Well orchestrated and high profile symbolic terror strikes- 9/11 attacks in the United States, 7/7 terrorist strikes in the United Kingdom and 26/11 multiple terror attacks in Mumbai- have attracted enormous media attention with significant implications for counter terrorism response. Terror attacks are also about their explicit dramatic content. Their coverage by the news media evoke a range of responses, with some analysts accusing the media of becoming a ‘participant’ even a ‘combatant’, in such theatres.
Both terrorists and the media are seen to share a symbiotic and/or a mutually reinforcing relationship and are often perceived to be feeding off each other. Terrorists, being ‘media- savvy’, have over time learnt to use the media as a tool in both the ‘propaganda of the deed’ and ‘propaganda of fear.’ The media on the other hand, providing gory details of the terrorist strikes mostly bordering on ‘sensationalism’ generates advertising revenues and Television Rating Points (TRP). This paper is a brief assessment of the nature of media reporting during the Mumbai terror attacks, a review of the consequent implications for the counter terror responses, and policy recommendations to deal with future scenarios.
The Mumbai episode involved hostage taking as well as attacks on high profile symbolic targets with the objective of getting maximum domestic and international media attention. The television coverage of the 67-hour terrorist attack by over 30 channels turned the entire episode into a reality TV, with some analysts even dubbing it as ‘TV terror’. The coverage included disturbing imagery of gory scenes, with aggressive and sensational reporting catering to the upper class and international audience. The criticism was not entirely unwarranted as equal media attention was lacking in reporting the carnage at Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station, where the bulk of the fatalities occurred. The coverage of the hotels captured the attention of a larger urban and international audience and in the process had the scope of gaining more mileage and TRPs.
The inability to regulate the flow of unfettered information and to respond to 24/7 media coverage deeply affected the choices available to the Crisis Management Group (CMG) in Mumbai. Unfettered coverage led to serious domestic, bilateral, and international reaction, which in turn led the National Broadcaster Association of India to formulate a new set of rules for the industry in December 2008. The guidelines ban live contact with hostages or attackers, as well as the broadcasting of footage that could reveal security operations. Another proposal considered (ultimately not accepted) the introduction of a pool system whereby only certain government-approved providers of news footage would be authorised to cover terrorist actions visually, so that the visuals could be filtered, leaving the channels free to interpret them.
The Indian Information and Broadcasting Ministry also called for the establishment of a ‘standing media consultative committee’ to frame guidelines for coverage of emergency situations such as terror strikes, natural disasters, riots, and so on. India’s Parliament considered the creation of a broadcasting regulatory agency for private news channels.
However, there is an overwhelming belief in policy circles that any policy to regulate the media would be ineffectual.
There is an obvious need to devise counter terrorism strategies by actively engaging the media to neutralize terrorist propaganda of deed and fear. Democracies cannot afford to let the freedom of the press continue to serve the forces that seek to undermine them. Managing the intensity and nature of crisis coverage is central to any incident-response strategy. The following are some of the recommendations.
First, terror stricken nations need to develop a comprehensive, integrated media strategy as part of their counter terrorism responses. It needs to involve law enforcement and legal personnel, both at the central and state government level. Second, countries need to discourage the ‘schizophrenic relationship’ between security forces and the media. Development of a strategy as just proposed requires mutual respect and understanding between the security forces and the media, rather than the present love/hate relationship. Capacity building is an immediate necessity in both institutions to deal with this challenge. The concept of ‘embedded journalism’ would be useful for accurate reporting of events as they unfold. Thirdly, the media needs to be engaged. The security forces must have a media strategy that respects freedom of the press and information and at the same time addresses the demands of effective action especially during a crisis. The media needs to be adequately briefed through the provision of background information and live press conferences. Fourthly, there is a dire need for expert commentary. In the Indian context, journalists in the field covering terrorist attacks are rarely experts. It is imperative for the authorities and police to provide them access to information/view points and ‘stories’ so that they could validate on- site and triangulate facts. This will help to reduce the unintended consequence of incorrect information and biased perceptions. Fifthly, journalists must be encouraged to make hard choices. Objectivity, while reporting on terrorist related violence, is at best difficult to achieve. Intelligent choices need to be made to put forward a balanced and alternate point of view. This can be done by building on ‘competing narratives’. Lastly, nations need to develop the capacity to use existing laws optimally. The demand for a new legal framework to regulate the media is not necessary, as India has ample laws that prohibit actions that endanger lives. The issue lies in their enforcement.
Dr Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), an autonomous Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institute.
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