Conflict Situations and the Media: A Critical Look

Ajai K. Rai, Research Fellow, IDSA

 

The media have a special relationship with conflict situations, external or internal, which have been an inalienable part of the history of a country as well as the world. The reasons for such a relationship are two-fold: First; the world over, conflict is acknowledged as being of major news value and, as such, constitutes a major area of operation for the media; second, it is a matter of utmost public importance and interest because of its security implications. However, it needs to be underscored that the parties in conflict try by hook or by crook to use the media to further their own ends, and therefore the media comes heavily under all sorts of undesirable pressures and pulls and also threats. And the experience in India as well as other countries with various conflict situations, particularly those pertaining to terrorism, insurgency and war, show evidence that the media succumbed under duress or blandishment.

As the print media made its debut in the 17th century, its potentiality as a mass communicator was soon realised, and it was used both as an informer as well as a propagator.1 So, what was born essentially to disseminate factual and objective information came also to be used to misinform and disinform, to control and manipulate news, and to shape and mould views. It emerged as a powerful weapon to influence public opinion and to rule the people through manipulations. In the last century when it came to be reinforced by the electronic media, first by radio and then by satellite-based television channels, the media by itself became an all-powerful institution of society—on many occasions more powerful than the state. This mighty and all-pervasive power of the media was successfully used, in conflict situations, by vested interests to serve their purpose, benevolent or malevolent.

The inertia, the incompetence and the corrupt motives of the individual media-man often bring about conflicts, or prolong or aggravate them. The internal and external vested interests also create and perpetuate conflicts of all types to promote their social, religious, political and economic agenda. To attain their nefarious ends, these forces manage and manipulate, corrupt and coerce the media in several ways, and use it as a pawn in their diabolical chess game. Under these inexorable pressures, a media outlet either closes down, cowers or allows itself to be controlled and corrupted. Sometimes it becomes a willing partner in the wicked game. A few withstand all pressures, but this "tribe," is almost extinct and has been driven out by competition by those who run the media for purely commercial interests.

This ground reality of media vis-à-vis conflict situations contrasts sharply with the defined role of the media. In actual or potential conflict situations the role of the media is crucial. It should on no account itself contribute directly or indirectly to the creation of conflicts or situations which breed conflicts. It has to avoid oral or written words, projections of scenes and depictions of pictures, which may inflame passions of the people, create hatred between different sections of the populace, or lead to violence. All audio-visuals, news and views disseminated by it, and the manner and method of their dissemination, must conform to the most elementary precautions taken for civilised living.

In the area of conflict resolution, the media can really play a major role in enlightening the public opinion and in helping people take cognisance of the need for peace for their overall welfare. Its role dictates that it should take all steps within its reach to end them as promptly as possible and restore peace. The media has also to help find amicable and effective solutions to prevent their recurrence.

Specifically, in the cases of armed/military conflicts, the objective defined for the media is "humanitarian reporting".2 Well, this sounds quite ironical as there is hardly anything humane about all armed conflicts: national, regional or international. In fact, humanitarian reporting consists mainly in covering all violations of the conventions of war by whichever party to the conflict. These conventions governing the conduct of armed conflicts are called the humanitarian law of war—a compendious expression.

The laws as they have evolved declare that the object of war should be to eliminate the possibility of a total war. In view of this legitimate objective, the use of certain types of arms and ammunitions which unnecessarily aggravate the suffering of disabled men, or render their death inevitable, is prohibited. All poisonous gases and bacteriological methods of warfare are banned. The comprehensive treaty not only prohibits the use but also their development, production and stockpiling. The law protects the wounded and sick, the shipwrecked and the prisoners of war. It also protects civilians who have fallen into the enemy's hands, from arbitrary treatment and violence.

The basic purpose of these laws is three-fold. First, they are essential to prevent man's fall from decency to barbarism, and to mitigate the horrors and hardships of the conflicts. Second, the laws ensure a disciplined army, which is distinguishable from the marauders and plunderers. Third, the observance of rules also creates goodwill among belligerent states, their armies and civilian populations and helps restore peaceful relations between them sooner when the conflicts cease.

