The India Pakistan media retreat
Himaland Panos South Asia organised an India-Pakistan Media Retreat at Nagarkot, Nepal, on 11-12 May 2002, bringing together editors, reporters, columnists and politicians from the two countries to discuss the pitfalls and opportunities before media in their coverage of bilateral issues. These are people at the frontline of news production and opinion-formation, individuals who through their proximity to news events have a heightened understanding of the geopolitical dangers that stare South Asia in the face today.
At the retreat, participants undertook to discuss a variety of issues that determine the way India and Pakistan figure in each other’s media. Also under discussion was the role that the media plays or can play in either reducing or inflaming the conflict that has dominated South Asia for sometime, and dominates world news today. Through these and various other exploratory discussions, a perhaps unprecedented exercise was carried out: here is Indian and Pakistani media on Indian and Pakistani media.The result is an illustration of the processes of journalism and a revelation of the tensions that inform and emerge from the practise of this difficult trade in this difficult region. We reproduce an edited transcript of the discussion held in the belief that it will be of interest to a large section of our readers. We hope that this exercise will provide new ideas that will eventually contribute to improving the role of media in a perennially conflict-ridden, nuclearised Subcontinent.
Market forces and coverage
Siddharth Varadarajan: The volume of coverage of the Pakistani point of view in the Indian press is very limited. There is a degree of reprint, but that is not done through any formal arrangement. Only the ludiau Express has a formal arrangement with the Dawn. But the Indian Express excerpts invariably tend to concentrate on the macabre, the foolish and the obscure – like news about a man who stabbed his sister and burnt his wife because he wanted to marry someone else. That is the kind of snippet that is usually picked up. The /liati Age carries much more nuanced coverage but its circulation is low.
Barkha Dutt: Is the coverage of Pakistan in India completely defined by the market? Even if it were so, the coverage ought to be extensive since Pakistan is one story which the market has a lot of interest in. Can it not he presumed that people would read excerpts from Pakistani newspapers much more than they would read many other stories that appear everyday
Siddharth: Newspaper managements insist that Pakistan is the single most important foreign story as far as readers are concerned. But this must be looked at in the overall context of lack of space and the compulsion to accommodate news about spot developments in Pakistan. The main problem is that the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, which dominate in Delhi and Bombay, lack physical space. When very important national news has to be compressed into 50 or 100 words, there is very little space left for Pakistan qua Pakistan. Besides, the media marketers have decided that at least one-third of the international page must consist of pop snippets such as a Britney Spears concert or something similar.
When the front page cannot accommodate more than 300 words in a main story, and marketing departments have decided that you cannot have stories continuing into later pages, we not only have a problem of absolute space but also of relative prominence for news from Pakistan. But even when there is space, perceptions, prejudices and lack of sensitivity come into play.
Rehana Hakim: Is editorial content being driven entirely by market forces in India? How much autonomy and independence does the editorial department have within the publication?
Siddharth: Perception of what the market wants determines the broad structure, the pagination, the amount of space and so on. In most newspapers the advertising department provides a grid which is invariably 70 percent advertising and 30 percent news. Editorial departments operate within that. There is also a ‘market-led’ view of world news. So every day the editors are forced to include at least one science story and one pop story. So, the rest of world news, in which Pakistan has to be covered, unless it is on the front page, must be made to fit within the remaining space. In such a situation, given a choice between stock news which conforms to the competitors’ view of what news is, which usually is “6 stabbed in Karachi” or some extremist speech made by somebody, even a fairly sensitive news desk will settle for the more sensational than the sober and serious story.
Kalpana Sharma: Large circulation papers set certain trends by defining the market for the media. But actually these are just priorities that they have decided for themselves. Within this falls not just India-Pakistan relations but also things happening within India, which get marginalised. The Hindu would not have been the second largest circulating newspaper if the market did not want to read the kind of things that it publishes. And, more ironically, The Hindu is published from a very conservative part of the county, in the south. And the kind of news it has carried and its editorial criticism of the BJP, has invited furious letters to the editor. But the paper’s circulation did not decline for that reason. The market is therefore just an excuse behind which other kinds of priorities are being met.
The absence of coverage on real issues in Pakistan cannot be justified on the ground that the readers are not interested. Coverage can actually improve and having someone in Pakistan makes a difference. Within the existing pattern of priorities, a correspondent stationed in Pakistan will have to work within the dictates of an existing definition of news and events, and hence will have to focus on security-related issues. While such events are highly visible, they are occasional occurrences. And whenever such security-related issues are absent, the correspondent in Pakistan can do different stories that break perceptions not just of Pakistan but also of what news about Pakistan is. But a change in such perceptions can come only if large circulation papers make the effort. Till that happens, Indian media will labour under the self-imposed restriction of coverage to Kashmir and security related issues, to the exclusion of other equally important events. To some extent a change can happen if correspondents are stationed in Pakistan. The physical presence of a correspondent may not suffice but it does make a difference.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: The market validates the stereotype. There is an idea of what is ‘Pakistan’ and what is a ‘Pakistani’ and what is a ‘Pakistani view’. And whatever appears in the Pakistani press that validates the stereotype is picked up and reproduced. What invalidates the stereotype is only occasionally reported. The Asian Age is plays a role in invalidating the stereotype, but as a consequence of that, perhaps only a few thousand copies are sold.
