Reporting intelligence - a reporter's dilemma

BY Josy Joseph| IN Media Practice | 22/02/2010
At many times in recent years journalistic perspectives have been shaped by lobbies that are active within the agencies, thus distorting the overall picture.
JOSY JOSEPH on the challenges facing a reporter covering the intelligence agencies.

Presented at the Foundation for Media Professionals Dialogue on February 18, 2010, Delhi:  "Can IB and Raw be accountable--a case for media scrutiny and legislative oversight."


Indian intelligence agencies have had an unenviable task since Independence. With limited assets, they have constantly been called upon to assess the hostile intentions of major neighbours, the volatility of smaller ones, and to figure out some of the world's oldest and most challenging insurgencies. Reporting about these agencies, which are obsessed with secrecy, is no  privilege for a reporter.  

Thanks to their obsessive secrecy, we reporters only have very peripheral knowledge of them, and wherever we claim deep insights they are shaped by the agencies or vested interests within them. Worse, at many times in recent years, journalistic perspectives have been shaped by lobbies that are active within the agencies, thus distorting the overall picture. While a particular lady officer is an efficient officer and a victim of harassment for one lobby, for the other she is a mentally challenged person out to embarrass herself and her agency.  

Given the complexities of the challenges facing the agencies, these are tiring times for reporters wanting to write about the secret world of intelligence. So my remarks would be coloured by the distortions and ignorance, but the intent is to draw your attention to the larger challenges facing a reporter writing on intelligence agencies. To understand the relationship between intelligence agencies and reporters, I think it is crucial to have a holistic assessment of the environment in which the two operate.

Without exception national institutions are all facing the same challenges in today’s India ??" a crisis of credibility, significant erosion of professionalism, ineffective oversight, and disappearing merit. As they together drag forward what we claim to be the world’s largest democracy, justified mostly by our ability to hold regular elections, the space for democratic debates and spirited dissent are vanishing. The contribution of intelligence agencies and media to this disturbing reality is significant. 

As journalists writing on intelligence agencies most of us are guilty of taking part in what appears like a grand conspiracy to subvert democratic rights, but in reality it is mostly a result of daily error of judgments, petty manipulations by agencies and lack of resources with media to carry out its own independent verifications. I am not ignoring the success of media in some instances especially in bringing some corrupt to justice, thanks to spirited leaks from the intelligence agencies.  

In the past couple of decades or more, especially since Kashmir militancy started in the late 80s, the relationship between intelligence agencies and media has had significant adverse impact on democracy and individual liberty. They together have justified the spilling of much innocent blood, created deep biases especially against some sections of the society, and crowded out debates, especially on terrorism. Together they have bullied out the liberal spaces, further facilitating the rise of the politics of intolerance, so well practiced today in Mumbai, Mangalore and elsewhere. 

Eroding Professionalism

 Some of India's finest intelligence officers have been from the Indian Police Service. But the dominance of IPS lobby and the resultant "law and order" culture has had significant adverse impact on credible intelligence gathering and processing in India. The law and order culture forces our agencies to hunt for ‘credible’ stories, not dependable inputs and leads. This is why the claims of security and intelligence circles on several of the bomb blasts in recent memory have been bizarre.

This is also why fringe groups such as those of Colonel Purohit were able to operate with immunity for far too long. The deep-rooted bias that terrorists are from a certain community held back institutions and individuals from thinking rationally when mosques and Muslims localities were being bombed. That law and order mentality, which is significantly dependant on public approval, especially from the media and political class, was also visible when the Mumbai police came out with their absurd claims on 2006 train blasts. Same was the case with first bomb blast in Malegaon

As the intelligence operatives shed professional standards of clinically analysing available evidence and cultivate dependable sources, the result is false leads, innocents as terrorists and a lot of blood on our streets. Media has to take a significant portion of the blame for nurturing this falsified intelligence game, which has also partially sullied the image of some brilliant operatives.  

This was evident in large measure over the past decade, especially since the Kandahar hijack of 1999. It was a turning point. After that, the trigger happy cops across states hunted down ‘terrorists’ and large sections of the media applauded them as national heroes. The fact is that there have been worrying questions about the many Kashmiri youth arrested in Nepal and handed over to Indian intelligence agencies. Where are they? Were they among those killed in our cities as dreaded terrorists? Even when some of us raised these questions, there wasn’t any public response, or proper answers. 

For years the intelligence apparatus refused to look at the possibility of anyone outside of the jihadis carrying out attacks in our cities, even when credible evidence were available. The mindset of decades, built on a hatred of Pakistan, and reaffirmed by Kashmir, have only helped them to ignore the threat of other fringe groups. These mindsets have led to many avoidable blasts. 

