A long, long time ago, before "300 terrorists killed" became a headline, before reporters were questioned on their patriotism whenever they asked a tough question, I had an encounter with a senior official which changed my view of official sources for good. And I've been thinking about him ever since India's airstrikes may or may not have killed more than 200 terrorists.
It was 2004, soon after the NDA was voted out for the UPA. The Central Bureau of Investigation or CBI was looking at various scams that erupted allegedly during the NDA's term and it was widely expected that they were about to file FIRs in the Tehelka bribery scam that showed then BJP President Bangaru Laxman accepting a bribe and Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitley also on camera allegedly accepting cash in former Defence Minister George Fernandes' residence on his behalf. My job was to confirm as soon as possible the details of this CBI action.
I was a relatively new reporter on the beat then and didn't know too many people. However, I did know the then CBI director, so apart from officials, I also spoke to him about CBI's plan of action. I remember very clearly asking him who all would be named in the FIR and him confirming that former minister Fernandes would be named. Now, you have to understand, when officials tell you this sort of detail, they also put in riders like "don't quote me'', "this is strictly confidential'' and other such deniables which means that under no circumstances, can you ever quote them for your story. He also gave me this information after much chasing, so I felt that I had managed to extract quite a scoop.
After consulting with editors, we ran the story about the planned action. And guess what? Two days later, the FIR was filed and while all other names tallied with our report, the Defence Minister who had resigned after the scandal was left untouched. I will never forget my deep embarrassment about the story - I had trusted a source and it was clear that I had been played. No wonder some of the investigating officers had not mentioned George Fernandes when I asked them for details. I couldn't figure out exactly why the director had misled me but I knew that I could never trust him again.
The thing about a source, which I knew but re-learnt that day, is that there are very few who give you information purely for public interest. The ones who give information for public interest do exist and I've had the privilege of knowing a couple, but they are few and far between. Most "sources'' are ones who have a hidden agenda and our job has always been to sift out the raw material, that is the information hidden behind that agenda, and build our stories.
Unfortunately, sometimes the 'agenda source' wins. It did in my case years ago and now it has again, with the government senior minister who claimed that 250-300 had been killed in the air strike at Balakot. Yes, those who reported that statement and the editors bear the responsibility and I hope are in deep introspection about why and how they got played. However, if a top minister tells you this sort of detail in front of other members of the press, can you ignore it? Or do you carry it the way it is presented, which is attribute it to "government sources"? After all, unlike my information from the CBI years ago, this was given in front of witnesses and so couldn't really be denied.
I think what's deeply problematic right now is not the fact that news organisations carried that 'planted information' which is what we call such agenda-driven leaks but that it continues to be used and isn't being challenged enough. BJP President Amit Shah cited "250 terrorists killed" at a political rally on the weekend, using a classic trick of propaganda - leak inaccurate information to news sources and then, after it is published, use that as validation of the 'fake news'. After him, the Agriculture Minister has done the same, in fact, he's inflated the figure. It's a classic trick that's used by governments across the world and is a problem that the media is tackling in the US with the Trump administration too.
By now, the BJP President's assertion of 250 being killed has been debunked not just by the Air Force Chief, but also by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when she said the government's position was the same as Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale's who simply said "a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated''. Obviously, "a very large number'' is a relative term and when used for terrorists, even a dozen could be a very large number in another context. What we do need to do is to question the opaqueness of these statements - is the BJP President right or the Defence Minister and the Foreign Secretary? It's easy for Home Minister Rajnath Singh to ask the Congress to go to Pakistan to count the bodies, but we need to tell him it's not just the opposition asking for clarity, it's the person on the street too.
It's tough to keep doing this when they question your patriotism every time you ask, when they equate you with the enemy, but we just need to step away from social media circles and go back to our old journalism rules where the only thing that matters is the truth - no matter where it comes from - from deep throat sources in the government, from our agencies and yes, even from Pakistan. Many government spokespersons, now and in the past, have tried to suppress the truth by saying it isn't in national interest.
So let's not diss all sources today. After all, if we didn't have unnamed sources, would we have discovered scandals like Watergate, and the Adarsh and Coalgate scams closer home? I learnt my lesson early on in my career and then built more reliable sources in CBI and other parts of the government that I reported on. Question is, will everyone else?
(Sunetra Choudhury is Political Editor, NDTV.)
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