Characteristically, the human rights reporting of armed conflicts should be objective, fair and impartial, irrespective of the nationality, race, religion or ideology of the violators of the law, and of their victims, and has to be above all uninfluenced by bias and prejudices.3 As such, it is not an easy task. Even in peaceful situations, the reporting is subject to internal predilections and external pressures. In an armed conflict it is more so. Few can withstand the pressures and the influences of the social groups in which they operate, and fewer still can overcome their predispositions actuated by their own nationality, race, religion, culture and ideology. However, without being immune to outside and inside forces, one cannot discharge his/her duty as a humanitarian reporter.

As a matter of fact, the main object of reporting on the infringements of the humanitarian law of war ought to be to preserve and promote human dignity.4 Individuals do not lose their rights as human beings , just because they join or are forced to join the armed forces of their country, or happen to live as civilians in countries which are party to an armed conflict. The combatants are not individually responsible for their action, much less the civilians The armed conflicts of whatever dimension, are essentially fights between states, or internally between the State and the insurgents. In his renowned work, "Social Contract", Rousseau said, "War is no way a relationship of man with man but a relationship between states, in which individuals are only enemies by accident, not as men, but as soldiers. Once soldiers lay down their weapons they again become mere men. Their lives must be spared."

In this information age, the media's role in conflict situations has come to acquire added significance. Now the wars and political conflicts will be preceded by "infoattacks"—disinformation, psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns. Adversaries will attempt to win without firing bullets and rockets. It has already happened. The CNN won the war for the US-led multinational forces in the Gulf well before the Iraqi Republican Guards were destroyed. The Iraqis and others were led to believe that the Patriot missiles had cent per cent kill accuracy, but it turned out to be a myth only after the war.

Meaning of Conflict

To examine how and to what extent the media have erred in moving away from their cherished role and objectives, it is essential to define conflict and the factors that give rise to it. In the widest sense, it is conscious competition and competitors become self-conscious rivals, opponents or enemies. In some measure everyone believes that his personality can and should be protected from the encroachment of others; And that it can be aggrandised at the expense of others. Conflict may involve the defence of what one already has or the acquisition of what one does not have. The acquisition of what one has may not mean the taking away of that which belongs to another, or the appropriation of that which another would like to have. What applies to individuals also applies to groups of various kinds, nation states and even groups of nation states.

Conflict is also described as a dynamic process or phenomenon and all factors which contribute, affect and interact with it are relevant to the conflict environment. It comprises the phases of initiation, escalation, controlled maintenance, abatement and resolution. This is known as a Manifest Conflict Process (MCP).5 Specifically, MCP is a situation in which at least two actors or their representatives try to pursue mutually incompatible goals, by undermining directly or indirectly, the goal-seeking capability of one another. When parties to a conflict deploy competitive means of dealing with the situation whereby parties pursue their mutually incompatible goals by physically damaging or destroying the property or high-value symbols of one another, or psychologically or physically destroying, or forcibly eliminating one another, then it metamorphoses from MCP into AMCP (Aggressive Manifest Conflict Process).

How do conflict situations arise? In a society, they stem from social and economic inequalities, class and caste antagonism, ideological clashes, religious and ethnic fanaticism, regional and lingual chauvinism, racial prejudices, clash of economic interests and intolerance. In external terms, they arise from nations clashing with each other for trade and territory, for markets and resources, for racial and religious supremacy, and for ideological and military domination.

Some fundamental changes have taken place in the very nature of conflict between nations. Strategic configurations are no longer expressed in the traditional nomenclature of 'external security threats'.6 The nations of this region do have conventional military capabilities arrayed against each other, and against their distant neighbours, but the fact remains that the danger of open and extended warfare between nations has certainly diminished. Both regional and extra-regional powers now translate their ambitions into a range of 'non-standard', 'irregular' wars that prey on domestic discontent to secure transnational territorial and strategic objectives. In fact, terrorism is at the very heart of this new paradigm. It is an increasingly popular ideology of conflict within nations, as disgruntled factions obtain freer access to arsenals of sophisticated small arms and explosives, as well as the skills to use them, and the organisational techniques for their broad-based deployment.

Besides conflict between two nations, countries are also pulled into international conflicts (the Gulf War was a case in point) by the dominating military powers to secure their economic interests, to realise their territorial ambitions, to clamp down their military and economic hegemony and to impose their political and economic ideology.Ironically, most of the time all this is done in the name of peace, democracy and stability.

