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The media and Mumbai

MumbaiThe three-way rift between mainstream media, so-called citizen journalists and government is by no means exclusive to this country. Here's a piece from Variety about the controversy over media performance during the three-day siege in Mumbai last week. The government at one point during the attack actually blacked out Indian television, arguing that it was aiding the terrorists holed up in Mumbai hotels. And bloggers and Twitter users are bragging that they were first and fastest with a lot of the news.

It will take some time to sort out this debate; we still don't have a comprehensive account of exactly what happened or why. Three days after the shooting stopped, even as fundamental a fact as the casualty count is still hazy, with the numbers fluctuating between 170 and 200, and some reports claiming it may be as high as 300 when all the bodies have been retrieved from the charred Indian hotels where much of the battle took place.

My guess is that, in the end, Indian journalists will be found to have done a better job than Indian security forces. (For instance, read this account by a news photographer who pointed out terrorists at a Mumbai train station and begged police to shoot them, to no avail. "What is the point of having policemen with guns if they refuse to use them?" he concludes. "I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera.")

The government sees it just the opposite. TV coverage "is causing impediment in the police action,  thereby endangering the lives of the police personnel as [well as] the hostages,” police officials said in ordering the TV blackout last week, without elaborating. But even if the government comes up with indisputable evidence that the terrorists were monitoring police tactics on television, the sensible solution would have been to cut off power to the hotels. Blacking out TV news accounts left most of Mumbai's 12 million citizens in the dark about their own safety as the focus of the attacks moved from one locale to another.

And blaming television for providing the terrorists with tactical information ignores all the other technologies available to them, including the Internet and telephones. In this day of satellite phones and Google Earth, the gunmen could have easily collected plenty of intelligence about police movements from terrorist leaders located outside Mumbai. (Indian authorities have already said they captured at least one satellite phone used by the gunmen.) In a world this wired, it's hard to pull the plug.

Of course, if the terrorists were getting their information from the Internet, it may have hurt more than it helped. The wealth of misinformation -- thousands of dead bodies, hijacked police vehicles spraying the streets with machine-gun fire, and plenty even more lurid and fantastic -- that flowed through Twitter during the siege was stunning. The reason it takes mainstream-media reporters longer to get stories out is that they try to confirm them. I know, it's old-fashioned. But it still works for me. 


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