The media has not exactly covered itself in glory in its coverage of the Somali hostage crisis. By persuading the government to negotiate with kidnappers, as it did during the IC-814 hijack, the media has not acted in the national interest.

On December 8, 1989, Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of Mr Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, who had become India's Home Minister less than a week earlier, was kidnapped by members of the separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Amidst a frenzy of media attention, Prime Minister V.P. Singh buckled and sent two of his Ministers, Mr Inder Kumar Gujral and Mr Arif Mohammed Khan, to Srinagar.

Despite strong warnings from Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and indications that Rubaiya Sayeed would not be harmed, the Government meekly caved in to the demands of the kidnappers, releasing detained terrorists.

The entire valley erupted with calls for “Azadi”. India continues to pay a heavy price for this act of abject surrender.

On December 31, 1999, India released three arrested terrorists, Maulana Masood Azhar, Omar Seed Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar to secure the release of passengers of the hijacked IC-814 in Kandahar. Maulana Masood Azhar returned to a hero's welcome in Pakistan and founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed. He masterminded and executed the attack on our Parliament on December 13, 2001.

Omar Saeed Sheikh remitted $100,000 through a Bank in Dubai to the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mohammed Atta. He was thereafter involved in the execution of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Mushtaq Zargar, a psychopath, runs the Al Umar Mujahideen from Muzaffarabad. An important factor pressuring the Government to yield to the demands of the hijackers was the irresponsible coverage by some of our television channels, focusing attention on demonstrations organised by emotional relatives of the passengers.

GLOBAL NORMS AND MEDIA

In recent days, sections of the audio-visual media have sought to whip up public hysteria by demanding direct negotiations with Somali pirates and even “flexibility” and a readiness to pay ransom to the pirates who were threatening to kill four Indian sailors working on an Egyptian ship and held captive.

Relatives of those held by pirates were mobilised. They asserted that if Government leaders could rob billions in scams such as the 2G spectrum scandal, they should have no hesitation in paying a few millions as ransom to the pirates.

The media does not have the time or inclination to understand that governments will not negotiate directly with pirates. These negotiations are invariably between ship-owners and pirates, with governments playing a discreet role behind the scenes. As Egypt's envoy in New Delhi, Mr Khaled el Bakly, bluntly stated: “ All that the Egyptian Government can do is to persuade the owner of the vessel to negotiate with the pirates.”

Sadly, there appears to be very little appreciation and even less understanding in India about the international challenges posed by Somali piracy. Navies of 21 countries, ranging from the US and its NATO allies to Russia, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, are actively collaborating to deal with Somali piracy.

The UN has been actively involved, with Security Council Resolution 1838 of October 5, 2008, authorising ships to pursue pirate vessels into Somali territorial waters. India was among the first to deploy naval vessels to deal with piracy on November 23, 2008.

Moreover, pirate vessels coming close to our shores have been challenged and attacked, with pirates killed, or taken prisoner.

The efficacy of the policy of not negotiating with pirates directly has been demonstrated. While pirates continue holding 53 Indian sailors captive, they released 124 sailors since 2008, without our compromising vital national interests, or international obligations. Even the CIA appears to believe that dealing with Somali pirates is not an easy affair. Pirates recently killed four American nationals when their demands were not met. Studies show that there are several other factors that result in poverty-stricken Somalis finding piracy lucrative and rewarding.

The livelihood and catch of Somali fishermen has been destroyed by uncontrolled fishing by foreign trawlers and by dumping of toxic waste across the Somali coast. Moreover, piracy has led to a new class of wealthy people, wielding power and patronage across Somalia.

As of December 11, 2010, it has been estimated that Somali pirates use 35 captured ships for their activities and hold 650 sailors as hostages. The time has perhaps come for intelligence agencies across the world to come together to work out strategies to covertly eliminate pirates and their patrons in Somalia even while undertaking measures to see that Somali fishermen are not deprived of their traditional livelihood.

CONFUSED GOVT

One of the major reasons why the relatives of the passengers of IC-814 took to the streets in New Delhi was the less-than-sensitive handling of them by the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

Similarly, the relatives of sailors in pirated ships have been forced to move from pillar to post, because the Ministry of Shipping has no guidelines or machinery to deal sensitively with the distraught relatives. Norms and procedures should be devised to ensure this is not repeated in future. Norms should be evolved for positioning armed guards on Indian maritime vessels, to ward off pirate attacks. Legislation should also be enacted to give the Navy powers to seek out, capture and kill pirates in international waters.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on March 17, 2011)
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