Indian journalists in media firestorm

Coverage of Mumbai terror attacks stirs frenzy

Indian media was itself a major news item as the Mumbai terror attacks came to a conclusion over the weekend.

The country’s broadcasters were summoned Friday by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to deal with charges that the live saturation coverage had helped the terrorists. At the same time, however, traditional media were criticized as too slow and inaccurate by legions of “citizen journalists” using Internet services such as Twitter and photo site Flickr.

The deputy commissioner of police argued that the terrorists, who were holed up in two major hotels and became involved in floor-by-floor firefights with police, were gaining tactical information from TV. Using powers under Section 19 of the country’s Cable Television Networks Act, he ordered a blackout of TV news channels.

“Transmission of various clippings/live relay/coverage of the actions being taken by the police against the terrorists in South Mumbai is causing impediment in the police action … thereby endangering the lives of the police personnel as also of the hostages,” the order stated.

Cable and satellite channels went off air for nearly half an hour before the order was rescinded.

Media chiefs present at a meeting between the MIB, the Indian Broadcasting Federation and News Broadcasting Assn. hit back by accusing the government information departments and ministerial interfaces of failing to keep up with developments in the media industry.

They said it was unclear which officials had authority to speak to the media, that government and media had never agreed to procedures for coverage of national emergencies, and that the Press Information Bureau is set up to handle print rather than broadcast and online media.

Through blogs, file-sharing and social networking functions on the Internet, dozens of eyewitness reports, some coming from within the two besieged hotels, delivered information faster than conventional media and challenged some of its reporting. Twitter, a user-generated service that delivers text message-sized “tweets,” for instance, reported that there was still gunfire inside the Taj Mahal long after Indian media had said it was finished. Others transcribed lists of casualties from the hospitals faster than mainstream media could access it.

While some hailed the online reporting as “a social media experiment in action,” much of the information on Twitter was woefully inaccurate. Reports of casualties in the thousands were wrong. So too, apparently, was a report that the government had asked Twitter users (aka “tweeters”) to stop reporting for fear that they too might help the attackers.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s media was furious with Indian coverage, too. One paper described Indian broadcasters as being in a “race for propaganda” and making assumptions and unsubstantiated charges about the origins and training of the attackers.

“The Indian media, true to its traditional hate postures toward Pakistan, lost no time in blaring all those scum, pointing fingers toward Pakistan and holding it responsible for the tragic incident,” Pakistan’s the News said. “Indian (TV) anchors and analysts with one voice analyzed the incident purely based on the figment of their imaginations.”

Still others criticized media coverage as helping create an age of “celebrity terrorism.” “The terrorists’ action must always be complemented by the target’s reaction in order to complete the scene,” security analyst Paul Cornish, chairman of the Chatham House Intl. Security Program, told the BBC. “The terrorists might have assumed, quite correctly as it happens, that the world’s media and the terrorism analysis industry would very quickly fill in any gaps for them.”

Recent years have seen an explosion of specialist news TV channels in India working in Hindi, English and regional languages. Further underlining how news has become a hot button issue in the country, the Telecoms Regulatory Authority of India on Friday reversed its position on allowing news to be broadcast on FM radio stations.

Local FM radio stations have emerged in dozens of cities since deregulation a couple of years back, but they are not allowed to carry news for fear of cross-media influence from media owners like the Hindustan Times, Mid-Day and the BBC, which are now Indian radio operators. TRAI is now backing the government and says the privately run FM stations should be kept news-free for another three years.

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