Monday, July 5, 2010

When Goliath gets the media to thwart the sling of David By Jawed Naqvi

Following the First World War, Austrian journalist Karl Wiegand made an insightful observation. “How are nations ruled and led into war?” he asked. “Politicians lie to journalists and then believe those lies when they see them in print.”
What seems cynical was true then, and it is true today. The one difference, however, is that the global media is vertically split today in this game with one side conniving in the crime, the other offering a glimmer of hope for truth and transparency. For every Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli whistleblower who was imprisoned for revealing his country’s nuclear secrets, there is an army of embedded journalists who are willing to do the state’s bidding at any cost to their credibility.

Pakistani media is relatively free and charmingly pugnacious towards their government with a history of defying military and civilian dictators. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised to read in the Dawn last week of the Pakistan government’s plans to end the romance and have “policy guidelines” for private media organisations so that their news coverage does not hurt “national interests”. If we smell a rat here the odour cannot be too distinct from an almost similar doctrine that the Indian military (not without political connivance) unveiled in Delhi last month.

While the first doctrine deals with greater operational coordination of the three services for future conflicts, the new doctrine on Military Psychological Operations is “a policy, planning and implementation document that aims to create a conducive environment for the armed forces to operate by using the media available with the Services to their advantage”.

In other words, it constitutes “a planned process of conveying a message to select target audience, to promote particular themes that result in desired attitudes and behaviour, which affect the achievement of political and military objectives of the country”, a military release said.

Given the potential benefit of psychological operations as an effective force multiplier, its use in support of military aims and objectives is considerable. Among key areas of interest, the doctrine provides guidelines “for activities related to perception management in sub-conventional operations – such as the counter-insurgency efforts in Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern states – in an internal environment wherein misguided population may have to be brought into the mainstream”.

If I haven’t got it completely wrong, the idea to co-opt the media to overwhelm the perceived quarry with mythology that passes for information is Goebbelsian in its essence whose current exponents do not exclude former victims of Nazi practices. Take the Star of David, Israel’s national motif. Today, in a strange inversion of the myth in the Old Testament, it represents more accurately the people on the peace flotilla who were carrying little more than slings to protect themselves with. It is the Israeli commandos with their military might who became Goliath, the supposedly invincible giant who, in the myth represented the pagan ‘philistines’.

The story of David and Goliath is being played out for the third summer running in Kashmir. Enraged young people, even school-going children are thronging the streets, hurling anger and stones at heavily armed Indian troopers. The Delhi media describes them as a violent mob. The Home Minister has said in a public statement that the Lashkar-e-Taiba is behind the protests. An unarmed, if outraged, people have thus been branded as terrorists by TV channels that claim to speak on behalf of the Indian nation.

Kashmir of course is not the only example where people face calumny in an unequal battle of disseminated perceptions. There are countless unarmed and peaceful struggles raging across India seeking to claim some basic and simple rights for the people. The struggles have had to confront not only the armed might of the state but also the slings and arrows of the corporate media’s diatribes. An ongoing battle between unarmed protesters against a mining syndicates in the eastern state of Orissa has seen villages under siege by thousands of police and paramilitary troops, ordinary people have been shot at, and poor villagers have to deal with a daily assault of the state’s and the industrialist’s armed might. In these extremely troubled times, the media has come to play a key role.

I once walked with Suneet Chopra, an indefatigable communist activist for miles on a blazing hot afternoon in Haryana. We were campaigning for Ms Chandravati who we were told was as a democratic candidate against Bansi Lal, a notorious member of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule. Along the way someone from our tired and famished group plucked a tiny bunch of green peas from a field. “Comrade, we must never steal from the peasants,” suggested the genial Chopra, who we suspected had a camel’s hump since he neither felt thirsty or hungry on the punishing journey.

It was therefore quite disturbing for me to read in most of the major Indian dailies last week screaming headlines that Maoist guerrillas who ambushed a paramilitary party had mutilated the bodies of the dead or injured troopers. “Maoists chopped limbs, slit throats of injured CRPF men,” claimed a huge headline in the Indian Express. In a report datelined Raipur last Friday, the paper said: “Several among the 27 security personnel killed in the Maoist ambush in Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh on Tuesday had their throats slit and limbs chopped after being injured in the firing. The Maoists also took away their weapons, including AK-47s and INSAS rifles, and ammunition — the rebels did the same at Tadmetla in Dantewada on April 6 when they massacred 76 security men.” A similar account of the apparent outrage was carried in almost all other major newspapers. True to form, as is the bulldozing method of reportage these days, no source was cited for the macabre incident. Only a careful scanning of the papers revealed that the report, apparently disseminated by a national news agency, was completely cooked up. The Times of India in a very small story of three or four centimetres hidden in the inside pages ran a story that clearly contradicted all the other accounts about the killing of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men. What was significant was that the paper gave a solid incontrovertible source for the story. It went thus:

“CRPF bodies weren’t mutilated: CRPF denied reports that the bodies of its men were mutilated by Maoists. Any report that says throats were slit and limbs severed is inaccurate, said R K Dua, IG, CRPF. He said it was not possible to verify whether Maoists were killed in the exchange of fire, but said based on preliminary testimonies it appeared 12-15 Maoists were killed. One of our jawans said he stepped over two or three bodies of Maoists, the IG said. – TNN (Times News Network)”.

It is naturally heartening that just when the media looks so poised to be co-opted by the system nearly hook line and sinker, there rises a gem of a soul here or there, including from within the security establishment, who belies the hopes of a complete takeover of the truth by the state and its many agents. One among them is an army officer who has forced the establishment to consider rewriting the history of the Kargil war. In a dictatorship or a vacuous democracy there is something called a human spirit that remains indomitable.

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