed by the press in this country also comes with its set of responsibilities that journalists need to recognize and unprofessional behavior condemned or censured where ever possible. I feel that Mr Jarnail Singh, and his supporters in the press have set a bad example in terms of journalistic ethics.

Contrast this with the conduct acceptable in a private citizen. The recent incident where a slipper was thrown at Mr. L.K. Advani by a former BJP worker in Katni is not as grave from a purely ethical viewpoint. The perpetrator, Mr Pawas Agrawal, a former district president of the BJP was a private citizen who did not enjoy the privileges afforded by the Press Card, he had a political grudge that he wanted to settle and he used the only means he could think of to vent his frustration and get some media attention in the process. He was probably inspired by Mr Singh’s action, but we do not know that. The point I have been trying to make in this article is: Ours is not a just society. It is not a completely free society either. It is the journalist’s job to educate the people about what is going on around us, to act as a mirror in which we see our collective failures and triumphs. A journalist’s only weapon is, and should always be his writing. Let the bomb/shoe/rotten egg/tomato be left for the more crass elements of society.

December 5, 2008

Mumbai Attacks: A Rejoinder

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Opinion, Politics, Rant — genomewarrior @ 4:13 pm

Knee jerk reactions are always counterproductive in the long run. Reactions based on an incomplete understanding of the all aspects of an issue are worse. Knee jerk reactions based on an incomplete understanding of all aspects of an issue are positively devastating. Why am I ranting about knee-jerks? Well, because there is a high chance that the public’s reaction to the Mumbai attacks will force the administration to take measures that might be counterproductive in the long run and at the same time be impossible to remedy once the damage is done.

Incidents like the Mumbai attacks are tragic. By their very nature, they shock people out of their comfort zones and force them t face possibilities that they never really thought about. When people are in a state of shock they take steps that are not necessarily the best steps to take, in hindsight. It is almost automatic for the people of this country, and especially the people of Mumbai to feel outraged and angry. But angry at what? The terrorists? The Government? Pakistan? We seem to be angry at all of those. The terrorists, who are nameless and faceless individuals for us, terrifying in their very anonymity are the first to be blamed. Who made them that way? We don’t want to know. Who created conditions for these people to act the way they did? We have no idea. How can we tackle terrorism unless we know who we’re really fighting and why are they our enemies in the first place? The Government’s failure in intelligence is evident, but that is not directly the failure of this particular Government or party. This systemic failure is the result of a long process of piecemeal policy – solving the immediate problem without taking a systems perspective, in other words a “reductionist approach” to problem solving. The failure to realize that terrorism is a global phenomenon and this country with its inherent fractures in terms of  regional, cultural and most importantly, economic disparities is an excellent candidate for breeding internal strife. We have an older and far more damaging history of terrorism than the US. I have already discussed Pakistan’s situation in an earlier post (here). In short, from a purely commonsensical viewpoint, one can easily rule out the involvement of the Pakistani Government in these attacks without ruling out the possibility of the terrorists having trained in that country. We can all safely agree that their Government has an uphill task in taking control of the country.

Why am I trying to absolve all those perceived by the public as culprits in the Mumbai attacks? I am not. All I am trying to say is that these people and Institutions are actually helpless in preventing a situation like this from occurring due to a set of circumstances whose origins predates them. Demanding from them “some action” with the kind of urgency that is evident in the media and the public is likely to force them into taking shallow decisions just to ease the immediate tension in the public. What are these immediate action demands?

Tougher anti-terror laws

We already had a draconian anti-terror law – POTA. Post 9/11 the US government and most governments in the west had draconian anti-terror laws. Did that help to reduce terrorism? No, it just made the terrorists hate the Americans more! Their reaction to the 9/11 attacks has resulted in the financial mess that they are in now. All because a group of overzealous right-wingers decided to act tough on the “enemy”. So they created the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Gharib, made a mockery of civil liberties that made America the destination of choice for free thinking men and women from all over the world, destroyed habeus corpus and basically gave the Government powers that would put a banana republic to shame! Tougher laws don’t prevent terror attacks. Plain, rustic commonsense will tell you that people who are willing to die for a cause will be expected to care two hoots for anti-terror laws. And at what price? Are we willing to sacrifice what ever small liberties we have in this country for the sake of a false sese of safety? All this while it is clearly evident that one cannot legislate terrorism out of the country? We all have to ask ourselves this question before we press the Government for “action”.

