How a section of media sensationalized Northern Command Chief’s statement

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Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C) Northern Command, addresses media after presenting scholarships to students of Jammu & Kashmir under project Sadbhavana, at Udhampur district of Jammu and Kashmir on May 20, 2019. (Photo: PTI)

There’s an old saying in media circles that news is worth reporting only when a man bites a dog and not vice versa. This may now sound hackneyed. But then, how else can you describe media’s brazen attempts to fish in troubled waters with such insensitivity; such that instead of reporting an important event it chooses to utilise a comment made on its sidelines concerning an unrelated issue? This is exactly what happened when newspapers carried a report stating that while replying to a question during a press conference on May 21, General Officer Commanding in Chief (GoC-in-C) Northern Command, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh had stated that the September 2016 surgical strike carried out by Indian Army against terrorist launch pads located in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) was the first of its kind. 

Since the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had already stated that there was no record of any surgical strike carried out by Indian Army prior to September 2016, there was nothing new in what Lt Gen Singh had said. Furthermore, since Lt Gen Singh had only drawn attention of the media to the statement already issued by Directorate General of Military Operations (DGMO) and steered clear of any comments that could be misconstrued as being political in nature, this certainly wasn’t a ‘man bites dog’ or ‘breaking news’ type of situation. All he said on this issue was,”A few days ago, DGMO said in a reply to an RTI that the first surgical strike happened in September 2016. I don’t want to go into what political parties say, they will be given an answer by the government. What I have told you is a statement of fact.” 

Readers would agree that there is nothing controversial in what Lt Gen Singh has stated. It is also amply clear that the question posed by the journalist was ‘politically loaded’ since it was in reference to Congress party’s recent claim that the Indian Army had carried out six surgical strikes when the UPA was in power, which the MoD had already refuted. Therefore, Lt Gen Singh sagaciously drew the scribe’s attention to official response of the army on this subject, thereby avoiding any chances of scandalous inferences being drawn. Regrettably, even this matter-of-fact reply didn’t prevent the media from turning a statement that was completely devoid of any contentious content into a sensational news report. Resultantly, instead of the main Project Sadbhavana event during which financial assistance was extended to 71 deserving students of Jammu and Kashmir from ‘Below Poverty Line’ {BPL} category, it was the press conference held on sidelines that hogged the limelight than the scholarship award function.

It’s obviously the media’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism that spurred journos to give an innocuous statement the tone and tenor of a politically charged comment in order to sensationalise the issue, which is rather unfortunate. Since practical experience has taught us the import of Texas Guinan’s view that “A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country,” it doesn’t hurt so much when netas seek to extract political mileage out of the achievements of our armed forces. But the situation becomes worrisome and depressing when media, which the public adulates for being society’s watchdog starts indulging in or encourages sensationalism. Reproduced below are certain captions and excerpts that reveal the extent to which some newspapers and news portals can go just in order to create catchy captions:

  •  “Army contradicts Congress’ claim, says it carried out first surgical strike in September 2016 to avenge Uri,” reads one caption that conveys an erroneous impression that the Indian Army was exceeding its brief by getting involved in a pre-poll war of words between political parties.
  • Another report claims that “Lt Gen Ranbir Singh’s statement appeared to contradict one made by his predecessor Lt Gen (retd.) DS Hooda, who oversaw the 2016 surgical strikes.” But the article doesn’t even hint at, let alone amplify as to what the “contradiction” exactly was! Since Lt Gen Hooda (retd.) is currently associated with Congress, this misleading caption unnecessarily creates doubts in minds of readers and fuels rumours that the government is hiding something.
  • A news site published the report with a rather offensive caption that stated “BIG Embarrassment For Congress: Army Contradicts UPA-era Surgical Strikes Claim, Says First Was Conducted In September 2016.” While the statement may be ‘technically correct’, the fact is that it was not Lt Gen Singh but the DGMO who had made this statement nearly two weeks earlier in reply to an RTI query.
  • Another news report had the caption “Embarrassment for Congress: ‘India conducted first surgical strike in 2016’, confirms Northern Army commander.” Here again, it would be pertinent to note that all the Northern Army Commander did was to quote the DGMO’s statement and this cannot be construed as a “confirmation” under any circumstances.

While the media has all the rights to use journalistic liberties in the interests of positive reporting and conveying a social message, but unbridled sensationalism beyond can prove to be dangerous. Readers would recall that during the recent ICJ hearings, Pakistan’s lawyer Khawar Qureshi cited articles written by three renowned Indian journalists in order to strengthen Islamabad’s trumped-up case of espionage against Kulbhushan Jadhav and implicate him.

Therefore, with inimical forces lurking everywhere, isn’t there a need for the fourth estate to be a bit more careful while ‘sprucing up’ news reports so as to avoid the scope of these being misused by vested interests to generate negativity?

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