But there is an incident I can recall which can shed light on deviations from the norm. In 1994 I had published a book called Pakistan Papers, consisting of a set of articles, including my last despatch from Karachi. On a visit to Karachi in 1997 I was astonished to learn that Jung had carried translated extracts from it in 30 installments. They took the utmost care to say that they had nothing to do with the views expressed, but apart from that they carried the whole thing. And why? Because it was a slightly eccentric view of Pakistan. It suggested that there could be an Indian who actually liked them. I think it was partly because I had lived in Pakistan and many of the people involved knew me personally and I happened to have lived in Pakistan at a time when the Pakistanis were extremely disillusioned with themselves. It was the time when Bhutto was hanged and there was a lot of introspection going on. Perhaps that stimulated a desire to look across and see whether there was something they could pick up to make there own lives a little happier. Curiously, when the book was launched I came in for a lot of criticism from the Indian press for hugging Riaz Khokkar, the Pakistan ambassador to India, who I had got to release the book. There were letters to the editor for days on end saying why is Mani Shankar Aiyer hugging this chap as if he is the baraat just arrived. I think Riaz himself was a little embarrassed. He was terrified of what would happen to him in Islamabad. None of this proves anything, but perhaps there is a hint there of two different perceptions.
The regional language press and Pakistan
Om Thanvi: In India, regional language papers have a much wider reach than the English media has and this is an area of concern as far as coverage of Pakistan is concerned. In the regional papers, including Hindi newspapers, barring indispensable news of Pakistan politics, in the treatment of which there is an evident and obvious bias, India’s largest neighbour finds no mention.
Mani: From my experience as a diplomat, I can say that Urdu papers in India do station correspondents in Pakistan. The result is that, since 99 percent of the people who read Urdu are Muslims, some of our Muslims get information through this channel. The only other exceptions were the occasional Indrajit Bhadwar and of course the more frequent Kuldeep Nayar, who anyway always kept coming and going. He stays more in Pakistan, and sometimes in India and that too with great difficulty. But Hindustani correspondents hardly ever go to Pakistan. Of the people who stay a few days, observe with some attention, speak to people and then write, the majority are from the Urdu press. For the rest you are absolutely correct, because nobody from any of the regions in India ever goes to Pakistan.
Om: The situation in the Hindi press merits very serious discussion precisely because of its dismal coverage of Pakistan. National newspapers like the Nay Bharat Times do not even send a correspondent over to Pakistan the way the TOI sometimes does. And this despite the fact that Nay Bharat Times sells more than the Times of India. The situation is really dismal in the Hindi press. The fastest growing Hindi papers, the Dainik Bhaskar, or Rajasthan Patrika, have a circulation several times larger than that of the English papers. It is another matter that because of this English hangover in India, the Hindi press does not have the same visibility as the English media. But it is necessary to pay attention to the Hindi press because of the way their character is evolving. Take papers like Dainik Bhaskar and Rajasthan Patrika, which are being published out of every district. Bhaskar brings out a Chandigarh edition, a Yamunanagar edition, a Sirsa edition, a Hissar edition. Because of their specific areas of circulation and their structure they have no place for hard Pakistan stories. For the Yamunanagar edition international news will be considered unnecessary news. Pakistan news will figure only if it is the kind that, say, will show Pakistan in a bad light, and which will enable the paper to show that it is more patriotic, more nationalistic.
Rahul Dev: A count of just the large Hindi chain newspapers will give some indication of their popular influence. Nay Bharat Times has only two editions. By contrast Bhaskar has some 15 editions in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan Punjab and Haryana. Dainik Jagran has about 18 editions in Uttar Pradesh, MP, Punjab and Haryana. Hindustan has probably nine editions, mainly in UP and Bihar. Rajasthan Patrika has seven editions just in Rajasthan. And there is Amar Ujala, which is published mainly in UP and Haryana. The reason these are important for us is their lack of coverage or their prejudiced coverage of Pakistan. That, plus the minds and sensibilities and perceptions of their owners, editors and journalists. They are very important. The mindset of the public at large is made by these papers and not by the English papers. Moreover, their writing is also influenced by their own constituency. So both reinforce each other’s prejudices and stereotypes. And because the language reader is not exposed to a lot of other influences and realities which a typical English reader is exposed to, interest in external matters in general is very limited. But this tendency on the part of the regional press should not distract attention from the general tendency in the Indian media to focus on and accent the juicier stories to the neglect of deeper social stories. You notice that kind of mindset in relation to all our neighbours. It is not just Pakistan that is ignored. Every neighbour is ignored. Stories from the West, from the US and Western Europe, command more space in the Indian media – even soft stories like fashion or even crime. A big crime story from, let us say, America, would get a bigger display than a similar story from Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. So this general Indian or Asian obsession with the West and the US in particular is the broad context in which coverage of Pakistan must be looked at.
Om: Some complaint has been voiced about the shrinking of space in the English media, that stories now get a maximum of 450 words. But in the Hindi press even these 450 words will be wasted if they are going the way of Punjab Kesri. The other point is that discussion of the Indian media cannot be complete without mention of what the non-Hindi regional press is doing. More attention must be paid to it.