In today's international arena, some states have on their regular foreign policy agenda nefarious schemes to destabilise and disintegrate; foment religious, social and ethnic conflicts; encourage secessionist and seditious movements, and sponsor terrorism in other states. In such states, the military-financial-industrial complex runs an almost parallel government, which is in many ways more powerful than the civil government, and is always engaged in engineering local and regional tensions, arms race and war to benefit their own industry and retain their military machine and might. To this end, heavy laundering of money through illegal traffic in arms and ammunition and narcotic drugs is a regular feature. Pakistan, for more than a decade now, has been creating terrorist violence in J&K by pushing Islamic militants across the border, and arming and equipping them with the help of money flowing from narco-terrorism.

This being the overall context of what conflict situations are all about, it should suffice to focus on specific cases of belligerence, both within the country and outside, to illustrate the actual role and behaviour of the media. Terrorism is one such extremely important case.

Media in Kashmir and Punjab

It is far from true to say that militants propagandise only by the gun and by bullets. Under guidance from their political mentors, militants have worked out specific media goals and a public strategy along well thought out lines. The reason being that terror is all about terrorising society and media provides the oxygen of publicity. The essence of terror lies in hogging everyone's attention to the bigger issues at hand; 'more the blood, bigger the headlines'. In the philosophy of terrorism, a scared mind is a vulnerable mind. As such, people are more responsive when militants speak with action rather than with words.

The experience in Punjab is quite illustrative. Under the terrorist dictat, the media succumbed absolutely.7 The lone exception was the Punjab Kesari Group, which for its courage and integrity, paid in blood. Every local paper carried regularly and prominently the press releases and notices , including the terrorist imposed 'panthic code' for the people of Punjab and the threats that accompanied it, and reports on the 'bhog' ceremonies of 'martyrs' to the terrorist cause. The norms for reporting terrorist incidents (slapped by terrorists), including ban on the use of the word 'terrorist' or its Hindi equivalent 'atankvadi', were adopted with alacrity by the entire media, including the government-controlled electronic media and the national papers.

Unfortunately, the capitulation did not end here. This was evident in obfuscating sentimentality which marked the approach of even some of the best papers as they wrote about the most ghastly acts of terrorist violence with curious indulgence. Much of what was written in those days of terrorism had a powerful undercurrent of justification of the unjustifiable, the unforgivable; a hoax theory of deprivation, poverty and consequent alienation was invented to justify terrorist excesses in India's most prosperous state. The media carried a stream of interviews and profiles of terrorists and representatives of their front organisations through which they gave full vent to their violent, murderous propaganda.

Another dimension of the Punjab experience is that the security forces became the exclusive target of the media's righteous indignation.8 Scores of stories, planted by an array of terrorist front organisations alleging the most incredible atrocities (by the security forces) were carried without even following the minimal journalistic norms to check out the facts. In this lopsided offensive a number of human rights organisations joined hands with the media, feeding the ranks of the terrorists with their outrage, and demoralising the men in uniform who confronted, virtually alone, the deluge of militant violence. With some absurd logic, policemen who risked their lives and the lives of their families over years to defend citizens became the villains; and those who gunned down innocent people were heroes. Occasional aberrations by policemen were front-paged, whereas innumerable cases of harsh disciplinary action by the administration against errant security personnel were glossed over.

There has been much debate over the distortions in the coverage of events in Kashmir by the mass media , particularly the western media. This is particularly so when the coverage involves a situation where low intensity warfare entails phenomenon like terrorism and psychological warfare as well as issues of human rights, including the freedom of the press.

Before the late eighties, Srinagar was a very peaceful station for postings. Even during wartime in 1965 and 1971 there was hardly any threat to journalists. The experience of terrorist organisations in controlling the media in Punjab encouraged similar organisations in Kashmir to take a leaf out of their book. Or maybe they had a common strategy relating to the media. In Kashmir too, some militant organisations succeeded in using the media to their ends. Some papers became their channels for communicating threats to people and those who had been threatened in their turn advertised their apologies through advertisements in these papers. Militant organisations also claimed responsibility for killings and kidnappings through press notes.

