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India-Pakistan: Media in Jingoistic Nationalism Mode

by Beena Sarwar, 3 December 2008

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Dawn, December 3, 2008

THE Mumbai nightmare has plunged the media in India and Pakistan into the dangerous, old trap in which nationalism trumps responsible reporting. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it restricted to India and Pakistan.

American journalists fell into this trap after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on Sept 11, 2001. They were vigorously criticised for their unquestioning over-reliance on the security establishment for information. The security establishment, with its blinkered security paradigm, fed them false information that prepared the ground for the Iraq invasion and the Afghanistan bombing.

As part of society, journalists may find it difficult to step back and see the larger picture, especially when their countries are under attack. Responsible reporting and commentary require recognising this fallibility. There is no such thing as objective journalism. All journalists have their own world views and political baggage but at least we can aspire to be fair — to our subjects, to our audiences, and perhaps to our common humanity rather than national identities.“Media manipulation is less an issue of overt censorship than an internalisation of myths and mindsets,” commented Rita Manchanda, summing up a radical critique of the mass media by Indian and Pakistani journalists (‘Reporting conflict’, South Asia Forum for Human Rights, May 2001).

If the Indian media tends to be nationalistic and trusting in its government (which Pakistan government representatives often ask the more cynical Pakistanis to emulate), the Pakistani media has clearly demarcated no-go areas. As the veteran Peshawar-based journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai said at the consultation, “Pakistani journalists never had the opportunity to professionally cover the 1965 or 1971 wars or the Rann of Kutch or Kargil conflicts.” Add the conflicts in Balochistan and the northern areas to that list since then.

The Babri Masjid demolition, the nuclear tests and the Kargil conflict all fed jingoism and jingoistic reporting on both sides. Sometimes journalists are culpable more by omission than commission, ignoring or playing down certain aspects or not asking crucial questions.

Take the festering issue of prisoners. The young Indian fisherman Lakshman who died in a Karachi jail on March 10, 2008 received scant mention in the Pakistani media. The body of a Pakistani prisoner Khalid Mehmood who died in an Indian prison, sent home around the same time, made front-page news, with many journalists accusing the Indians of torture.

Prison conditions and how the police treat prisoners in both countries are no secret. It is not that we treat Indian prisoners well, while they viciously torture Pakistanis. Sometimes a prisoner’s death results not from outright torture but illness arising from neglect — poor living conditions in a hostile environment, extreme temperatures, lack of medical attention, all compounded by lack of contact with loved ones back home.

When the Maharashtra government stopped two Pakistani artists from continuing their work in Mumbai, TV reporters here got sound bites from passers-by who condemned the action. The reporter did not ask, and nor did the respondents bring up, the question of what would have happened had the situation been reversed — would Indians have been allowed to continue working here in the aftermath of such an attack, in which the attackers were widely believed to have links with India?

Similarly, talk show hosts let hawkish talk go unchallenged. In one recent instance, a retired army general referred to India as Pakistan’s dushman mulk (enemy country). They invite more balanced commentators also but give them get far less time and space. Channels play up Mahesh Butt’s criticism of the Indian media but, as the analyst Foqia Sadiq Khan asks, would they quote someone from Pakistan criticising the Pakistani media? “They quote Shabana Azmi ad nauseum that she couldn’t find a flat in Bombay being a Muslim, but not on her opinion of fundamentalism.”

Media might have brought the people closer but when nationalism rears its head, the beast of 24-hour television news also fuels conflict. This is where the commercial aspect comes in. When something big happens, the public seeks answers. The channels which cater to this need improve their ratings. Sensation sells. With viewers glued to the screens, channels keep them there with a continuous virtual reality show. They fill the time with speculative commentary, ‘expert’ guests and whatever footage is available. Sometimes such footage is repeated ad nauseum — like when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, when the Marriott hotel was attacked, when the FIA building in Lahore was struck.

Even when nothing big is happening, information is packaged in an exciting way in order to attract attention. This often means playing up bad news and downplaying good news. TV channels continuously showed the scene of the blasts that rocked the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore on its second-last day, injuring two people. They did not give the artists who defied fear and went ahead on the last day the same kind of attention.

When Zardari was sworn in as president, a breaking news ticker reported: “Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulates Zardari”. Breaking news? At least it was true. In the rush to be the first, channels often misreport.

The Mumbai nightmare provided several examples, as Kalpana Sharma documents in her critique of the Indian media’s coverage of the first 60 hours, ‘Unpacking the pixel’ in Tehelka. She concludes, “it is essential that reporters be trained to handle such extraordinary situations, that they learn the importance of restraint and cross-checking…. Professionalism and accuracy will ensure that we don’t contribute to prejudice and panic.”

Some Indian channels are running the Pakistan factor like a movie trailer, complete with sound effects and watch-for-the-next-episode commentary. This obviously fuels Pakistani indignation. However, this indignation could be tempered by being less reactive and empathising with the Indians’ pain and grief that many Pakistanis share. Zealous commentators could also recall the times that their own media houses sensationalised an issue.

Journalists may argue that they are just the messenger, reflecting official or public opinion. But the media must also question, and get people to think. The stakes are high in our nuclear-armed countries, in a post-9/11 world where the major players include armed and trained men around the world who subscribe to the ideology of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

As President Asif Ali Zardari said, even if elements within Pakistan were involved it is these same elements that the Pakistan government is fighting. So how much sense does it make to push the Pakistan government in a corner and divert its attention from fighting these elements?

The writer is an independent journalist based in Karachi.