Tough stance with respect to Pakistan

We have to realize, we’re not the US. We can’t bomb the hell out of a sovereign nation on flimsy pretexts. It would completely undo the years of economic and social progress that this country has worked so hard for. A display of maturity from both the Government as well as the public is in order in this most tensed of situations. Finger pointing at each other at the slightest pretext is a national habit we both have to over come if we are to solve our mutual, as well as our specific problems.

Down with politicians!

Again, after the fact, there is a tendency to try and find scapegoats. Politicians make excellent scapegoats in situations like these. We all love to hate our politicians, forgetting that we are responsible for putting them where they are in the first place. A democracy does not have the moral right to damn its political class not only because it is the public’s vote that brings the politicians to power, but also a politician’s conduct is a mirror of the prevailing mores of a society. If the political class is rotten, it basically means that the society itself is rotten. So instead of criticizing the politician, let us all take time out of our busy schedules for some soul-searching. There should be more scrutiny of the political class by the media and the public. We should make the politicians more accountable, not by criticizing them when something bad happens, but by taking a more active part in the political process of the country, by educating ourselves on a daily basis, about the policies and activities of the government. The people’s active participation in the political process is the only way the rot can be stemmed. We stand to loose this country if we don’t clean up our collective acts!

The way ahead?

The immediate reaction of the public to the Mumbai attacks should be to recognize that the immediate reaction is not really the best reaction to the incident. Instead of succumbing to mass hysteria and forcing the Government to make the same kind of mistakes it, and others in its position elsewhere have made, is not going to help anyone. The public should put pressure on the Government to have an broad based anti-terror policy that is well thoughtout and publicly debated. The Government should NOT be allowed to enact draconian anti-terror laws that can (and have been in the past) be misused by vested interests. We should, under no circumstances, compromise on our rights and freedoms. Only a sustained participation of the polity in the collective scrutiny and control of the elected Government will hep us get ot the the seemingly helpless morass we are now in. I hope we don’t end up repeating the same old mistakes we have always made this time. Or very soon, we might not have a country to fight for.

December 2, 2008

Mumbai Terror Attacks – A Layman’s Analysis

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Politics — Tags: , , — genomewarrior @ 3:28 am

So I start my blog. And sadly, my first posting is about a most unfortunate incident. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Like everyone else seems to be doing, let me post my own take on the whole thing.

I am not sure if the terrorists really planned the operation the way it actually unfolded. It would be such a waste of effort to just kill a few hundred people and then die yourselves. The more interesting alternative would be to rig a high profile, high value, but extremely soft target like the Taj or Oberoi with explosives, take a few hundred hostages and prolong the media circus to maximum effect while you negotiate with the Government for whatever demands you may choose to talk about. If spectacular killing was the motive, they could have let the explosives go after some time into the siege. They did not. The terrorists, it would seem were not prepared to make martyrs of themselves on this mission. Instead they ended up in a gunfight with the security forces in all the positions they intended to take. The police, barring the initial confusion did seem to act on time to prevent the complete takeover of the hotels.

The intelligence failures to anticipate the attack, the initial police confusion, the fact that a handful of terrorists held back the nation’s most elite commandos for more than 60 hours (presumably because, in addition to the presence of civilians, the commandos it seems did not have the plans of the hotel and hence were hamstrung in their efforts to search the terrorists out) will be discussed and dissected at length in the media and in government circles for quite some time now. But once the dust settles down and the city starts to heal like it always does, one would like to go over the entire episode and wonder whether we’ll ever learn.