To realise how the media persons lived and operated in an environment of perpetual terror and violence in Kashmir, a brief run of the major events needs to be added. The first major media killing in J&K by terrorists was that of Lassa Kaul, Director, Srinagar Doordarshan. Terrorist organisations also imposed a ban on the distribution of national newspapers and Kashmir Times and Excelsior, both published in English from Jammu. The killing of Kaul was a signal to all media persons in the Valley either to toe the line dictated by the terrorists or leave. Threats were received by non-Muslim journalists, or those coming from outside the state. They became apprehensive about their security and virtually became non-functional. They had to leave Srinagar soon after the killing of P.N. Handoo of the State Information Department.

Even the local media persons were not spared if they tried to be independent of terrorist groups. When some editors resisted pressure from militants by warning that they would cease publication, attempts were made on the life of Sofi Ghulam Mohammad, editor, Srinagar Times on October 2, 1990. On November 4 the same year, a powerful explosion damaged the printing press of the daily Aftab. Most of the local papers closed down in protest from October 5-10.

The Delhi edition of the Indian Express was banned in the Valley on March 31, 1992 and its Srinagar-based correspondent was asked to leave immediately. The circulation of 'Sunday', the prominent Calcutta weekly, was banned under the orders of the JKLF on May 1, 1992 and the entry of its special correspondent into the Valley was stopped with immediate effect. In September, the Wahade-i-Islami banned the entry of Mark Tully , the South Asia correspondent of the BBC, into the Valley.

The reaction of the government to this situation is interesting. The J&K government introduced a bill, "Jammu and Kashmir Special Powers (Press) Bill, 1989, in the Assembly in August 1989, which provided for regulation and control of printing or publication of certain matters in the interest of security of the state. There was fierce controversy throughout India. The Press Council suo moto examined the Bill and finally recommended that it should be withdrawn, and the government had to do the same. The government of India followed the advice of the Council.There was no expulsion of journalists after the council advised against it.

The Press Council itself set up two committees—one headed by B.G.Verghese and the other by V.N.Narayanan—to look into the ground situation vis-à-vis the media. The Verghese committee looked into specific charges of misreporting by the media relating to human rights issues and discovered that the famous Kunan Poshwara mass rape which was carried prominently in both Indian and western media was without foundation. Still it was of the opinion, "There is every reason to extend facilities to the international press to cover developments in J&K. The bundling out of the foreign press from Srinagar in Jan 1990 was a mistake. An open door policy will pay dividends in winning international public opinion despite fears of motivated reporting on the part of some."9

The Naraynan committee noted that many of the threats to media persons emanated from intra-militant rivalry. The killing of an important editor in Srinagar and attacks on another newspaper were the result of factional fights among the militants. "It is widely known that some media persons are acting as spokesmen of different militant factions who in turn provide them security. Presence of such men was noticed in Srinagar during the visit of the committee."10

The committee found another class of journalists whose role could be described as "ambivalent" as well as "dubious". There were Srinagar-based correspondents of foreign news and TV agencies alongwith some correspondents of national papers. Since they were safe from pressures from militants regarding publications of threats and advertisements meant for citizens in Kashmir, they could be independent in their reporting and analysis. Their "balancing act" consisted in periodically highlighting allegations of army atrocities, and cases of so-called disappearance of persons. The role of these journalists, in the opinion of the committee, required wider scrutiny although on balance, they too faced the same kind of problems and threats like local papers and had to balance their coverage between militant activities and those of the forces.

The widespread feeling outside Kashmir that the local press was on the side of the militants, was "uncharitable", according to the Narayanan committee. While quite a few papers did publish statements and advertisements of militant outfits, they did it under duress. "Given conditions of adequate safety of human lives, it is quite possible that these papers would be spreading the message of peace and harmony."

Making a broad assessment of the media's role in the terrorist-stricken state of Kashmir, it is evident that the national media, excluding AIR and Doordarshan, has played a "mature and fairly responsible" role.11 Even in situations where their lives were at risk, they maintained a fairly objective stance in the face of warring sides. Although mature by all accounts, they do consider news to be commercial business, an economic enterprise. Also, it has its share of young and inexperienced journalists, but fortunately their number is low.