Mani: If you look at the papers from Tamil Nadu, there is more about Sri Lanka, and if you look at Punjab Kesri there may be more about Pakistan. And it is likely, that a paper from Bihar will have more about Nepal. And Bangla papers will have more about Bangladesh.
Rahul: This may perhaps be true of Tamil Nadu. But it is not true that Punjab Kesri prints more news about Pakistan.
Siddharth: What Punjab Kesri prints cannot be called news.
Objectivity or balance
Kalpana: The question of objectivity repeatedly crops up in media discussions. It is important not to confuse the two separate issues – equivalence and objectivity. For instance, in the case of the Gujarat coverage, people kept talking about the equivalence between Godhra and and the carnage in the state. That is not the issue. Equivalence of coverage is not objectivity. And in television even the question of equivalence is compromised by the subject. People in seemingly similar situations come across very differently, so that equivalence is not entirely in the hands of the reporter.
Siddharth: Tactically I can see that in covering a certain kind of story it might be necessary to provide another story from the other side, as in the case of Andrabi and the policeman. But that is purely tactical. I have a sense of unease with the need to achieve a balance because that balance is unattainable because of the very facts of the case. Andrabi’s killing, from the point of view of Indian democracy, was an act of premeditated murder by an agent of the state, whereas the killing of the policeman, tragedy though it no doubt is, belongs to a different category. Showing both stories is a compromise of packaging. But the dictates of packaging should not force us to draw too theoretical a conclusion about so-called balance or objectivity.
Barkha: Every individual story cannot have an internal balance. Particularly in Kashmir where there are very few people who are not with one camp or the other. Stories of this kind cannot be set out by some conscious road map of being balanced, with the result that someone watching the story on the border could feel that this is just one side, that it creates an atmosphere of war and so on. These are the actual problems that a reporter can face when covering a conflict. For example, on a border story I did my figures were based on data from the Indian army. It was my own assessment of what to use and I could make mistakes. Those figures could have been doctored. But at that point I am not actually going to necessarily be able to balance it in that theoretical way.
I think it is legitimate for a reporter to do a 30-minute programme just on the situation on one side of the border without someone, say, the Pakistan High Commisisoner in Delhi, suddenly deciding that this is an exceptionable act by someone who is otherwise a fairly liberal voice on Kashmir. Or liberals in India voicing misgivings about the intentions of the programme. There are certain stories that are valid as news stories. If there is troop build-up, that has a legitimacy of its own on which there is no way to do a mirror image from the other side.
Kalpana: I personally do not believe that there is any objectivity in anything that we report because after all we are all socialised into believing certain things and this comes in with the selection of facts. In all the facts we have, what we choose to highlight is based on our beliefs and what our papers choose to highlight — these are pressures which are far from objective. So I think we should just set aside this matter of objectivity. When you take up any issue of this kind, whether it is Kashmir or sectarian violence in India, there is no way that you are going to please all sides.
Barkha: The point is not to try to please everyone. The issue of balance is tied up with the impact of coverage. Journalists can at best try to be fair, as distinct from being objective. In conflict situations, charges are often thrown against the media that a particular report is too soft on the separatist lobby or too soft on the government, and this is one dimension of the impact of the coverage. The constant deconstruction of media reports is part of the impact and almost amounts to propaganda of a kind. Independent coverage must be allowed to steer clear of this. The media, in this sense, is a whipping boy. It is naïve to expect the media to perform a role which is defined by one point of view or the other.
Siddharth: We are in a sense paying for the past sins of our profession, because the Indian media was not bold enough in the early stages on Kashmir. The Andrabi case should have been treated transparently by the media when it happened. The very act of recall now has somehow to be justified by packing it along with other things.
Barkha: The larger aim of the story was not so much to expose Jalil Andrabi through an ex post facto media exhumation. On a visit to Kashmir the two stories of the women just came up in front of me in the same week and it was just a coincidence. I do not think it was a conscious attempt to balance. But I think you are right to the extent that I would have had a tough time if I had done just the Andrabi story
Mushahid Hussain Sayed: Your story on the border had a visual of the Indian farmer on the border demanding the elimination of Pakistan. Now is that not something that could inflame popular passions?
Barkha: That is a valid point, but the same principle could be applied to the shots of the women in the Andrabi story beating their chests and saying “azadi” (freedom).
Mariana Babar: But that is a liberation struggle how can you compare that with the farmer at the border?
Barkha: Doubtless these are elements which are potentially inflammatory in both cases. Both have a certain rhetoric to them and both are rooted in a reality. In the border villages there is an overwhelming anger about being dragged through the ritual of moving their homes every now and then, and so they want something to be done once and for all. That may be nonsense for some, but it is a sentiment. Similarly an angry, alienated Kashmiri can also have an extremely heightened and often exaggerated sense of hurt, but that is his or her perception. It is a judgement one makes in representing the perception. You are trying to depict an emotion at a certain point of time, to convey a sentiment on the ground. How much should you censor that because you may not make viewers comfortable? These were the kind of arguments that were used in Gujarat too on the grounds that the footage could provoke retaliatory violence.
Rehana: Your story on Andrabi and the policeman had a bit on the graves of militants from other countries who had been active in Kashmir. You also talk about how the movement had been hijacked. Don’t you think this was diverging from the main trend of your story, namely the human costs? Why did you feel the need to add this particular bit? Was it also part of the balancing?
