The Pathankot terror attack once again has brought to the fore the role of media and its reportage over the three days of the attack by Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed on the Air Force Base.
Every news channel was right there near the Air Force base as the attack was on going complete with OB vans, reporters who didn’t have a clue on what army operations are all about acting like experts passing judgement.
Anchors on news channels kept repeating we are not giving away any operational details and kept providing “up to date” news of the attack with “breaking news” from time to time on happenings they had no clue about.
“Experts” on news channels who have no experience on operations to counter terrorists played a role to demoralize not only the armed forces but also the citizens at large and lower the image of the armed forces’ in their eyes with reporting like India’s best trained forces are not able to neutralize terrorists after two days of operations raising doubts in the minds of the citizens about the capabilities of their armed forces. This despite the fact that the armed forces were tackling extremely well trained terrorists which was revealed later to have trained at special forces training center of Pakistan Armed forces, who were heavily armed and on an Air Force base spread across 2000 acres and not a building or street.
The armed forces exercise utmost caution to prevent own casualties which means taking time to neutralize the terrorists. The same media which questioned the time taken to complete the operation was quick to criticize the armed forces and its brave young officers who sacrifice their lives countering the terrorists with barbs like the one we saw over Lt Col Niranjans martyrdom while trying to defuse an IED instead of waiting for a proper bomb disposal squad. Self proclaimed experts belittled his sacrifice calling him stupid and questioned the need to call him a martyr.
There was live tweeting by journalists of the status of the operations. Coupled with live broadcast, it was passing away updates on the operation like there is going to be a “final assault” anytime. We saw pictures of APCs and other weapons platforms entering the base which revealed the kind of weapons deployed both to the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan and the world about the methods adopted by the Indian security forces to counter terrorists on an airforce base.
That there should be discussions on any shortcoming of an operation is obvious to learn from it, but to do it while an operation was on, puts pressure on the forces and also affects the morale of the forces, especially when there is undue criticism.
The operation once again showed the glaring need for a good system in place by the government and the armed forces to handle the media and the provide relevant news and updates. There should be a single desk of information dissemination on any counter terror operation. No other person should give any information to the media. The duration between updates left to the discretion of the security forces.
There should be a ban on media within a specified perimeter of an area under operation. The media doesn’t have to provide minute by minute update of counter terror operations to the public. They shouldn’t be looking at breaking news every half an hour with information unverified by relevant authorities. The media should not be allowed to report information based on unnamed “sources”. They should be asked to name their source clearly during any reporting on counter terror operations so that it’s known that the information is authentic and not rumor mongering by the media. A single point information desk by the security agencies in charge will help in this regard as it will stop the media from hunting for “sources”.
The news channels certainly need better qualified journalists handling their defence and security reporting. It was embarrassing to watch many of the anchors and reporters on TV reporting and asking questions about the operation. There was one reporter at the news briefing who asked the home secretary who was giving the briefing as to when will the operations be over.
The media instead of giving away information on operations or any other details can be used for disinformation and act as a force multiplier. Just like the handlers during 26/11 got information on operational details, the media can be used to provide wrong information which the handlers watching Indian news channels can pass on to the terrorists on the ground thereby making it easy for the security agencies to kill the terrorists and also prevent self casualties.
It is certainly time that some guidelines are laid for the media on how to report during a terror attack. It should galvanize support for the security agencies undertaking operation rather than demoralize them with unprofessional and uninformed reporting.