However, the performance of the national media was not without hiccups. The Tsrar-e-Sharif is a case in point. The Hurriyat leaders visited the town prior to March 10, 1995 and Mast Gul delivered seditious speeches from the steps of the shrine. The atmosphere was highly surcharged, anti-India slogans rent the air and victory signs were shown by pro-Pakistan politicians. The media went hysterical in the face of tremendous hype. Completely taken in by sensationalism, the media , especially TV journalists, over-reacted. This pushed the administration into denying the further entry of the media into the town. The decision was regrettable, and left the militants free to do what they desired including destroying the shrine. But this incident in all fairness was an aberration.

The vernacular press in Srinagar is considered more important than all other media as they are opinion-makers for the local people. But its characteristics are something of an "oddity".12 Firstly, it is unclear about its role in militancy. It is, if anything, brazenly anti-India and seditious. The 'Kashmir Times' is an honourable exception. Secondly, although most of the local journalists are not with India, but when taken into confidence, always reacted favourably. There is lack of professionalism amongst Urdu journalists and stringers. In Kashmir, apart from becoming a militant, one of the easiest professions to pick up is to work for a local rag. With some luck, one can get stringership for a foreign TV or newspaper agency.

There is lack of depth and fairness in the reporting by the dominant western media, especially the British and the American. Even among Indian journalists who work for foreign media, there is a marked tendency to believe that it is the negative that sells. Reporting on Kashmir, the BBC showed shots from Chechnya operations. On another occasion, it is reported that the Tsrar-I-Sharif shrine had been stormed by the Indian security forces. When the other media pointed out the blunder, the BBC, after weeks, apologised.

Media in the Northeast

While insurgency in the Northeast is taking a toll of the law and order, peace, stability and progress, it is also causing irreparable harm to the press, the police, the army and the administration. Newspapers are cowed down at some places, and made to toe the militant line. When they do not, they are destroyed and persons connected with them are either physically attacked or eliminated. The so called "militant press" does all it can to inflame the passions of the people and particularly of the youngsters. Thereby it increases its circulation and sometimes compels other media outfits to adopt the same violent line, to survive the competition. An unreal picture then emerges that a sizeable section of the press in the region is secessionist. The militants also close the channels of communication between the press and the police, the army and authorities, and prevent publicity being given to the versions of the latter and of the constructive work they are doing. Hardly any space is given for reporting developmental work in the region. It is left only to a few valiant papers and journalists to keep the national honour aloft.

In this part of the country, the vulnerability of media against militants has to do with the weak financial condition of most of the newspapers and correspondingly poor remuneration and the absence of most of the perks to the journalists compared to those available to the media persons in the rest of the country. The condition of the press and journalists will improve only with the general economic development of the region. Fortunately, with an enviably high percentage of literacy, this region has enough potential subscribers for the press.

War and the Media

The media has always been very significant during war time, and with the quantum increase in its reach and effectiveness, its importance has grown further. But it has also led to more sophisticated manipulation of the media by the parties at war.

During the First World War the use of the mass media as an additional weapon of war assumed significance and it reached a level of higher sophistication in the Second Wold War.13 The use of radio in particular and news agencies for management of information and disinformation became quite prominent in the Second World War period. The word 'propaganda' acquired its current negative connotation during that period. At the end of the First World War , it was said , " Mightier and more dangerous than the fleet or the army is Reuter."

The editor of the 'Manchester Guardian', C.P. Scott observed at the close of the First World War, " If people knew the truth the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know, and they can't know." The chief of the British Military Intelligence (during that war) was asked to describe the ideal war correspondent, "he is a man", said the general , " who writes what he is told is true, or even what he thinks to be true, but never what he knows to be true."

The needs of journalists reporting war may be defined under three basic heads—access to the battlefield, mobility on the battlefield ; and reasonable access to official military information.14 The resolution , or non-resolution, of these requirements by negotiation between media and military determines the effectiveness, and the ultimate value of media coverage. If all three requirements are denied, then obviously journalists cannot do their job. If only formal access to military information is provided, then the journalist's effectiveness depends on its quality, quantity and regularity. If access to official information and access to the battlefield is provided, but with restricted movement, the quality of news coverage is again heavily dependent on the honesty and cooperation of official sources. A journalist with both battlefield access and mobility can function effectively even in the absence of official information and cooperation. The ideal mix has been defined by the 'Washington Post' correspondent, Patrick J. Sloyan as the " combination of common sense, common courtesy and open access that governed the coverage of the American military through two world wars, the Korean conflict and Vietnam." The contemporary media would argue that this traditional compact between soldiers and journalists has been destroyed by military practice in the Falklands, Grenada, Panama and, most importantly, the 1991 Gulf War.