Barkha: I actually felt that the stories of both these women intersected and not just because of their personal tragedies. Both of them, though one represented a separatist voice and the other represented a policeman’s point, were uncomfortable with the Kashmir of today. What I was trying to do was to interweave a macro situation.
Rehana: It appeared to me that by showing the grave of the militant from Birmingham you were trying to highlight fact that the movement in Kashmir had been hijacked by militants from outside.
Barkha: That is my subjective assessment of the situation. I may have failed to interweave the two points. This was a domestic political movement of resistance in 1990 which was transformed radically into an unrecognisable form and shape by 2001. That is what I believe. If the connection did not come through then that is a failure of the narrative.
Mariana: Any non-Indian journalist who had taken a camera to the graveyard would not have missed the other graves and maybe would have said that along with these Kashmiris who died in this freedom struggle, even these foreigners have joined and died
Barkha: That particular graveyard is demarcated just for foreign militants. And I am saying unabashedly that what I showed was my sense of what was happening, which is that foreign militants have taken over.
Mariana: But they have been fighting alongside the Kashmiris for a long time.
Barkha: But they control it at this particular point of time, in fact since 2001.
Mariana: I still feel that your showing of only the graves of foreign militants was terribly unfair to the others who have been killed for the same cause, good bad or ugly. You simply sidelined them.
Mushahid: You asked some young boys whether they empathised with the foreign militants despite the fact that they were not Kashmiris. One of them said that these men “after all are Muslims” and hence there was no problem of acceptance. That showed the sentiment of the Kashmiri people. I thought that legitimised their cause.
Mani: The small boy saying “after all they are Muslims”, legitimised their cause in Mushahid’s eyes. It delegitimised it in mine.
I think the point that emerges from all this is that you also see what you are looking for. You do not only see what is shown to you. There is no such thing as objectivity. All the facts are out there and you pick the historical fact that you want to pick. That choice itself compromises any kind of hundred percent objectivity. What struck Mushahid was how provocative it is for that Indian peasant at the Kashmir border to say finish-off Pakistan. He did not at all find it provocative that his guns have gone and smashed the poor fellow’s house. And so you come to back to what is truth, suggesting Pilate who would not wait for an answer.
Moderator. What is the impact of programming aimed at an Indian audience, packaged in New Delhi and actually meant for an Indian audience but also watched in Pakistan?
Mushahid: One example of an Indian programme which is watched very widely among the educated people in Pakistan is BBC World’s Question Time India, which is produced by NDTV. It often focuses on Kashmir and Pakistan-related issues. It is an instructive programme for the insight it gives into the thinking of the educated Indian middle class. In general, the kind of freedom in India and the diversity of its news reportage is appreciated in Pakistan. There is a certain resonance because they feel that the truth is being told, truth operationally defined as the criticism of the officially certified truth on a particular issue.
As for the impact of the Indian channels, if there is overt propaganda, I do not think it has such a lot of impact in terms of shaping perception or changing views. It is taken with a pinch of salt. For instance, in the case of the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight in 1999, or the 13 December incident, many Pakistanis felt that it was state-managed despite what Indian channels had to say on the matter.
In fact, the question of impact can be asked in the reverse. What is the impact in India of coverage of Pakistan- related issues? All channels had carried reports about 13 December being an ISI operation. That affects the average Indian’s perception of Pakistan.
Barkha: With the Parliament attack I do not see how it can be otherwise. When Parliament gets attacked, the questions come later, when the chargesheets are filed or they pick up somebody and the case does not quite cut it. But immediately the instinctive response in the newsroom is to draw a connection to Pakistan. It is unfair and I think there are enough people in the Indian media who would argue that militant groups cannot be equated with the Pakistan government. And with something like the Parliament attack or the Srinagar State Assembly attack it is very difficult to get an average viewer to distinguish between a militant group and Pakistan.
Mariana: When Musharraf spoke after the Srinagar Assembly blast he condemned it unequivocally. He in fact said that the blast could not be equated with action for a freedom struggle. Was that carried in the Indian media? That was an interesting point because I do not think he has ever made such a strong statement.
Barkha: It was carried. The sequence of the bulletin that day was Srinagar Assembly attacked; 40 people dead; Jaish-e-Mohammad claims responsibility in the morning and withdraws it by afternoon; Pakistan President condemns attack. What is the viewer going to take from this? I am just asking the question, not representing the viewer.
Rahul: Doordarshan runs a programme, a series called Pry Ka Sach, twice or thrice a week. These are two or three minute programmes. They pick up a PTV story, which is usually full of the usual rhetoric and spin, the kind which says that Indian soldiers have committed this or that atrocity. This programme then picks up factual holes in that story.
Mariana: That would suggest that PTV programmes do have an effect on the Indian audience. Was there any comment in the Indian media on the ban imposed on PTV in India and has there been any comment on the ban of Indian TV in Pakistan?
Mani: The ban on PTV was criticised. There has been some comment on the ban in Pakistan, but it really did not become a big issue, perhaps because it was not an act in itself. It was part of a package of measures which was supposed to have been taken at a time of high national crisis. And those in India who believe that there was a credible Pakistani threat to India which required a credible response must have been delighted with all this. And people like me who did not believe there was a credible threat from Pakistan, and therefore our response was excessive, wondered why these jokers were harming themselves by doing this.
