< Detailed Coverage


Friday, December 05, 2008

From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The gunmen who terrorized Mumbai nearly two weeks ago now were well armed, not just with weapons but with communications technology and the know-how to use it. It was, as Emily Wax observed in The Washington Post, terrorism in the digital age, planned with Google Earth maps, navigated with GPS equipment and coordinated with BlackBerrys, Voiceover Internet Protocol and a succession of cell phones.

Once the attacks were underway, others rushed in to cover the story with their own BlackBerrys and cell phones, along with the videocameras of several global news channels and dozens of Indian ones.

Let's start there. India’s local stations were criticized for reporting perhaps too well on the movements of government commandos, so much so that local authorities shut them down for 45 minutes early in the attacks.

Arnab Goswami is the chief editor of India’s largest national news station, Times Now. He says the public breathed in the coverage like air, and when it was cut, the response was -
Massive, massive. I was inundated with phone calls. Every single phone was ringing. People were watching us so closely that if we were off for five seconds they would react, because cable and satellite television is largely the only form of receiving information at a time like this.

Very few people in India in a live situation actually go to the Internet to find out what’s happening, so you actually cut off the main source of information.

But I must appreciate the role of the government in Delhi, which the moment we brought it to their notice they immediately acted, sent a message to the police and made sure that we were up within 15 minutes of the official complaint going on.
But weren't you concerned that, in fact, the terrorists were monitoring those broadcasts?
I spoke live, on the course of my coverage, to several foreign nationals who were, in fact, inside the hotel, so when I asked them whether they were getting TV, they said, no. There are now some reports that they had BlackBerrys with them through which they accessed some of the Western media, especially the British media.

But the fact is that there were briefings from the army, from the heads of the police forces, and besides that information which was coming from official credible sources. The media was only reporting in terms of eyesight and earsight.

Why people are sort of, you know, asking questions about the media is because they are not used to seeing this kind of urban warfare in India. Terrorism in India has always been the kind of phenomenon in which a bomb goes off suddenly. It’s not captured on camera. You have never had a situation for a prolonged period of time.

You've had a live televised, you know, encounter going on, but I don't think in those three days we really gave any information away.
But weren't you among the heads of several stations that told your anchors to stop reporting on the positions of commandos?
Yes, I, I personally did that. I anchored for 65 hours, and on several occasions I did stop my reporters on air live, from giving some information which they felt was breaking news at that point of time, but which could have left us open to the charge of giving information away.

And this is against a particular backdrop which I'd like to share with you. India has had a largely, you know, closed media with only state-run television for 40 years after its independence – that’s 1947 to ’87. The television media in its present form and private TV channels are only 10 years old. And the power of the television media and news channels is something that sometimes even scares the government.

And we are going through a phase when, on the one hand, the government wants to put a content code on top of us which would make every police inspector have some power over every news channel. We want to fight that situation. We are fighting for self-regulation, and it is very important that we don't give the opportunity for anyone in the government to accuse us of giving away these kind of details.

That was uppermost in my mind when, on several occasions, I stopped my reporters from giving away such information.

And on Thursday when, I suppose, the heads of dozens of television stations in Mumbai got together to discuss the situation, what was the main topic?
You must keep in mind that there has been tremendous criticism of politicians in India. There’s a great frustration among people that the politicians have let them down and not acted on intelligence information. Perhaps the government’s on the defensive.

So the government’s given out an advisory. Part of the advisory is seen as taking away the role that editors need to have of deciding what news to carry and what not to carry. And so, one part of the chat was how to deal with that. The second part was a free and independent exchange of views on what the learnings are from this entire issue, and the more complicated subjects that have come up in the process, such as should we take interviews with terrorists on television if they're available on the phone? How far should we go?

I must share with you the responsibility of the TV media was quite evident to me, and this was just day before yesterday. There were a lot of explosives found at one of the main railway stations where the first shoot—out, in fact, took place. And just about a kilometer from there, there were thousands and thousands of people out in a very peaceful gathering at the Gateway of India. And that information was actually broadcast by a TV channel.

And when I made a phone call to five or six other channel heads, asking them to pull back that information about a bomb being found because it could just lead to a stampede, within seconds all the channels took back that information.

What point I'm trying to make is that there’s a very proactive attitude towards the responsibility of the media among news channels. What we are trying to do is ensure that this stays with us and that the government does not use a situation such as this to clamp us down.
There has been some suggestion that many Indian television stations now are whipping up a great deal of anger between Muslims and Hindus, and also against Pakistan. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
I don't think so. I can understand some of the reports that could be coming to you could represent the more extreme views of the Indian media, but let me tell you, it is a very, very, very mature, balanced, serious coverage which is going on here.

In fact, I personally host the most-watched 9 p.m. show here in India, and I said it on the last three episodes, and I've always ended by saying that warmongering is not going to get India anywhere, because here in this country there is a war. It could just spiral out of control.

So I think the responsibility is very much there, not just me, but with every single member, largely, of the Indian media.
And if there’s one message you'd take from this whole horrible experience, what would it be?
We need to be more prepared, both in the media and in the government. Obviously, this got all of us hugely by surprise. We didn't know what we were dealing with. What we need right now is an immediate coordination mechanism, information dissemination mechanism, so that there is no hype, there is no hysteria, there is no false information, God forbid should something like this happen again.
Thank you so much.
My pleasure talking to you.
Arnab Goswami is chief editor of Times Now, an English-language news channel in India.