privacy vs secrecy


Two recent developments bring home the increased opaqueness in our public affairs: the secrecy surrounding the health of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, and the details regarding the “surgical strikes” by the Indian Army across the Line of Control (LoC). These developments have opened the door to look at many professional difficulties confronting journalists.

One of the most frustrating elements in the two issues at hand is the impenetrable iron curtain that denies space for journalists to carry out the act of verification. While the people holding offices of power and responsibility are maintaining a studied silence (as in the case of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and her Cabinet), those in charge of the “surgical strikes” are unusually garrulous without providing any evidence for their claims. Neither the silence nor the excessive sound bites without convincing proof are good for democracy. The lack of a credible information flow has only opened the tap for rumours, speculations, even panic.

Right to privacy versus public interest

Importance of credible information

The “surgical strikes” across the LoC belongs to a category where almost all the big words and phrases have to be invoked — national interest, security, strategic depth, second strike capability, media as force multiplier, futility of restraint, use of force when diplomatic initiatives fail, no other alternative for a nation state, and offence as deterrence — yet there is no clarity on what happened. I belong to a small section influenced by Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce. Two memorable sayings of this alter ego of the Irish master in Ulysses are: “I fear those big words which make us so unhappy” and “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

I was pleased to see The Hindu’s editorial on this breach of restraint of the Indian state. First, the terms “surgical strike” and “pre-emptive strike” were used within quotation marks rather than as a statement of fact. Second, it flagged the major consequence of this act by saying, “India’s next steps, post-Uri, are in uncharted terrain, with New Delhi abandoning the self-proclaimed policy of ‘strategic restraint’ adopted in the face of earlier provocations by terrorists believed to be backed by Pakistan.” The editorial further said that “the Centre will need to articulate what it regards as the new normal — and indeed, how it hopes, or plans, to dissuade Pakistan from escalating the situation in turn.”

The “surgical strikes” were India’s response to the Uri attack and this has an uncanny similarity to Operation Parakram, which was launched after the terrorist attack on Parliament House in 2001. In 2004, General Padmanabhan, who led the Indian Army during Operation Parakram, explained in an exclusive interview to this newspaper that the “problems with India’s military doctrine, and a lack of clarity within the Union Cabinet and on its war objectives may have undermined Operation Parakram at the very outset”. It is worth remembering the casualty figures that were given by the then Defence Minister, George Fernandes, to the Indian Parliament: “The number of Army personnel killed or wounded in Jammu and Kashmir and the western sector during the mobilisation, Operation Parakram, from December 19, 2001 to October 16, 2002, was 1,874.”

The disturbing question for journalists in these two cases is the lack of credible and trustworthy information, which in the case of Ms. Jayalalithaa is spreading panic, and in the case of the “surgical strikes” foments jingoism. Journalism cannot be a collateral damage in a country that enacted the Right to Information Act more than a decade ago.