26/02/2019 2:13 PM IST | Updated 26/02/2019 2:34 PM IST

Balakot: Govt Leaves It To Friendly Media To Provide Strike Details

Journalists are letting the government gain political points for the strike without taking responsibility for information put out on the government's behalf.

PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images

NEW DELHI — When Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale read out a prepared statement on what he described as an “intelligence-led”, “pre-emptive”, “non-military” strike on Pakistani soil, he made clear he wouldn’t be taking in questions.

So no clarification on which “Balakot” this was — the one deep in Pakistani territory, or the one just across the border in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir?

No opportunity to ask questions like:

What were the estimated casualties on the ground?

What was the basis of these casualty estimates?

What was the nature of the intelligence that made this strike essential?

If we have such great intelligence, why didn’t we see the Pulwama attack coming?

Is bringing the sub-continent to the brink of all-out war, really the best possible response to the Pulwama attack?

The government’s reticence is understandable. No government likes to share details, particularly about a sensitive cross-border operation against a nuclear-armed neighbour.

It is our job, as the media, to compel them to share information and justify decisions that could lead to nuclear war: something that affects a lot more than Narendra Modi’s election prospects.

Fortunately for this government, a section of Indian journalists believe that the point of quoting “sources”, and accessing “leaks”, is to put out information in favour of the government.

This has allowed the government to milk the moment for political gains without having to take responsibility for the information that journalists are putting out on the government’s behalf.

Actually, the whole point of a “source” is get information that the government would not want out in the public.

Thus far, Saikat Datta’s piece in the Asia Times seems to be the only one to put sources to good use, where Datta notes:

Indian military sources confirmed to Asia Times that a raid had taken place. “However, it does seem like the Pakistanis were prepared and expecting something,” a senior military official said.

Minutes after Gokhale’s press conference, India Today had a “blow-by-blow” account claiming that the Air Force suggested cross-border raids the day after the Pulwama attack, and the government cleared it right away. This information is presumably intended to bolster Narendra Modi’s claims to be a decisive leader.

On Twitter, Shiv Aroor, the India Today journalist who wrote the copy, listed out the military equipment used in the attack — presumably to assure his readers of the authenticity of this information.

Meanwhile, Manu Pubby, a respected journalist who broke several important stories on the Augusta-Westland scam, lent credence to the totally unsubstantiated the claim that the strikes killed “300” terrorists.

The claim of “300 terrorists” is very useful, as it allows the government’s most vociferous supporters to claim that the government’s response that the deaths in Balakot are several multiples more than the deaths in Pulwama.

It is worth noting that Praveen Patil’s tweet — which can be dismissed as mere fantasy — comes three hours before Pubby’s tweet, which carries real weight because of his track record.

The claim of 300 deaths will undoubtedly be repeated several times over the next few months in BJP campaign rallies.

Lost in the noise will be one simple question: How do we know that 300, not 200, or 100, or even 50 people were killed in this strike? It is possible there is evidence to back this claim — but then that evidence needs to be put in front of readers.

To be sure, it isn’t only reporters on the defence beat who have served as mouth pieces for the defence establishment.

Senior journalists who really should know better have thrown all claims of objectivity to the winds.