War by the media is categorised as low-intensity warfare alongside subversion, insurgency and psychological sabotage. Talking of the electronic media, hostile stations (TV or radio) put up highly entertaining programmes at the time of news or important current affairs programmes from the home station to drain away the national audience. The news from hostile stations is full of disinformation to create confusion and they use propaganda to reach the mind of the audience. Propaganda theorists say that in effect the public should be considered the priority objective in a political war.

There had been a lot of controversy about the coverage of the Falklands war when the media was not allowed to go the war theatre. "In many ways the Falklands gave the game away," remarked the famous British war correspondent, John Pilger. Prior to that war, the BBC had successfully championed itself as a temple of fairness and impartiality. During the war, broadcasters who had defended their objectivity with pride were almost truculent in the praise of their own subjectivity in the cause of the Queen and the country, as if the war was national emergency, which it was not. The minutes of a BBC Weekly Review Board (an influential body which then determined the BBC current affairs policy) meeting showed that the BBC had decided that its reporting of the war had to be shaped to suit "the emotional sensibilities" of the public and that impartiality was felt to be an " unnecessary irritant."15

There were vigorous protests among British broadcasters about censorship. But on close examination it became clear that what many of the broadcasters wanted was to be taken into the government's confidence, so that they could be more on its side. Even when the Falklands war was won and the excuse of withholding news and analysis no longer applied, the propaganda remained as strong as ever.

In the Vietnam war atrocities were neither isolated, nor aberrations. But this was seldom judged to be news and, therefore, seldom told. With the assumption that the war was right, atrocities were reported as "mistakes" which were "blundered into". The British term 'pacification' which they used in relation to Ireland, gained currency in Vietnam and became familiar to newspaper readers and TV viewers in the West, but whose real meaning was seldom understood. Pacification meant killing as many people as possible in a given area in a given period of time. In 1971 the US Ninth Division killed 11,000 people in a pacification campaign named "Operation Speedy Express". Two diligent Newsweek reporters discovered that almost half of these were civilians and this was mass slaughter, condoned and covered up. They wrote the story but, six months later, a watered down version appeared and no one was held responsible. In this sense, even in the Vietnam war, which was the first to have the use of television, the management of the media was quite a success. But many thought that journalists should not have been allowed into the war theatre at all and tried to put the blame for the US defeat on war coverage.

In the Gulf War, the extent and efficacy of media management was unparalleled. Twelve media combat pools had been formed and under these chosen media persons were taken to the battlefield under heavy military escort. In addition to pool coverage, the JUC Central Command's Joint Information Bureau headquarters in Riyadh held daily briefings. The briefings were fed by audio directly to the Pentagon, so journalists there could hear them and they were often broadcast live on television by one or more of the networks.

The censorship during the war ranged from the imposed constraints of pool coverage (A New York Times journalist was detained for interviewing local residents in a small border town in Saudi Arabia), to self-censorship like that imposed by the BBC which withdrew from their schedule programmes which might have been considered insensitive or of questionable taste. It also issued instructions to its smaller radio stations with a list of 67 songs considered 'sensitive' including "Light My Fire" and "Killing Me Softly". Instances of censorship were not only in the Gulf and coalition countries but also in Pakistan, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.

During the War some reports of CNN correspondent, Peter Arnett, who has the distinction of covering 17 wars and who won his Pulitzer for Vietnam war coverage for the AP, were condemned by the US officials and sections of the US press to the extent that he had to publicly defend himself, particularly his coverage of a bombed building in Iraq which he said was a baby milk factory while the US officials insisted that it was a germ warfare factory. Arnett said he walked through the wreckage twice and found himself "upto my ankles in baby milk powder"—a sample of which he offered to his audience for their coffee. Arnett's critics alleged that he was used by the Iraqis. Does this mean that the rest of the media was used by the other party ?