Mumbai’s vulnerability and the need for a rapid response protocol:

Mumbai is a high risk city, the risk is built into it actually. It is the country’s financial capital, mostly concentrated on a small island, with some of the highest population densities in the world and great social and economic disparity in the population. Mumbai as a system is bound to undergo periodic catastrophes at regular intervals. The political scenario in India and the world simply adds to an already toxic mixture. Considering this, and the fact that Mumbai has faced such incidents (with more devastating results) in the past, it is unfortunate the the State and Central Governments still have not come up with a rapid reaction system for the city. The fact that there seemed to be delays and a complete absence of coherence in the police reaction to the event is obvious when one looks at the news reports. The political establishment also became paralyzed during the initial hours of the incident. This, in itself does not question the competence of the police force or the administration in any way. It just shows what happens when one does not have a reaction plan that is automatic. The force and the administration has to train for years to get it working like clockwork in the event of a terrorist attack or any other calamity. The fact that after so many such incidents – riots, bomb blasts, floods, Mumbai still does not have a rapid reaction system in place is the most tragic aspect of the entire incident. The Indian Prime Minister’s announcement that a new anti-terrorist force will be set up sounds good, but in itself is not the solution. What is required is an systemic reform of public services in India’s cities so that all parts of the administration can react in a co-ordinated manner to any kind of catastrophic event, be it a bomb blast, a terrorist attack or a natural calamity. The key aspect of these reforms would be increased communication and co-ordination between different branches of the administration like the police services, the hospitals, the political establishment, press, and citizens. There would be clear guidelines regarding the specific roles for each component of the society. The role of the press is critical in all this, they should be given complete freedom to cover events like these, but at the same time the press itself should be responsible in reporting news. The system should also be flexible enough so that it can adapt to different kinds of events without freezing up.

The role of the electronic media and the need for more responsible behaviour:

I have already spoken of the role of the press in such situations. Let me elaborate a bit more on that point. The television media gave blanket coverage to the entire incident in Mumbai with cameras rolling 24 hours throughout the operation. The airwaves were flooded with images of the burning Taj Mahal hotel. I even saw senior journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai reporting live from the scene. Now all that is good, but does it help? Did the media act professionally? Was the coverage meant to inform the people or was it meant to sensationalize the incident? I think, the media coverage added more confusion and misinformation. The coverage was skewed, it was jingoistic and absolutely unprofessional. Rajdeep would have done better to stay in the studio and co-ordinate with field reporters. His job as a senior journalist should have been to synthesize and analyze the fragmented inputs from the reporters on the ground and present them to the public in a balanced manner. It was the same sad situation in all news channels. If one wanted a sober reporting of what was going on in Mumbai, one needed to turn to BBC or CNN or MSNBC which were taking the feeds from the Indian networks but whose analysis and style of reporting was much more balanced. While in this country we had senior reporters hyperventilating on camera with a range of histrionics that would have done a Hindi movie mother proud. If you can’t handle your emotions, you should not be a journalist. Period! On top of being shabby in its quality, the reporting was amazingly skewed. We never knew about the the people who died in CST, or the Cama Hospital. The jingoism was ridiculous to say the least, Taj Mahal hotel is a landmark, but so is CST (I would think that CST Station represented the idea of Mumbai more than the Taj), the attacks were less devastating than the 1992-1993 riots or the subsequent bomb blasts, yet the press decided to call it the 9/11 of India and hype it far beyond its real impact. The role of the press in these situations should be to inform. They are not here to “sell” news. The press enjoys enormous freedom in this country, but with enormous freedom comes enormous responsibility. Freedom of the press is an amazing thing, and we in India should be proud of the fact that we have such a vibrant press. However, the television media in this country is in a depressingly bad shape. Not a single news channel is is worth the name. It is so bad that its sickening. The television media in India is characterized by garish sets,  loud music, a complete lack of presentation skills in the presenters, absolutely no respect for language, total incomprehension about issues, no homework on the part of the journalists covering incidents, overall incompetence and complete lack of judgment regarding what is and what is not news. This will have to change. The press has to be more responsible in choosing its reporters. Media companies should get their reporters trained properly before allowing them on air. They should realize that they are not here to sell news, their job is the disseminate news. They are not here to entertain, they are here to inform. Journalists have to take their positions seriously, be more honest in reporting.

