Military Leadership and Trial by Media

Health  of democracies is directly proportional to the degree of independence  enjoyed by their media. If India thrives as a vibrant democracy, a  great deal of credit goes to its media, both electronic and print. It  has been highly active in exposing weaknesses in governance and decay  in societal standards. Even Indian military has not escaped its  inquisition. Being a vital instrument of the government that consumes  considerable resources, the military is as answerable to countrymen  as any other public institution. Therefore, there can be no two  opinions about subjecting military to public scrutiny.

Media  coverage of any episode can be broadly divided into three phases. As  the phases invariably overlap, they cannot be distinctly delineated.  However, their distinctiveness can be easily discernible by their  dissimilar attributes. They are as follows:-

Breaking News Phase. It is the phase in which the opening salvo is fired. As limited facts are available in public domain, conjectures are flashed as      news from ‘reliable sources’. Every media house tries to      sensationalize the issue by inventing imaginative and sometimes      totally unrelated headlines to outdo others in TRP ratings. Though      unfair to the affected people, media can be pardoned for such      misdemeanors to some extent as it becomes a professional compulsion      for them to make an impact. Thus this phase is characterized by      half-truths and speculation.

Detailed Coverage Phase. This is generally a much longer phase during which the events/issues are analyzed repeatedly by inviting ‘experts’. Some media houses      do try to moderate their stance as more facts get revealed and they      become aware of the truth. In a subtle manner, they accept their      earlier mistake and try to make amends. However, their number is      highly limited. Most media houses find it undignified to change      track and continue to harp on half-truths to justify their earlier      stand and coverage. They continue with the vilification of hapless      victims, despite availability of newer information to the contrary.      Ego ruling over ethics is the hall mark of this phase.

Closure      Phase.      No media entity has ever bothered to analyze an issue/occurrence in      retrospect to correct its earlier coverage and communicate truth to      the environment. Such introspection can help media become aware of      pitfalls of unsubstantiated reporting and thereby protect its      credibility. It will also help redeem the reputation and provide      solace to victims of its smear campaign to some extent. To admit      mistakes requires a great deal of sensitivity for others and Indian      media has yet to attain that state of maturity. Unfortunately, this phase is conspicuous by its absence.

As  there is a very thin line that separates investigative coverage from  unfounded vilification, media houses readily sacrifice truth and  objectivity to grab maximum publicity and viewership. In many cases,  need for sensationalism forces media to create media hype by coining  highly outrageous and absurd slogans. Terms like 'Ketchup Colonel,'  'Booze Brigadier' and 'Frisky General' are decidedly unfair and  derogatory.

As  soldiers are very conscious of their public image, unfair media  coverage causes immense pain to them. Two cases (the Sukhna land case  and the Adarsh Society case) in recent times have dented the image of  the army officers and shown them as unethical and scheming persons  for monetary gains. As reasonable time has passed and considerable  specifics of the cases are available in the public domain, it will be  educative to review them with respect to the above mentioned three  phases.

Sukhna  Land Case

The  whole case revolves around issuance of ‘No Objection Certificate’  (NOC) by a Corps Commander for the construction of a residential  school for girls on a nearby privately owned piece of land by a civil  entrepreneur. He did not consider the proposed girls school to be a  security threat and issued the said NOC.

During  the ‘breaking-news’ phase, every media house tried to out-score  others by calling it by various names. They were unanimous in terming  it to be a scam of monumental proportions. Some channels went to the  ridiculous extent of estimating the value of land involved to further  sensationalize the issue. Rational thinking was sacrificed to garner  more publicity. The Army Headquarters (AHQ) added to the graveness of  the case by stating that the case had brought disgrace to the Army,  thereby obliquely accepting transgression and misconduct.

During  the ‘coverage phase’, truth started trickling out and many media  units softened their criticism. There were others who continued to  question the integrity of the commanders involved and virtually ran a  campaign for their conviction. AHQ chose to go along and failed to  put the whole case in the correct perspective to the nation. In a  first of its kind, the Corps Commander was ordered to be  court-martial led on seven charges including ‘intent to defraud’.  The General Court Martial (GCM), while dropping all the four charges  relating to ‘intent to defraud’, found him guilty on three counts  – issuance of NOC, signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)  with the entrepreneur and not keeping the superior Headquarters  informed.

As  per the media reports, words of the Presiding Officer of the Court  while pronouncing verdict were very revealing. He stated, “There  is no evidence that the accused could have gained anything or caused  injury to anyone… There  was no deceit or secrecy in the signing of the MoU.” On the  contrary, the Court noted the fact that efforts had been made to  safeguard the interests of the army by ensuring that the security was  not compromised and by seeking reservations for the students and  families of the army men in the proposed educational institution.  However, the Court found his failure to seek approval of Headquarters  Eastern Command to be an act ‘prejudicial to good order and  military discipline’.