Siddharth: In terms of the impact of programming, there was an interview with Sushma Swaraj on PTV which had quite an impact. It did not convince anybody of India’s point of view on Kashmir. But many people in Pakistan told me that the ease with which she handled the questions showed the calibre of the grassroots Indian politician. In Pakistan, they said, after Zulfikar Bhutto and perhaps not even him, nobody would have that kind of skill, since they are not used to dealing with people and questions and getting into the hurlyburly of politics. That seemed to impress people more than the specificity of whether she projected India’s case better or not.
Mani: To restore internal balance in this story, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the Pakistani High Commissioner in Delhi, did an outstanding job of carrying conviction with regard to his point of view from public platforms and television. He was very convincing. It shows, I think, that if you are able to put the opposite point of view in reasonable language in a way which carries conviction then the other side at least begins to start listening, even if it is going to be a long, long time before some of them begin to agree. I saw Sushma Swaraj do this in Islamabad, where Ghower Ayub went into how he was at The Doon School at the age of 12 and how he saw all this massacre taking place between Ambala and Amritsar and how at that time he realised what a vicious lot we were and so on. I think she replied by saying that she could not match the story because she was not born at the time of Partition but that her mother told her that their house was opposite the Hyat Khans’ and fruit was always coming from there so they believed themselves to be safe. But there was a mob attack and her grandfather was killed and the mother burnt the body in the courtyard, picked up the ashes, and as they crossed the Ravi into India she dropped the ashes into the river. There were tear jerkers on both sides. Both were I think reflections of a reality but it did enable one to move the argument beyond these episodic instances of past brutality and into a rational form of discussion.
Television in Pakistan
Moderator: Perhaps some idea of the difference of the new private Pakistani satellite channels will indicate the possibilities in this direction: is there any possibility that they will be watched as much in India as Indian private channels are being watched and how much freedom will they get?
Mushahid: The new aspect that has been added by the coming of these private channels is the increase in news and current affairs programmes. They may not go against the government but they will accommodate the opposition point of view which is lacking in the state channel. In that sense they will be widely watched.
Mariana: The News is starting a channel called Geo from August 15. They are aware they may come under pressure from the state but because they hope to beam in from London and Dubai the intensity of the pressure may be minimised. I think such channels will make a difference if they are beamed into India. I think that will balance out what PTV has done.
Rehana: If the publisher of a newspaper cannot withstand pressure, do you think it will make a difference where the signal is beamed in from?
Siddharth: Besides, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has some power to regulate content if national security demands it. In India everybody now uplinks from within the country. So it is very likely that in Pakistan all the’se channels will eventually beam up from within the country.
Mushahid: All those stations operating out of Pakistan are affected.
Mani: There is the politician’s point of view on television exposure, which I think we need to understand in the context of state pressure and freedom to operate. In India we tried for decades to prevent even our state channels from reporting the voice of our ministers, or what they had to say. Till the mid-1980s our ministers either read out statements or were seen cutting ribbons. They were not heard saying whatever they had to tell. Now that these channels have come in there is tremendous competition among politicians to get on the channels. Even if the BJP does not want to come out on the question of Gujarat they feel that they have to accept the invitation of television channels, so that the next time when they want to come on to project some point of view on which they think they have the upper hand, they will still have the credibility to come on. So the debates that are not taking place in Parliament are now taking place on television channels and that will happen increasingly in Pakistan to the point where the politician will feel that it is in his own interest not to censor these channels.
Conflict and professionalism
Siddharth: In covering conflict, whether of the Kargil, Kashmir or Gujarat variety, both television and print often forget the basic rules of reporting. The tools of the craft cannot be jettisoned in this casual fashion, no matter what the general climate of opinion or the mood in the country is. During Kargil, there was at least one instance when everybody swallowed the government version hook, line and sinker. This was on the alleged torture and mutilation of five Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops. The most basic questions were not asked. When the government argued that it would not release the name of the victims because the sentiments of families concerned would be hurt, it was accepted even though one name was subsequently revealed. The contradiction in the government’s position was obvious but nobody had anything to say about it. The media was silent on the fact that the families were not allowed to examine the bodies before they were cremated. The holes in the story were too numerous to be ignored and invoking the most elementary principles of the profession should have taken care of that. But neither the story nor the violation of professional standards was ever questioned. I know that a leading news magazine in India actually suppressed stories of Indian soldiers mutilating Pakistani soldiers. There have been unconfirmed reports about the editorial decision, taken in the national interest, not to publish photographs of a couple of regiments having pinned the heads of some Pakistani soldiers to a tree. In these matters, the media should have been more discriminating, critical and challenged the official Indian version of the mutilation, because that was very central to the way in which the war was then hyped up and projected.
Barkha: In Kargil, many editorial decisions were splitsecond decisions taken on the run. They may have been impulsive, or may have been taken with a lot of discomfort. Often, what was done arose from genuine confusion about how to present a complex situation. It was a personal struggle for every reporter and not necessarily a sacrificing of the rules of the profession at the altar of nationalism.