The political fallout and the need for pragmatism:

The political fallout of the incident is already obvious. We have already started flogging our traditional goat – Pakistan. We have already started talking about strengthening our anti-terror laws. And we have already replaced our Home Minister. The finger pointing at Pakistan is obvious – we have a rather unfortunate history with them, their civil society tacitly supports extremists, their government has sponsored terrorism against India and the country has been a training ground for Islamist terrorists operating all over the world. The question is, in the present context, was the Government of Pakistan responsible for the terror attacks in Mumbai? In order to address this question, we need to ask whether they had a motive. Pakistan has recently come out of years of dictatorial rule, its economy is in pretty bad shape, their co-operation with the USA in their war on terror means that the Government is diverting a significant proportion of its national economy in an armed struggle against insurgents along its northern border with Afghanistan. The lowering of military deployment on its border with India, the result of years of negotiations and confidence building measures was a much needed respite to its already strained armed forces, letting them concentrate on one front instead of two. The democratic government of a nuclear Pakistan needs desperately to earn global legitimacy and trust if it wants to progress as a coherent national entity. In today’s trade based society, Pakistan is better off with a prosperous and secure India (and vice-versa), than in a state of tension with it. Both sides have been working very hard towards that goal. this incident would of course put a break on the rate of normalization of ties between the two countries, to the detriment of both as well as to the cause of peace a stability in the region. Given the information coming out of preliminary investigations even as the events unfolded in Mumbai, it seem would seem as though the terrorists were trained in Pakistan and came from there. If that is true, even if the Pakistan government may not have known about it or supported it in any way, they have a moral responsibility to assume. A sovereign country that lets its territory be used for activities against the sovereignty of another country morally looses its own right to sovereignty. In the case of Pakistan, the elected government is new and has a big task to undo years of anti-India sentiments in both its population as well as in its military and civilian administration. The offer to send an ISI officer to co-operate in the investigation is a good first step, but not nearly enough. They have to do more to rebuild the fragile trust that had taken years to build in the first place. They should seriously consider measures like extraditions of known terrorists based and operating from their territory, military action to dismantle terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and elsewhere, toning down anti-India sentiments in its media, to name a few. India should undertake complementary measures here. The most important thing to be done now, is not to let this incident stop the progress of normalization of ties with Pakistan. If that happens, as it looks to be happening, the terrorists would have gained at least one of their objectives. The governments of India and Pakistan should be firm at this time not against each other, but against the forces within their own countries that want to derail the peace process between the two countries. The Indian Prime Minister’s decision to tighten anti-terror laws has be taken seriously. Given the tense situation in the country and the fact that a lot of people want the government to act (they have no idea as to the nature of the action though), it is likely that any policy measure the government takes might be of the knee-jerk kind. We already had a draconian anti-terror law in this country. That did not really help in cutting down terrorism, it only led to human rights violations. One only has to look at 8 years of George Bush’s administration the US to understand the effects of knee-jerk policy. I am afraid that we will be seeing something of that sort (except the lets-go-and-bomb-the-hell-out-of-a-sovereign-nation part) in this country in the coming months, including the possible curtailment of civil rights of ordinary citizens. I fervently hope I am proven wrong.

Final words:

Ultimately, terrorism is a global phenomenon, and all sides in this conflict have very real reasons for being angry, whether we choose to see the other’s point or not. Conflict is an integral part of human nature and all one can do is change the nature of conflict. All efforts to suppress the conflict itself will be counterproductive. We cannot stop people from having opinions, we can only provide systems where tention and pressure can be released without causing too much damage to the society as a whole.  We need farsightedness and pragmatism on the part of the government and a systems approach towards anti-terror policy in order to have a chance at lasting peace, or atleast a minimization of damage due to terrorist acts.  Question is, are we up to the task?

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