A  corps commander is the second highest field commander in the  hierarchy of the Indian army, commands over 50,000 troops and is  assigned responsibility to ensure defence of a large tract of  national territory. GCM of a corps commander is no trivial matter. It  is certainly justified for acts of treason, cowardice or moral  turpitude but not for failure to keep higher authorities informed of  an administrative decision apparently taken ‘in good faith’. He  may deserve a reprimand but no country court-martials such a high  ranking military officer for an act of indiscretion and misplaced  initiative.

Regrettably,  not a single media house has considered it to be its moral duty to  carry out an honest closure of the issue by apprising its viewers of  the final developments. They should have called involved authorities  in their discussion programs and grilled them.  Was a Court of  Inquiry (C of I) warranted for this lapse and on what basis did it  recommend disciplinary action? Who suggested Summary of Evidence (S  of E) and who advised a GCM? On what evidence was the officer accused  of intent to defraud, a very serious allegation? Are the concerned  officers being held accountable for subjecting a senior military  commander to unwarranted humiliation and for unnecessarily bringing  disrepute to the army?

Adarsh  Society Case
No  other case has besmirched the image of the army as much as the Adarsh  case. During the ‘breaking news’, media went berserk tarnishing  the character and military reputation of retired service chiefs and  other senior commanders. The complete officer cadre of the services  was projected a bunch of unscrupulous and greedy characters. It was  alleged that a piece of defence land meant to rehabilitate  Kargil-widows had been misappropriated by a few service and defence  estate officers through falsification of records in order to  construct a residential building.

Although  it was a simple case of a few officers forming a society to seek  allotment of land from the state government, the media chose to call  it 'Kargil for Profit' scam and insisted that Kargil-widows had been  swindled out of their entitlement by devious officers. Worse, the  Defence Minister and the Chief of the Army Staff repeatedly asserted  that the land belonged to the defence ministry and vowed to take  action against the wrongdoers. It amounted to an implied admission of  culpability of the officers involved. The media attack was so vicious  and unrelenting that every serving and retired officer felt hurt,  slighted and let down.

Some  sane voices were heard during the follow up ‘coverage phase’.  However, many channels decided to continue with their misplaced  tirade against the service officers. Every group discussion  castigated the army leadership for falling standards. Retired service  chiefs were called land sharks and equated with land mafia. As is its  wont, AHQ failed to clarify matters to let the truth be known.

Multiple  enquiries and the court case have revealed many astonishing facts.  The defence ministry has admitted in an affidavit submitted to Mumbai  High Court that it has no record of the land in question to prove  ownership. It has also accepted receipt of a letter from the state  government in 1964 declining transfer of Block VI Backbay Reclamation  to the defence ministry. In addition, state government has repeatedly  claimed ownership of the land in the state assembly and justified its  sale to Adarsh society.

Where  does the case stand now? If the defence ministry has no records to  prove ownership of the land, why were the top defence officials  misleading the country? On what grounds has the army ordered  enquiries? What is its locus standi to question purchase of land by a  society from the state government? As regards grant of environmental  clearance and other sanctions, it is purely a matter related to  civilian governance and is being investigated by the civil agencies.  It is time media initiates ‘closure phase’ and hauls every single  authority that alleged misappropriation of defence land before its  viewers. They should be asked to explain reasons for making false  claims and denigrating the officer cadre.

Military  leadership is very conscious of its public standing and highly  sensitive to unfair character-assassination. Undoubtedly, there are  some black sheep and they must be given exemplary punishment.

Three  suggestions are offered here. One, it should be obligatory for the  media to carry out an introspection through the ‘closure phase’.  It should have the moral courage to correct itself. In the process it  will gain credibility for itself. Two, retired service officers, who  are called by the electronic media as ‘experts’ for discussions  should apprise themselves of the rules and facts of the case  beforehand. They should advice restraint till enquiries unearth the  truth. Tendency to pass condemnatory comments without adequate  knowledge must be curbed. AHQ must keep the environment informed of  true facts of the case. It must realise that unwarranted media attack  on serving and retired officers dents the image of the army as an  upright institution.

Finally,  media coverage of Sukhna and Adarsh cases over the last two years  have caused immense pain to all serving and retired officers. Both  the media and AHQ have let them down. They have been made to feel  small in front of other segments of the society. It is unfair to look  for scams where none exists. Reputations once lost are very difficult  to redeem.

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