Commenting on the guidelines the Newsweek (January 14, 1991) questioned, "Will we see the real war? "and pointed out, "the media was allowed to interview or photograph wounded soldiers only in the presence of a military escort and only with consent of the patient and commander; the visual and audio recordings of persons in agony are not authorised; imagery of patients suffering from severe disfigurement are not authorised."

Real or unreal, the use of propaganda and disinformation by all parties during the war had been widespread and effective in achieving its purpose.16 The Coalition forces succeeded in giving and maintaining the impression that it was a "clean" war in which the use of high-tech weapons resulted in negligible human casualties A new jargon "collateral damage "was invented as an euphemism for civilian casualties. In spite of the fact that upto 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and unknown number of civilians may have been killed in the war, there has been little coverage in the media of the unpalatable aspects of war.

Coming to the current war in Chechnya, the Russian government's news management has been nearly impeccable.17 It basked in almost unreserved support for the war due to its success in ensuring the conflict was presented as an efficient operation with a solid moral justification.

Interestingly, that has all changed, suddenly (maybe for the time being) with the potential to turn public opinion against the war. "Chechnya: A Sprain or Agony", cried the popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Triumphal March in Chechnya Stepping on a Rake", sneered Moskovski Komsomolets, a top selling popular daily. The Izvestia newspaper ran a remarkable article headlined "War and Truth" some time in January this year in which it interviewed an officer from the Federal Security Service, who said, "You are being fed fairy tales." More sober newspapers echoed the same sentiments.

But the real crunch is the television , the NTV which had until recently presented the war as a successful, clean anti-terrorist operation with few losses. It has now changed, regularly citing reports in the Western press of hidden casualties and showing footage filmed by Reuters. Recently it showed a clip of Russian and Chechen troops exchanging their war dead.

Nevertheless the struggle for public support in Russia called an 'information war' may not be a lost battle.18 The media are so tightly in the grip of tycoons who will always favour their business and political interests over honest reporting that the tide could turn. "At some point, Vladimir Putin will simply meet with newspaper editors and remind them about the need to stand up for Russian interests and it will be quiet again," Yulia Kalinina, military editor of Moskovski Komsomolets, said in an interview with the Associated Press recently.

Deficiencies in the Media

In the above mentioned situations of conflict , which were discussed as illustrative cases, the media (certainly large sections of it) failed to perform its very basic role of being an honest, objective and fair purveyor of information to the public. What is wrong with the media?

Firstly, it is not an amorphous institution, being operated by human beings. The output of a media outlet depends on the moral and intellectual calibre of the persons owning and manning it as much as on their personal background, convictions, interests and outlook on life. This has been demonstrated time and again. The same individuals and events are treated differently by the different media outlets. Some take one or the other side in the conflicts and become its spokesmen. Others stoke the fires subtly or not so subtly. Still others create and depict false incidents to suit their designs.

Secondly, there is crass commercialisation of the media. The products of the media, are being sold like any other commodity in the market, and those who run the media, do it only for purely commercial interests. "Anything that pays is welcome" being the motto of profit seeking commercial media, sensationalisation of the conflict situations is not a taboo, nor false, motivated versions of the incidents.

Thirdly, the high cost of establishing and running a media outlet, whether print or electronic, the huge profit potential and the enormous power that can be wielded to acquire political and administrative clout to run their other industrial and business empires, have brought in a big way a few very affluent individuals and families, and the corporate sector. This phenomenon has led to a near monopoly in media. With the emergence of the multi-media multinationals, the world is faced with the prospect of virtual monopoly of a few individuals over the news and views. The prospect of news and views being controlled and manipulated, of the people being misled and deceived to serve particular interests has increased manifold.

Lastly, there is abysmal lack of proper training and understanding among media persons of different conflict situations, their sensitivities and complexities, and the issues involved in them. This is particularly true of Indian media persons. They are hardly given opportunities to specialise, research or to report and write on conflict situations of varying nature and intensity to acquire the requisite experience and skills. In most of the cases, their outputs are situational, hurried and not holistic at all.

