Post Gurdaspur, Everything That’s Wrong With Media’s ‘Live’ Coverage Of Terrorist Attacks

Posted on July 30, 2015 in Media

By Sanjana Chowdhury:

Imagine this – terrorists following every move of the National Security Guard operation on live television. Does that sound eerily like the 26/11 Mumbai attack? The terrorists and their collaborators across the border watched security moves, speculated tactics, news of casualty and NSG operation live on Indian television channels that unknowingly, gave them blow-by-blow account. This was later confirmed by the transcripts from Taj Hotel and Nariman House. One of the transcripts later showed collaborators telling the terrorists that Indian troops were positioned on the roof of the Hotel Oberoi, and planned their moves accordingly. Aided by visual cues shown on TV, they carried on the attack longer while the task became more and more difficult for the Indian security forces.

Image source:
Image source:

The Gurdaspur incident on Monday, 27th July 2015, would have been disastrously similar had the government not intervened to stop live television coverage. When terrorists struck Punjab’s Gurdaspur early Monday morning, various news channels started live streaming the attack despite regulations against live telecast of terrorist attacks. In spite of high probability of jeopardising the counter-terror operation, media broadcasted live videos, and even falsely reported a hostage situation, merely to sensationalise. It was shown on various TV channels before the government issued an ‘advisory’ around 11 a.m., but by then the coverage had already gone on for a few hours.

Codes of coverage

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued the advisory to remind the broadcasters of the violation of the self-regulatory code that followed 26/11. The advisory stated that, “No programme shall be carried in the cable service which contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces”. According to this advisory, media coverage should be “restricted to periodic briefing by an officer, designated by the appropriate government, till such operation concludes.”

Post 26/11 Mumbai Attack, the Supreme Court condemned the role of media in the terrorist operation, and a self-regulatory code was introduced by the National Broadcasters Association.

Earlier this year Union Home Ministry sought to officially ban live coverage of anti-terror operations for the purpose of national security. Cable television Network Rules prohibited live telecast of “anti-terrorist operations” which was defined as “operation undertaken to bring terrorists to justice, which includes all engagements involving justifiable use of force between security forces and terrorists.” To prevent leakage of critical information and safeguard civilian lives, the broadcasters were warned of consequences including channel blackout in case of violation of the rule.

A question of priority

It is rather unfortunate that these rules have not deterred unscrupulous TV channels from airing live footage in the recent Gurdaspur incident. Television channels forgot all judgement and principles just to produce sensational news and scintillating videos, for the sake of higher TRP. Sonia Singh of NDTV showed some principle when she tweeted that NDTV wouldn’t carry any live footage of the operation till it was over, but she was met with only criticism and sarcastic comments.

Only after the advisory was issued, live videos were taken down, channels switched to “deferred live”.This is not the first time media has jeopardised national security through lack of ethics and hankering after higher TRP. This time a tragedy was averted by a somewhat late government intervention and perhaps by sheer luck. The argument of “freedom of expression” is untenable when national security is at risk. Perhaps the media alone should not be blamed, the government too should take some responsibility. More binding laws are necessary regarding live coverage of counter-terror operations to prevent leakage of critical information. Meanwhile, the media must choose between moral responsibility and higher TRP, because if not now, then when?