Siddharth: I am not making a plea for an editorial line that is not nationalistic. In a time of war no paper is likely to write editorials opposing the government’s general line on the prosecution of the war. But in terms of news reporting, where possible, it is absolutely crucial that ethical and professional norms be maintained. The basic craft of the profession cannot be compromised. Such norms can be the yardstick for judging the quality of reportage. The fact is that the standards of reporting are not very professional even at the best of times. I do not say that the Americans are very professional. But at least they have a certain fetish for detail and they are much more methodical in a certain sense. But even their systems fail at a time of war. But even so, during Kosovo and Afghanistan, maybe not immediately, but three or four days after a particular incident occurred and the Pentagon had put its spin you had a credible media giving an on-the-spot account that did not tally with the official claim. There are examples of newspapers and television channels abroad bucking the pressures of nationalism as far as professional reporting is concerned. I am not suggesting that things will not improve in the Indian media the next time around, but what is the basis of the belief that it will?
Barkha: I think we have acknowledged mistakes that were made inadvertently or because there was not enough time to make more considered choices. In that sense we have to distinguish between an incident-triggered conflict and a conflict that spreads itself over time, which is why we can be much more critical of the government on Kashmir even though that is also an issue of national security. We have the time to go there and analyse, assess and report. But Kargil was a limited war and you were just running to keep pace with events. Besides, there is the experience factor. There is that tone that comes into your voice when you see a rocket launcher go off. I think the next time the tone will be different. It will not be the same thing the second time around. Novelty gives way to experience.
Om: Television coverage of Kargil was heavily influenced by nationalism. Unlike print media, in which you could present some amount of criticism, TV was overtly patriotic. I am not denying the need to cover military and government briefings on the war, but news does not have to be confined to just that.
Barkha: We must distinguish between a conscious decision to nationalise reportage and subliminal nationalism that creeps in. I also think that a television reporter more often than not will describe what she or he has seen as a visual narrative being played out as distinct from making a conscious decision to present unfolding events in a particular manner. The circumstances on the ground will often dictate the course of the narrative. If you compare Kargil and Gujarat, I do not think there was any conscious aim to be nationalistic in the case of the former and critical in the case of the latter. The complexity of the situation must come in when analysing how stories are covered on television.
Om: The kind of coverage that you talk about cannot be called nationalist. That is purely a professional act that escapes such adjectives. But, broadly speaking, the perspective of our channels was certainly nationalist in tone.
Rahul: We must remember that certain things are determined by the nature of the medium itself. In a war situation, you are free to shoot and talk about only one side of the story. It is physically impossible for you to talk about and show both sides. So you have got to be onesided. There is no other way. You cannot put yourself mentally on the Pakistani side and try and tell your viewers what is happening there. The dramatic nature of television creates its own impact and the more dramatic the event the greater and deeper its impact
Rehana: Would it not have been possible to get footage from the other side?
Barkha: When doing instant news that is pretty much impossible, because footage can take as long as four days to reach.
Mushahid: During the Kargil war, I was the Information Minister of Pakistan. Our view was completely blocked in India. I requested Zee and Star to air our perspective. Star agreed, Zee refused.
Siddharth: A lot of the biases and skewed perceptions emanate from the point of who defines the news event and how the news event gets defined. In Kargil, for instance, even though you had people filing footage from the frontline, that is not where the news event gets defined. The news event was being defined at the military’s briefing headquarters. At the military end, news was being defined by the briefing. And at the studio end, news was being defined by what kinds of guests were being invited to air their opinion. These were consciously defined. The dispatches from the field are not necessarily consciously biased. But at the studio level, that may not be entirely true.
Barkha: My belief is that a second war will be covered very differently. It was partly because this was the first war that was being covered by television. One of the reasons why television failed in Kargil is that TV is still a very young medium in India and it does not really have very senior reporters. Though there was broadly no difference between the tone and tenor of reportage in print and television during the Kargil operations, subsequently newspapers did more critical, investigative stories on what had gone wrong. Newspapers did those stories because the realm of investigative reportage in India still belongs to print. Television is still functioning in the breaking news format more than in in-depth reportage.
Media and the nukes
Sidharth: Newspapers in India were extremely provocative immediately after India tested at Pokhran. It almost seemed like they were keen to make sure that Pakistan tested. K Subramaniam, the most hawkish columnist in India, for instance, was constantly making suggestions that Pakistan did not have the Bomb and even if it did, it would not dare to test. Would that have had an effect on Pakistan’s eventual decision to test?
Mushahid: I think the decision to go nuclear was Advani’s statement on Kashmir on 17 May 1998. We were in Almaty for a summit of the ECOA when the Pokhran tests took place. This was on 11 May. We had gone sightseeing in the mountains, and when we came back we got news that India had tested. It was quite a shock for us. My view was that we should wait and see what the West comes up with, whether India would be penalised or not, and whether we were given inducements or not. We were disappointed on both counts. The Indian attitude was very haughty and arrogant. Advani’s statement that the geo-strategic realities had changed and Pakistan must adjust accordingly and change its Kashmir policy was particularly irksome. Then there was the summit of the European Union which did not come out with any kind of measures. Bill Clinton subsequently made an offer to us of about 5 billion dollars on the fourth telephone call to Nawaz Sharif. By that time we had already taken the decision to go through with the tests. But we did want to have consultations. That is why the journalists were called, and as it turned out they were of course very hawkish. We wanted an honest debate and on television we had both voices, those who wanted the tests and those who did not want the tests. But the majority were against the ‘peacenik’ line. In my view, we took the right decision because the West did not offer us very much and the Indian attitude was insufferable. At the Lahore Declaration summit I asked a very senior Indian official what the reaction in officialdom was and I was astounded by what I heard. When the news of the Pakistan tests came, Prime Minister Vajpayee turned pale, cancelled the session of Parliament and called an emergency meeting. They were in a state of absolute shock. The official informed me that the official Indian belief was that Pakistan did not have the bomb, and that even if we had it we would not have the guts to test because the Americans would not let us. But it is not the case that we were provoked into it by the media. There were various considerations.