This deep-rooted bias of the security agencies has now actually become the corner-stone of a politics stream. So even when there are serious questions about an encounter or a police officer, this particular political stream jumps into defend the security apparatus. It is disheartening, and dangerous in the long run for the larger society. Individual reporters, frightened by the lack of institutional support and fear of being targeted, increasingly prefer to go by the institutional claims. 

It is not just on terrorism that the agencies have failed to come up to the challenges. The rise of some commercial firms with dubious funding sources, the presence of key political leaders with links to underworld and other anti-social elements are also significantly because the agencies’ failure to investigate and bring out the real picture.  

Not all blame is to be laid at the doorsteps of the intelligence agencies. Vested interests within the government work like an oligarchy, effectively sidelining intelligence agencies from playing a decisive role in decision making especially where financial interests and political power are involved. And thus some of those dubious firms have emerged as shining examples of India’s economic liberalization, and enjoy patronage of powerful political leaders. A society ruled by nuances of written law, ignoring the larger moral issues, is doomed to chaos.

 Media Circus 

While the intelligence agencies were reaffirming their biases and failed to come up to the challenges of terrorism and other issues of national significance, the media had taken a decisive turn towards sensationalism and the race for TRPs (television rating points). Unlike in the past, when media at least stopped a moment to question the logic of intelligence claims, we seem to lap up everything we are served, whether absurd or not.  

So, the story of a single paraglide bought by a Pakistani from China gets reported as over 30 paraglides being shipped out of Europe to Pakistan by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. 

Ever since the Mumbai attacks, the media has been regularly reporting national alerts, hijack threats, claims about the Al Qaeda sneaking into India, ships carrying nuclear weapons and other sensational claims. The nation commits innumerable resources to take precautions, TV channels race for TRPs, and by evening newspapers are forced prominently play up those claims. Frankly, behind most of these alerts are the deficiencies of our intelligence apparatus. Almost all the public alerts post-Mumbai attacks have been based on inputs provided by the US agencies. Neither does the intelligence agency verify on its own, nor does the media.  

The reality is that except for very few bold steps by some officials, generally our intelligence apparatus has failed to make significant inroads into the biggest threat facing this country??"terror groups based in Pakistan. The only dependable inputs they have are intercepts, but today even those are scarce.  

Media has not helped the cause. The TV journalists are prisoners of a vicious TRP race, where they do not know if the viewer wants facts, screams or fiction. And in fact, some successes among TV channels seem to reaffirm the fact that it is superstition, screaming anchors and absurdity that viewers prefer to mature reporting. By evening, we are all slaves of those words uttered on TV, newsrooms resembling stadium stands where crazy fans are constantly staring at the playfield, biting nails and sharing the tension on the field. In the middle, on the ground are our TV news channels.

 Way out 

Reforms mooted by home minister P Chidambaram may not be the panacea for preparing the agencies for a more robust future. While the creation of a National Counter Terrorism Centre and other reforms would significantly improve efficiency at the top level, the situation in the field is quite pathetic. The field operatives are a demoralized lot, as the IPS lobby dominates Indian intelligence agencies.  

It is surprising that even today the government treats intelligence largely as a law and order issue. It is not. Intelligence is the ability to gather, analyze and act upon issues that can be from any part of the 360 degree view of life??"it is significantly economic, technological, religious, and so on. The agencies need to reinvent with far more diverse group of officers, with various capabilities and qualifications, and they also have to reinvent the art of analysis.

The other significant necessity is the need for a strong oversight for the intelligence agencies. Parliamentary oversight could be the first welcome step to begin with. Such audits would at some level force them to adopt a far more professional approach, and help media get better inputs. Parliamentary oversight is not an overnight solution, and it would have to overcome strong resistance from within and outside.  

But the first step needed is a more transparent interface between the media and agencies. A firm first step in this direction could be an empowered Public Denials Officer. That Orwellian approach would be a wonderful idea to improve the standard of media coverage of intelligence agencies. If they cannot give news, they should at least deny.  

If they cannot tell us how many paraglides have been bought by LeT, they must at least tell us 30 have not been bought. If they cannot tell us who bombed Mecca Masjid and Malegaon, they must at least tell us that there is no evidence to point fingers at Lashkar-e-Toiba. Or else, as reporters on to the battlefront do, we will first try and send all the news, if not all the rumours. Unfortunately, more of the latter is getting into the media these days.


Josy Joseph is Associate Editor, DNA



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