When Media Become Foot-Soldiers on the Highest Front Line

Clashes and killings along the ceasefire line that separates Indian Administered Kashmir and Pakistan Administered Kashmir have become a daily affair with a huge human toll, and the nationalistic shrillness of the media on both sides is now deafening.

While the escalation of violence is presumably to defend the rights of the people of Kashmir, the underlying military purposes of the nuclear neighbours in this low-intensity war seem to be to distract from the failure of both governments to address domestic issues. Though cross-border violence has been a phenomenon since 1947, the attack on an Indian army camp in Uri on 18 September 2016 in which 18 soldiers were killed, deeply divided the Indian media into those who report events and those who become mouthpieces for the warmongers.

The Indian government is playing a dangerous game of supporting media organisations that whip up ultra-nationalist sentiments. Key ministers attack journalists and media that believe in speaking truth to power. Prime Minister Modi himself has called journalists “news traders”, one minister has called them “presstitutes” and another has said journalists should stop asking questions.

On 3 November 2016, the government ordered the respectable Hindi channel NDTV India to shut down for a day for allegedly revealing “strategically sensitive” details during its coverage of an attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on 2 January 2016. “The decision … is a direct violation of the freedom of the media … and amounts to harsh censorship … reminiscent of the Emergency,” said the Editors Guild of India who demanded the immediate rescinding of the order.

At the heart of the India-Pakistan conflict lies Kashmir. Neither country has come to terms with the profound changes resulting from Partition and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Both hold Kashmir as a prized possession to justify their own nation-building rationale. India needs Kashmir, the Muslim-majority state, to prove its secular credentials and to counter the idea that religion constitutes nationality. For Pakistan, Kashmir represents its unfinished agenda of carving out a nation state that includes all Muslim-majority regions. The competitive reasoning, supported by the media, seems oblivious to the daily injuries both countries inflict on the people of Kashmir.

One challenge in writing about the media and Indo-Pak relations is that it conflates all media — good, bad and indifferent — into a monolith. Pakistan’s Dawn or India’s The Hindu are daily newspapers, not warmongers. However, many television channels in both countries are baying for blood. For a decade Panos South Asia (the network of independent nongovernmental institutes) has brought together Indian and Pakistan editors for open and frank discussions. The first, in Nagarkot, Nepal in 2002, occurred when Indian and Pakistani troops were engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The retreat was organised in collaboration with the Kathmandu-based journal Himal Southasian that has remained our partner.

We discussed the media’s role in covering the situation. Star reporters in the war spoke about their experiences while the political personalities gave important behind-the-scenes details. Afterwards some journalists wrote for each other’s publications and continue to do so on important events.

Subsequent retreats dealt with subjects including the nuclear issue and Kashmir. In the nuclear meeting, at Bellagio on Lake Como, Italy, the Pakistan representatives came up with the problem of lack of access to accurate and timely information. They were given material and sources by some of their Indian counterparts who had been covering the issue for a longer time. They continue to remain in touch. TV channels present discussed exchanging footage and joint coverage. One such alliance was made between Sun TV of India and Geo TV of Pakistan, an alliance that ended when I left Sun TV.

The meeting on Kashmir, in Istanbul, was among the most productive. Political leaders from Indian Kashmir and Pakistani Kashmir set off the discussions. The editors came up with some constructive suggestions that the two leaders then carried on world tours immediately after. There were many conciliatory noises later from both governments, suggesting out-of-the-box solutions. One, to permit cross-border trade between the two Kashmirs, has just been implemented.

Two former Indian foreign secretaries, Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon, acknowledge that this initiative helped to get domestic media support. Most importantly, some media decided they would stop using the terms India Occupied and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, opting instead for the more neutral terminology of Indian Administered and Pakistan Administered Kashmir.

The retreat in Barcelona, Spain, the seventh, came as the geopolitical environment had changed dramatically within a year. Pakistan’s role as a frontline state in the war on terror and its domestic turmoil placed a completely different spin on bilateral relations. India too was in a state of flux due to forthcoming elections. Two former foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, Salman Haidar and Shamshad Ahmad, joined a very high-powered team of editors and proprietors from both sides. Means of cooperation both through the media and elsewhere were discussed. While discussions tended to get heated, it all came together as an incisive analysis of current forces at play within the region.

Reports of every one of the 10 retreats between 2002 and 2010 have been published in Himal Southasian, the region’s leading journal and a magazine widely picked up by academics, think tanks, policymakers, students and activists among others. The proceedings are on the webpage of the Himal.

One of the key truths to emerge from the retreats was the fact that domestic constituencies for peace need to be nourished, and without adequate home support no regime in Delhi or Islamabad can keep the peace process on track. The Establishments in both countries have openly acknowledged that the softening of “nationalist rhetoric” by influential sections of the media — a direct result of the retreats — has helped them to revive the peace process every time it gets stymied by some event like a bomb blast or an act of terror.

The success of these interactions is valued by major publications in India and Pakistan. A media conference, “Talking Peace”, was convened in Karachi by Aman ki Asha, a joint initiative of the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India Group, to present our experience of bringing senior media functionaries together and its impact on the quality of reports and analysis.

Participants agreed on the need to create more empathy for each country and the need for more cross-border information. Specific suggestions were made on improving mutual coverage and understanding. Some stemmed from the need to reinforce journalism’s best practices, such as being careful about reports based on single sources and questioning stories stemming from government agencies.

We looked at visa restrictions that force media to draw on correspondents and reporters from each other’s countries, which has led to points of view being broadcast or published across the border. Suggestions included allowing journalists easier access to each other’s countries and ending restrictions on cell-phone roaming between Pakistan and India.

We suggested broadening coverage beyond geopolitics, ensuring a more rigorous reportage of economic, infrastructure and cultural issues. Training workshops for reporters on specific issues like Kashmir, water, and terrorism, for example, would help raise the level of reporting in general.

We suggested the development of a mutually agreed code of ethics and guidelines on issues of mutual concern and the development of a website that would allow better cross-border engagement between journalists. We wanted to compile a database of media commentators to provide a larger pool of analysts to draw from and allow for more circumspection at times of crisis. A related suggestion was to monitor television talk shows to analyse how often hawkish voices are invited on air compared to more nuanced views. Another suggestion was to promote more exchange and interaction among junior and mid-level reporters, editors and producers from the media in each country.

What is clear is that responsible media in India and Pakistan know how to report in times of crisis. But their idea of journalism to minimise harm is hardly heard in the din created by television channels. For instance, many senior editors in India agree with The Economist’s story, “All Hail” (22 October 2016), which established that a vast section of India’s press is more craven than Pakistan’s.

It rightly pointed out that Times Now television channel eschews any space for dialogue, dissent and understanding of the other. “Arnab Goswami, the anchor of a particularly raucous talk show, has declared that critics of the government should be jailed,” read the Economist report.

It is worth remembering the sane words of Raj Kamal Jha, editor of the Indian Express, when he spoke in front of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ramnath Goenka Awards for Excellence in Journalism on 2 November 2016: “Good journalism is not dying; it is getting better and bigger. It’s just bad journalism makes a lot more noise than it used to do five years ago. And that is why I think the remote control should get the R&G award for excellence in journalism.”

Main photo: Soldiers in Kashmir – flowcomm (licensed under CC BY 2.0)


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