An army jawan has died after a journalist decided to conduct a “sting operation” that allegedly compromised his identity. The unfortunate incident has once again thrown up the issue of shoddy journalism vs safety of security forces for debate. And when you talk about “shoddy journalism”, you think of Barkha Dutt.
“Shoddy Journalism” was the title of a blog post written by a blogger named Chyetanya Kunte during the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. In his post, Kunte criticised the media, especially controversial journalist Barkha Dutt, who was then with NDTV. Subsequently, Kunte received a legal notice, and he proceeded to delete the blog post and issue an apology to Barkha Dutt and NDTV.
The apology and the original blog post content are available at this page released by the WikiLeaks.
The blog post basically argued that the live telecast and live commentary by the media and the journalists, especially by Barkha Dutt, during the counter terror operations was completely irresponsible as it only seemed to help the terrorists and their handlers.
Around 3.5 years after Kunte was bullied into tendering an apology, the Supreme Court of India made similar scathing comments about media’s role and reporting during the Mumbai terror attacks.
However, Barkha Dutt insists that the blog was defamatory in nature, especially because it contained a reference to the Kargil war, where Barkha is accused to have caused casualties on the Indian side as she gave away military locations in her broadcast. Kunte referred to this accusation based on a Wikipedia entry, which honestly was unfair to Barkha. Wikipedia can’t be treated as a primary source, though it is a wonderful repository of secondary sources. One has to double check the citations (sources) when reading up a Wikipedia entry.
However, there is another source, which can’t be just rejected by Barkha as made up claims by “trolls”, which shows that Barkha Dut’s reporting during the Kargil war irresponsible at least on one occasion.
This source is a book titled “Kargil: Turning the Tide” written by Lt Gen Mohinder Puri. A paragraph from this book is revealing, and the same was pointed out by a Twitter user Nikhil Sharma to Barkha Dutt, to support his claim that Barkha’s TV journalism has been irresponsible:
— Nikhil Sharma (@snikhil1979) February 28, 2017
Here is the relevant part from the book (emphasis added):
The sight of the artillery rounds falling on the objective made an awesome scene which remains etched in my memory till date. It has started raining lightly by the time I reached the ops room of HQ 192 Mtn Bde, and as the night progressed, the rain fell heavily and all our thoughts were for the men going in for the attack. At Tiger Hill it was snowing.
At about 2120 hours, the exchange operator gave a ring in the ops room asking for me. The Corps Cdr had wanted to speak to me urgently. When the call got connected, all in the ops room could make out that something serious was being discussed between us. On finishing, I looked at Col SVE David, Deputy Cdr of 56 Mtn Bde, who was also present, and asked him to find out if Barkha Dutt of NDTV, then Star Plus/News Channel, was anywhere in the vicinity or amongst the media witnessing the artillery fire on Tiger Hill.
We soon discovered that the young lady was giving a live commentary on the attack on Tiger Hill sitting right next to brigade traffic check post in Drass. I met her and after a few words of advice from me, she was told to proceed to an underground room and rest for the night. So much for secrecy of an operation! I had only informed the Corps Cdr of the date of the operation and he in turn for reasons of secrecy had not even informed the Army Cdr. Hence the surprise and concern over Barkha’s reporting.
From the above, it’s clear that Barkha Dutt’s reporting did spook the Army at least once during the Kargil war. Let us clarify again that this does not prove that Barkha’s reporting caused casualties on the Indian side, however, her reporting was a “concern” for the Army, so much so that a senior army officer had to be called up and asked to take the matter seriously. Her reporting was threatening to hurt the secrecy of the operations, the book hints at that.
Incidentally, Barkha Dutt was present when this book was launched in December 2015. For “obvious” reasons, neither Lt Gen Puri nor anyone in the media pointed out to this part of the book. Instead, Lt Gen Puri lauded the media and Barkha Dutt for “bringing the war into our living rooms”. Even in the same book, Lt Gen Puri acknowledges that barring the aforementioned incident, Barkha’s reporting was excellent.
War reporting is never easy. It involves risks to one’s own security as well as it requires having the sound judgment to assess what information could be too sensitive to broadcast. Kargil war experience should have made Barkha mature about these aspects. After Lt Gen Puri had a word that night about her, she should have learnt the importance of secrecy of an operation and how a “live commentary” threatens to compromise that.
Yet, about a decade later, she was accused of doing the same during the Mumbai terror attacks (26/11). And she responded by sending a legal notice and asking the blogger to apologise.
After the Supreme Court too agreed that media’s role during the 26/11 was irresponsible and dangerous, media and Barkha Dutt started singing a different tune. In an interview in 2015, she said:
However on 26/11, I would like to add that there were some unwitting mistakes made by all of us as journalists. Unwitting. We didn’t calculate that there were handlers monitoring our broadcast in real time, no one from the government told us either.
Seriously? You need government to tell you that after pretty early in your career, a top army official told you what could compromise secrecy and safety during a military operation? How is “broadcast in real time” different from “live commentary” that Lt Gen Puri talks about in his book?
Perhaps Barkha may claim that there were no live TV (OB vans, etc.) and mobile phones during the Kargil war, which is true, but there were Iridium phones (same as the one used by army men) that were used to do live commentary by the media. In interviews like this, Barkha agrees to have used such phones.
In fact, Barkha often claims that using Iridium phones didn’t compromise safety of the army as army too was using those, but the book written by Lt Gen Puri is very clear that the way Barkha used them was a concern for the army at least once.
Furthermore, if a live commentary using limited technology back in 1999 could concern the army, modern technologies by 2008 surely meant media should have been even more careful in their live telecast. A journalist like Barkha Dutt shouldn’t need some babu in government tell her that after years of experience. But Barkha chooses to put the onus on government for 26/11 while insisting that her Kargil reporting was spotless.
Maybe Barkha Dutt needs another court judgment after which she will accept that she did commit some mistakes during the Kargil war, just like she accepted mistakes by media after Supreme Court broadly agreed with what Kunte had written. Till then, journalism will continue to mean ‘never having to admit that you could be wrong’.