The Supreme Court’s judgment on the appeal filed by Mohammad Ajmal (Kasab) against the High Court verdict was very much on the expected lines. The highest court of the land upheld the death sentence awarded to Kasab – who was a part of the 10 member team that carried out the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 26/11 which claimed more than 150 lives. Given the overwhelming nature of evidence – available in the form of CCTV footages, telephone intercepts and his own admission; and severity of the crime there was no doubt that the courts would indeed classify this as a “rarest of rare” case. Apart from this central issue the Supreme court has also pronounced in no uncertain terms about the LIVE coverage of the operations conducted by the National Security Guards (NSG) as a response to the terrorist attack.

The learned judges who went through the transcripts of the intercepted telephonic conversations between the terrorists in Mumbai and their handlers in Pakistan have done the nation a great service by specifically noting the impact of this reckless coverage. Under the head of An Orbiter: Role of Media from page no 245 to page no 249, the judgment makes a long list of specific and scathing observations on the media and how it aided the terrorists. While I was reading this judgment I couldn’t help but remember Chaitanya Kunte – a blogger who had made this exact point and appealed to TV journalists for exercising restraint in their coverage; and how his voice of reason was first ignored and later muzzled by legal methods.

A copy of his original blog is currently available here. It is a short post and I urge all the readers of this post to read this post from Chaitanya Kunte as well. I would be quiet right in asserting that the particularly harsh tone of the post and the outrage brought out is something one heard from many viewers who watched those video reports. The damage such live reports could do in a conflict situation that was unfolding at the moment was as clear as daylight to many across the country. Amongst many other crucial points on the issue the learned judges have noted the following after examining the transcripts of conversations between terrorists and their handlers

1.

From the transcripts, especially those from Taj Hotel and Nariman House, it is evident that the terrorists who were entrenched at those places and more than them, their collaborators across the border were watching the full show on TV. In the transcripts there are many references to the media reports and the visuals being shown on the TV screen. The collaborators sitting in their hideouts across the border came to know about the appellant being caught alive from Indian TV: they came to know about the killing of high ranking police officers also from Indian TV

and

2.

At another place in the transcript the collaborators tell the terrorists in Taj Hotel that the dome at the top (of the building) had caught fire. The terrorists holed up in some room were not aware of this. The collaborators further advise the terrorists that the stronger they make the fire the better it would be for them. At yet another place the terrorists at Hotel Taj tell the collaborators that they had thrown a grenade. The Collaborators reply, “the sound of the grenade has come, they have shown the grenade, the explosion has taken place, people are wounded”. At yet another place the collaborators tell the terrorists at Hotel Oberoi that the troops were making their position very strong on the roof of the building. At yet another place the collaborators tell the terrorists at Taj Hotel the exact position taken by the policemen (close to a building that belonged to the navy but was given to the civilians) and from where they were
taking aim and firing at them (the terrorists) and advised them the best position for them to hit back at those policemen.

The judgement then goes on to further cite similar observations and discuss other possible ways in which the media could have handled the situation. Though Kunte’s blog had singled out Barkha Dutt of NDTV for the criticism, the issue flagged by the blogger was an extremely important one and applicable to many other TV channels. A few months after the blog was published, Barkha Dutt brought libel charges against Chaitanya Kunte and forced him to take down his post. While the celebrity journalist was quick to shield her reputaion, it seems the entire media industry in India has collectively failed yet again to either fix accountability for this “error of judgment” (which this time probably cost lives) or evolve credible mechanisms for the future.

I was involved in a fairly long twitter conversation with Shri Nitin Gokhale,Security and Startegic Affairs Editor, NDTV this morning. His revelations and responses did make bare the failure of allmost all arms of the state in effectively responding to the situation at hand and specifically the complete breakdown in organised communication from those in command to the media persons and the concerned citizens at large. While I reognise the govt for it’s failues, it is also important to hold other important institutions like the media to account on such issues. After all it is only in such extreme cases is the credibility and character of an institution tested. Shri Gokhale admitted to media’s mistakes upfront, but frankly – dodged the question of accountability within media organisations. Some of his tweets made a convincing case about the erratic and irresponsible attitude of some very senior govt functionaries

https://twitter.com/nitingokhale/status/240812545865289728

https://twitter.com/nitingokhale/status/240813585784254464

His response on the issue of accountability within media organisations

Then there was an exchange on the guidelines framed by the media houses after 26/11.

Finally, I called quits on this issue with this tweet.

The entire defense of not taking action against individuals due to lack of proven illegality is the exact defense we hear from every politician when he is caught with his hand in the till. I hope the Indian media will wake up to this before they completely lose their credibility or worse – govt or some self-righteous PCI chairman steps in to regulate them.

Even though late, it is heartening to note the the institutions in India have indeed worked in this case and this Supreme Court judgment has underscored the issue that was first raised by an outraged blogger. While I read the judgment I noticed the faint watermark in the background which contained the motto of our Supreme Court “Yato Dharma Tato Jaya” and yes indeed, it has been the triumph of good intentions over motivated censorship and of truth over might. Once again, let’s not forget who said it fist – Chaitanya Kunte !!

 

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Manohar Seetharam

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