Some Suggestions

Given this kind of scenario , what could be the possible corrective steps? Richard Clutterbuck, in his well-acknowledged work "The Media and Political Violence "says the best answer to this kind of irresponsible or anti-social misuse of the power of the media lies in the hands of the journalistic profession itself.19 The Press Council and the National Union of Journalists all have certain codes which their members are obliged to observe at pain of expulsion . These should be strengthened and enforced.

Clutterbuck goes on to suggest that there may be a need for something wider than any of these, an Institute for the Mass Media (IMM) on the lines of the British Medical Association or the Bar or the Law Society. Everyone involved in the editorial process of the mass media would be required to be a registered member of the IMM and any breach of its code would result in the offender being struck off the register. In that case he would be barred from practicising in that capacity in the same way that a doctor or lawyer is barred.

In India, the Press Council and the Editors' Guild are organisations that lack teeth. They have failed to discipline irresponsible coverage and enforce worthwhile formalistic ethics and are considered by most journalists as talking shops. Their role needs to be thoroughly reviewed. The standing committees of Parliament and other bodies have strongly pleaded for arming the Press Council with statutory enforcing powers, especially in view of the growing commercialisation of the media in this age of globalisation, but so far nothing concrete has come about.

There have been suggestions in some influential quarters, including Parliament, for formulating a national information or media policy. The progress on this score in the past decade has been agonisingly slow. Possibly, the media is apprehensive of the word 'policy' since it seems to convey strong undertones of control and regulation. Also, the myriad and composite character and ownership of the media makes consensus difficult.

Some of the cardinal issues which the media policy, according to communication experts, must address are as follows:

1. The freedom of information—the right of the public to know and the obligation of the government to inform them. The biggest hurdle in attaining this goal is the outdated Official Secrets Act, enacted by the British in 1923. Yet , bureaucrats and those in uniform are still treating security as a holy cow and convenient cover-up for all misdoings.

2. The next issue concerns journalistic ethics, which has evoked tremendous media outcry. The media considers a code of ethics as infringement of its freedom and dignity. Government should keep itself aloof from this controversy and allow the media to evolve its own code.

3. The question of censorship. Given the short duration of most present day war and conflict situations within the country, it is both undesirable and unenforceable. It would also be counterproductive, as it turned out at Tsrar-e-Sharif.20

Self-censorship, as tried out successfully in Israel and to a large extent in Vietnam, could be effective so long as the media is well aware of the "stop list" of subjects pertaining to its professional work.

4. Professional and broad-based training for journalists , since "niche-journalism" is the order of the day. Mostly, journalism today has become specialised and as such there is an urgent need to organise subject-specific journalism training through either a revamped Press Council or some other relevant body.

A Parliamentary committee headed by Ram Vilas Paswan has submitted its wide ranging recommendations on formulating a national communication policy, but the government has yet to take a decision on it.

Besides these, there are a number of ideas about reorganising the media ownership structure, in India as well as elsewhere, but the fact remains that should the abuses of the power of the media be subject to statutory restraint by legislation, or to voluntary control by their own professional institutions, or is it enough to leave this to the integrity and good sense of journalists? These questions must be faced by the media in a reasonable society if it is to remain reasonable.

 

NOTES

1. Justice P.B.Sawant, Mass Media in Contemporary Society, p. 154.

2. Ibid., p.161.

3. Proceedings of international conference of representatives of NAM countries on "Media and Crisis Events, (Delhi: January, 1996).

4. Ibid.

5. Aakrosh, January 2000, vol. 3, no. 6, p.40-41.

6. Maj Gen Arjun Ray, Kashmir Diary, p.9.

7. K.P.S. Gill in his foreword for Kashmir Diary, p. 11.

8. Ibid.

9. Press Council Report on Kashmir.

10. Ibid.

11. Maj Gen. Ray n. 6, p.65.

12. Maj Gen. Ray n. 6, p.66.

13. Phillip M. Taylor, Global Communications, International Relations and the Media since 1945, p. 126.

14. Peter R. Young, Defence And the Media in Time of Limited War, p.57.

15. Peter Jesser and Peter Young, The Media and The Military, p.106.

16. K.M. Shrivastava, Media Towards 21st Century, p.88.

17. The Times, London, January 14, 2000.

18. Ibid.

19. Richard Clutterbuck, The Media And Political Violence, p.161.

20. Maj Gen Ray, n. 6, p.68.