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January 5, 2001

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Colonel Anil Athale (retd)

Will our media grow up?

The recent riots in Nepal, over remarks that were never made by Hrithik Roshan, again underscored the power of the printed word. Many in India gloated over the apparent 'irrationality' of it all and felt that the Nepalese media was guilty of being gullible and fell victim to a disinformation campaign masterminded by the Mumbai Mafia or Pakistan.

It is time the Indian print media also held a mirror to itself to do some introspection. On December 31, 2000, The New York Times carried an interview of Suhail Malik, a Pakistani terrorist in an Indian jail, taken by its correspondent. This Lashkar e Tayiba fanatic openly admitted that he took part in the massacre of Sikhs in Chattisinghpora, carried out on the eve of Bill Clinton's visit to India.

Public memory may be short, but many would recall the editorial comments in the so-called national media that virtually swallowed the line that the massacre was actually a handiwork of the Indian army. The sole reason for this astonishing and na´ve conclusion was that the terrorists who carried out this act were dressed in army like uniforms. Is the Indian media any better than their Nepalese counterpart?

There was every chance of this mischief by the media snowballing into violence. The only reason this did not happen was that the ordinary citizens showed more common sense than the all knowing journos.

Right at the outset of the Kargil conflict, a young, enthusiastic journalist travelled there and when denied access to any officer, spoke to a jawan. This jawan, with a as much knowledge about the operations as the journalist, then gave out that 'thousands of soldiers have died and the government is hiding the fact.' Soon this became the truth, and no one bothered to reflect on the basic fact that with all jawans insured in group insurance scheme, it is well nigh impossible for any authority to hide the real figures of casualties.

Since the last few days a similar one sided campaign has begun over the 'Samba Spy Case'. The media has jumped to the conclusion that every single person sentenced in that affair is innocent. No journalist has bothered to see the evidence of indiscretion and fat bank balances that some of these 'innocents' had accumulated for which they could give no explanation.

Even on major issues like the Pokhran tests of May 1998, a leading economic paper had screaming headlines about the impending economic disaster due to sanctions. Well, the sanctions came and are partially gone. The Indian economy in 1998-99 grew by six per cent and the Resurgent India Bonds actually netted more foreign exchange than what was lost due to aid cut-off.

In none of these cases did the offending scribes or the newspapers have the honour, grace or professional ethics to admit -- 'We were wrong?'

It is understandable that today with competition from 24 hour TV news channels and the Internet, the print media is under pressure. But the answer to that is not to have a 'print and be damned attitude.' The printed word has survived in the West despite the TV boom because it is still the best media for analysis.

Also, it is the printed word that carries greater weight and has long lasting impact. This puts a heavy burden on newspapers to be accurate while reporting. Will our media grow up to the stature of The New York Times and sift the grain from the chaff, the disinformation from news?

Col Anil Athale (retd) is co-ordinator of the Pune based Inpad -- Initiative for Peace and Disarmament.

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