Mani: In times of conflict, passions get inflamed in spite of the press. The media comes into the picture because passions have been inflamed. The job of the moment is to tell it as it is seen. There is no reason to feel guilty that it may be contributing to aggravating a tense situation. The media might aggravate the situation at the margin but it is never the cause of the situation.
Kalpana: That assessment is difficult to agree with if we consider the Gujarat case. Some of us did a media monitoring exercise of the Gujarat coverage in the Bombay papers — English, Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati. When Godhra happened, Gujarati newspapers carried exaggerated, unverified reports about attacks on Hindu women. Three days later they had small correction saying that these reports were not based on facts. This was done deliberately. Therefore to say that the media cannot aggravate the situation in times of internal or external tension is not quite correct. I think the important point is, regardless of what the mainstream newspapers do, the impact of regional papers that have set out to inflame the situation is huge.
Broadly, the papers that do not believe in any norms at all have very wide circulations and the biggest reach, and shape mindsets even if they do not determine policy. They shape mindsets which could ultimately feed into policy because it feeds into politics. For this reason, it is important for the mainstream media to evolve some norm of responsible journalism.
Siddharth: I think it is far easier for newspapers and channels to inflame a situation that has been created than it is for them to douse the flames. In other words, once Gujarat has started you can do your coverage in such a way that Gujarat drags on and gets worse. Certainly, the Gujarati press did inflame passions. However, I would also like to believe that the English media and the electronic media helped limit the death toll in Gujarat. That is an unverifiable conjecture.
In moments of conflict between India and Pakistan, even a responsible and critical media may not noticeably alter the situation. At critical moments, the situation commands the news more than a responsible editorial stand can alter the circumstances, because the editorial stand of a paper has a very limited impact in the face of contrary news that cannot go unreported. The first week after Pokhran the TOI took a stand critical of the tests. But that was on the editorial page. The front page continued to have news of leaders of all political parties hailing the event, which automatically served to create the feeling of a national consensus in favour of the bomb. Responsible and professional journalism ended up reinforcing the view rather than eroding it. As individuals, we may be able to provide space to the dissenting view, but the fact of the matter is that in India- Pakistan affairs the tone is always be set by the official line. And a bad situation is made worse when the media does not challenge the official line enough. But all too often, when reporting an official claim every rule of the craft that is usually applied for other news is jettisoned.
An official claim is reported as news, instead of attributing it as a claim. And this is very evident for instance in reports that are filed on the basis of the daily press briefings of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Journalists who attend these and ask difficult questions stick out like sore thumbs. Often these briefings result in hilarious incidents that ought to undermine the credibility of the official line, but do not seem to. I can recount an instance of a particularly absurd exchange at one such briefing. The MEA plants questions at these conferences and in this case it wanted to give a reaction to some new statement by the EU on Gujarat. Since it felt that making a suo mottu statement on it would be too much of a slap in the face of the EU, the spokesperson had primed a journalist to ask her a question on the ministry’s reaction to the EU statement. Unfortunately for the ministry, this chap forgot the question. As the press conference proceeded and there was no reaction from him, the spokesperson started prodding him in rather an obvious way about some question he had posed to her before the briefing began. This incident is an illustration of the attitude of government officials, that journalists can be used for planting stories. And this attitude would not have come up in the first place if the press had not at various points given the impression that it could be used in this manner. Credibility of the media can be restored only when journalists practice their craft as they should. Otherwise, I agree that the responsible media matters only at the margins, unlike irresponsible journalism, which seems to matter much more.
Issues of Access
– Siddharth Varadarajan
The reciprocal availability of respective media in India and Pakistan has two dimensions. One is the access Indians and Pakistanis have to each other’s media and the other is the access each media has to the other country. There are problems on both counts. As regards the first issue, the main problem is access to print, TV and Internet is limited for legal, technological and political reasons. Apart from film magazines, there is no serious readership for Indian print publications in Pakistan at the mass level. Officials and journalists access magazines and dailies on the Internet. Here there are actual and potential problems. Even though the Internet as a media is not easy to restrict or censor, there was the problem during the Kargil war when the Indian government instructed VSNL, which is the main gateway, to block access to Dawn for at least a month and a half. Alongside that of course there was a ban on Pakistan’s state run channel PTV. In Pakistan, there is no problem accessing Indian websites, but since 13 December 2001, the government has banned Indian TV channels. The ban in Pakistan will not be lifted until Pakistani private channels can establish themselves.
