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Guest Column <br>Retrofit: Of Chinese incursions and media’s coverage of it

23-September-2009
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Guest Column <br>Retrofit:  Of Chinese incursions and media’s coverage of it

On Tuesday, the Chinese envoy met Home Secretary G K Pillai to downplay the reported Chinese incursions into Indian territory. Emerging from the meeting, he told reporters, “Listen to your leaders.” Telling, words those, given the media hype around the incursions. Last week, Zhang Yan met NSA MK Narayan and JS in charge of China, Vijay Gokhale, as part of a similar exercise. Simultaneously, over the last few days, the Government of India has gone on a massive drive to provide informed clarity on the status of the alleged Chinese incursions. Somewhere, I guess, the difference in the Chinese and Indian positions stems from the fact that both sides perceive the Line of Actual Control differently.

Now, rewind to The Times of India’s incursion story datelined Kolkata/Guwahati, which has created consternation in the Indian Government and Defence establishments. The story dealt with two ITBP jawans being injured in a border shootout. The story also stated that ITBP officials, when contacted, denied any such happening. The Kerang shootout has now become the biggest talking point in Delhi’s political underbelly.

For, as we know from past experience, China is not Pakistan, and India’s border with China is vast and complicated. Speculation has been rife that the Government has ticked off TOI and Times Now for war mongering, but there is no confirmation of the same. What the citizenry would like to know is whether this Chinese intransigence actually took place or not. Were two jawans injured in the firing from across the Line of Actual Control? And most importantly, is there a cover up taking place?

With top Government machinery in overdrive and in camera briefings to top editors almost daily in the Rajdhani over the weekend, the media community in the Capital is abuzz. Lots of posers, which had no answers till the other day. Incidentally, I have checked with TOI insiders about the ITBP story and they told me that thorough due diligence was conducted before the story saw light of day. That could be bravado. Or they may well be right. Who knows? Smoke and mirrors then. But the truth needs to be told.

An interesting piece in rediff.com the other day may confirm some of our worst suspicions and perhaps throw light on this sensitive issue, which affects media in toto. But more on that later. Let us also understand that the Chinese threat is deeply embedded in our psyche. Equally, there is a deep seated fear in defence circles on the might of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Stratfor’s geopolitical diary, dated June 12, 2009, expounds on the imponderables between China and India leading to renewed tensions. It said, “Tensions between China and India have intensified in recent days, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Thursday rejecting recent Indian claims concerning increased border incursions from China. He called for Indian officials and media to temper their language and work toward cooperative relations.”

“Qin’s comments followed repeated (and frequently misquoted) statements from Arunachal Pradesh Governor JJ Singh, who previously served as head of the Indian Army. Singh, who has been an outspoken opponent of China’s growing presence at Arunachal Pradesh’s borders, claimed that India would deploy “two Army divisions comprising 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers each” along with 155 mm guns, helicopters and unmanned aircraft to the Sino-Indian border ‘within a few years’.

“Those comments touched off a string of anti-India editorials on Thursday in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper, which covers international and domestic affairs and is widely distributed among China’s research and policy communities. With headlines like ‘India’s Unwise Military Moves’, the paper criticised India’s behaviour and warned against challenging China on the border. One editorial included an unusual, condescending jab, saying that India might think it is doing Beijing a “huge favor simply by not joining the ‘ring around China’ established by the United States and Japan”, but that China would not defer to New Delhi on territorial disputes out of “fear and gratitude” for India’s restraint. Underscoring the tensions, the paper on the same day presented the results of an online survey conducted at huanqiu.com, showing that 90 per cent of respondents considered India a threat to China. Interesting, no? Illuminating would be a better word to describe this. For Stratfor is considered a foremost global conflict strategy think tank.

Now, as promised, let the former Principal Information Officer Rammohan Rao writing in rediff.com take up the narrative, “During the weekend, media organisations in the country were ticked off for having overplayed the Chinese ‘incursions’ in Ladakh. The National Security Advisor, Foreign Secretary and the Chief of Army Staff said there was no justification for the reports published in the newspapers, and projected in the audio-visual media.”

“Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said in her briefings that there was no ‘significant increase’ in the number of Chinese incursions in all sections of the Line of Actual Control. National Security Advisor MK Narayanan expressed concern over the ‘media hype’ and said if such coverage continued, ‘someone somewhere might lose his cool and something might go wrong’.”

Rammohan Rao, who as PIO must have dealt with such situations many a time, has a most interesting take, which I would like to reproduce for the benefit of our readers. He says, “It is time those who are occupying positions of authority to learn to follow the existing rules in communicating the situation along the border, rather than going to the ‘media’ whenever they see a camera in front of them. In case of events having an impact on relations with foreign countries, the news is given by the Foreign Office spokesperson. The Press Information Bureau and the External Publicity Division are on the same floor in Shastri Bhavan in New Delhi and they are in regular touch with the Media Advisor to the Prime Minister.”

He then goes on to say, “While important information is released centrally, when incidents occur on the border, rules lay down which authority could give information without delay to ensure that the adversary will not have an advantage in the information warfare. The Chiefs of the armed forces are not expected to interact with the media, except on special occasions like the Army Day, the Navy Day and the Air Force Day. They do make speeches on occasions like passing out parades and commissioning ceremonies, but they are expected not to make casual statements on the ‘sidelines’ of functions.”

“Recently, we have had a former Naval Chief projecting that India is facing a major threat from China. To correct the impression, he made further statements, which caused a great deal of embarrassment to the Government. Even today, the service chiefs give ‘bytes’ on the sidelines of every function. The Army Chief has been speaking of ‘infiltration’ across the India-Pakistan border and the Line of Control many times during the month and during the weekend chose to give a ‘byte’ at a passing out parade in Chennai to dispel reports regarding incidents on the India-China border.”

It is his last paragraph, which is most damning. He virtually launches a broadside against the Government, “It is time the Government stops blaming the media. No newspaper or television channel can allow any delay in reporting news. There is fierce competition among newspapers and also among various television news channels. The controversy has been building up with China protesting against the proposed visit of Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. One’s mind goes back to 1962, when the Government of India spoke of ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ and the Chinese attacked the country. If newspapers are wary of our northern neighbour, do not blame them. It was logical. The NSA, too, said that India is different today than what it was in 1962… The answer to the current controversy is that officials in the Government, whether in the Civil Services or the Armed Forces, follow the laid down guidelines, and release information as quickly as possible. The media will not then ‘overplay’ the events. But it will always be wary of the Dragon.”

Thought provoking, eh! The bottomline is that TOI and the Government need to come clean on this matter. More importantly, Times Now needs to temper down the rhetoric, tone down the volume. I used to like Arnab Goswami as an anchor, but lately, Times Now seems to have become a hostage to its own lingua franca, that of ratcheting up the pitch.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.

The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)

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