Most defence officers, in presentations to media delegations mention that they view media as a ‘Force Multiplier’. Essentially, they see us in the media as people working towards upholding and enhancing national interest, just like they do.
But recently I got a good chance of realising how this ‘Force Multiplier’ theory is more lip service than anything concrete. And that days of such partnership between media and our forces are quite far away, to say the least.
There are mistakes at both ends and we only need to have more of them so that we improve in our approaches.
The nation reacted with shock on learning about the untimely death of Rear Admiral SS Jamwal, Chief of Staff (COS), Southern Command, Kochi on Wednesday. As a reporter on the beat, I dropped everything else and began on the phone by 1100hrs as soon as the preliminary info trickled in.
And I hit a wall with whoever I communicated! Understandable, given that the death took place around 1030hrs and it was no ordinary death. I kept on. With tidbits emerging from friends serving in Kochi, I managed to put out a brief what-perhaps-took-place type of report.
What made things a little more interesting than usual was the deceased person’s profile. Before he took over this assignment at Kochi, he was the Defence Attache (DA) at the Indian Embassy in Moscow, Russia. Not just that, he was also Director, Naval Operations at the MoD (Navy). And with the recent expose over alleged wrongdoings in the purchase of Admiral Gorshkov (in Russia) and the arrest of main accused Ravi Sankaran in London, this May in the Navy war room leak in MoD (Navy), this man might well have been at the hotspots at the right (or wrong) time. So, clearly here was a high-profile man whose death would and should be scrutinised.
Needless to explain, there was speculation in the air, especially in the absence of an official version. Murmurs of suicide, killings at the behest of someone etc were doing the rounds. I must say despite all this, media simply raised questions and did not pay heed to theories and jump to conclusions.
1253hrs and a press release is issued by the Southern Naval Command. For the fire that it was meant to douse, my opinion of the release was that it hardly said anything. Take a look:
Rear Admiral SS Jamwal, Chief of Staff, Southern Naval Command has expired in an accident in the small arms firing range at INS Dronacharya, Kochi. The incident occurred at about 10:30 AM today. An inquiry has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the accident.
How did the accident happen? Where was his staff? How can an officer of such a position simply perish this way? Were people in the firing range not aware of his presence there? Was he not aware of the firing taking place there? Did he mishandle a weapon? Could an officer of his position actually mishandle a weapon? Was the weapon given to him not a properly checked weapons? These constitute the 5Ws and 1H and a little more that journalists always want answers to.
These equations playing out in my mind, I approached navy’s media managers. Subsequently, I conceded that since the inquiry is on, it may not be prudent to seek answers to all questions. Alrite. I settled to my request of providing a sound byte mentioning the details of the incident. What I got as a response stunned me. “At such a occassion, it is not right to provide a soundbyte. We don’t feel it is appropriate,” the officer told me. I reiterated that all he had to do was to actually read out the basics to me since television is a medium that demands such a mode. But that officer would have none of that reasoning. Force multipliers for sure.
It was clear to me, and to all other journalists pursuing this case, that the navy did not wish we cover more on the case or that is what the impression they communicated to the media at large. Sensing this approach, speculation snowballed. Anchors on tv screens, in the prolonged absence of even basic answers, began giving a little more space to the probability of these theories. Channel after channel, journalist after journalist started sensing this reticence on the navy’s side. It got tongues wagging and eyebrows to rise. Clearly the move to muzzle the media by not cooperating backfired.
RESULT: The same officer, who did not wish to see reason, called up. He sounded a little frantic. May be he had a long list of journalists to call. “Jugal, we have a press briefing arranged. It will happen in Kochi and a senior officer (Commodore rank) will talk to the media,” he informed. Subsequently, at 1700 Cmde. MR Ajayakumar, Naval Officer In-Charge (NOIC), Kerala state interacted with journalists. And this time it was not dry, lip service stuff. It was a much detailed briefing actually informing the nation via media as to how something like this actually took place.
That version has appeared in most publications and channels. And that very version has gone a long way in dousing the fire I mentioned was raging.
Question to be asked is whether the media will have to take aggressive stand for our authorities to come out and act responsible. Let us imagine had the media simply bought the first press release and kept quiet (I doubt if it ever would), how would it have justified its coverage of the death of one of country’s seniormost soldiers? And also, if the navy could at 1700hrs give these details, could it not have at least said that more details will follow instead of saying a blanket NO?
Clearly, for the media managers of the navy this incident must go down in the record books as a strictly avoidable one.
Please let me know what is it that you think? Brickbats and bouquets, both are welcome.