There is a lack of symmetry in TV penetration in the two countries. Indian channels, despite the ban, are still watched in Pakistan but with a degree of scepticism. In India on the other hand, Pry is the only Pakistani channel presently available and this seriously affects the projection of Pakistan in India, providing a very blinkered view for the average individual. PTV today lacks the kind of programmes once popular in India in the 1980s when the country’s state-run channel Doordarshan offered only staid, bureaucratic fare. If new Pakistani channels like Indus Vision and ARY are able to pick up and if they project credible news, they could provide a useful window on Pakistan for the average Indian viewer. This could help shape a different popular Indian perception of Pakistan.
India and Pakistan are not reported about as normal societies in each other’s medias. Indian coverage of Pakistan is almost exclusively restricted to bilateral issues, and official concerns, such as terrorism and jehad dominate coverage of these bilateral issues. Even when some attempt is made to delve into Pakistani society, there is very little attempt to deviate from these standard tropes. This is true of Pakistani coverage of India as well. The kind of stories picked up tend to reinforce negative stereotypes.
There are several reasons for this. The first is a lack of sensitivity on the part of journalists, publishers, owners and, to an extent, readers. Prefabricated and routinely invoked formulae determine what the most important issue is. This problem will not go away simply by granting people more visas. Were the Pakistan or Indian government to be more liberal about visas, there will simply be a larger number of people with a preconceived mindset travelling back and forth.
On the second issue, that of media’s access to the other country and its people, there is a very serious problem. Prejudice is compounded by the problem of physical access. Visiting Indian or Pakistani journalists are restricted to a maximum of one or two cities and to a week-long trip at the very most. Invariably these visits are not at a time of the journalist’s choosing. Typically, visas are issued when there is a major bilateral or multilateral event. Consequently, they descend on a city within the confines of a narrowly defined news event and within the confines of a competitive news environment. Professional compulsions limit coverage to the official news event, even if much of it may be inconsequential. During official events such as a SAARC meeting, a journalist cannot deviate too far even physically from the official delegation. The officials so tightly control the outflow of news that unless you are within a ten-foot radius of the spokesperson, you are likely to miss the news. This leaves very little time for other stories that break the mould. In this sense the problem of access and visas affects coverage and feeds prejudice.
The technology, the discourse of news, and the idea of what constitutes news also make a difference. Three years ago I went to Pakistan and did a story on an industrial group that had set up a foundation for running schools for under-priviledged kids. I visited one such school outside Lahore where poor kids were being taught for a very nominal fee. The teacher was very proud of her wards. She wanted to impress upon me that all these kids knew English. So she drew a circle and said, “kids what is this?” They all shouted, “sarcal”. She then drew a square, and they shouted “saquwaruh”, just the way it would be pronounced in the Indian Punjab. I sent in this story including the idiosyncrasies of diction. It never saw the light of day. The man at the desk told me “people do not want to read about schools in India, and you are filing a story on schools in Pakistan”.
Between the battle lines
– Barkha Dutt
About a year ago I started a weekly reporting programme called “Reality Bytes” on New Delhi Television. Some time ago I did a couple of stories on this programme which illustrate the challenges for a journalist, particularly a television journalist, covering conflict who does not want to be identified with any camp. The title of one of these stories “Between the Battle Lines” reflects one of these challenges, namely the frustration of a reporter on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) caught between two kinds of expectations from the audience. It is basically a story of two women widowed in the conflict, the wife of Jalil Andrabi, the Kashmiri human rights activist who was killed by an Indian army major, and the wife of a policeman who was killed by militants. The other story I want to discuss is one on the build-up of troops along the India-Pakistan border in December. Together they demonstrate the difficulties and complexities of detailed reportage, especially when the story primarily concerns the army. What do you do then?
Despite all my efforts at achieving a balance, after these episodes were screened I was criticised by both sides. People in the army were extremely angry with me for doing this story; after Kargil perhaps they had thought I could be counted on to say ‘the right thing’. They felt that I had given more space to the first story on Jalil Andrabi than to the killing of the policeman. On the other hand, in the border story which was just a narrative based on ‘facts’, there was criticism from liberal opinion that this kind of reportage could worsen an already tense situation. This is something to be factored in when looking at the impact of coverage.
In the context of multiple truths and lies and perceptions of coverage, the danger of slotting is not confined to just the viewers. Perceptions on the ground could be coloured and come in the way of reporting from a conflict zone. A story that I filmed at Kashmir University is a case in point. This was after the war against the Taliban had commenced. This seemed like a good enough context to look at the changing nature of the movement in Kashmir, which I personally believe has happened. From being a homespun political movement it is now a movement which the people who started it do not recognise anymore as their own creation. When we reached Kashmir University there were about 200 people in a pro-Osama rally. Being very conscious of this stereotype that dominates international coverage, of Muslims everywhere rallying behind Osama, we really did not want to cover it. But these people told us to take footage of their rally and we agreed and did an interview with them. At the end, the man who was interviewed turned around and said, “I know you are an agent of India and you are going to give me less space and you are going to give the moderate voice more space.”
We moved on to the mass communication department of the university, which is reputed to be a more liberal kind of centre. Students there told us that there was no pro-Taliban sentiment on campus. Meanwhile somebody went and reported this exchange to the pro-Osama group, who then accosted us and demanded our tape. When I refused, they accused me of being an agent of the Indian government who wanted to project the Kashmiris as moderates. Our camera was broken and I escaped with the tape. The next day a local newspaper in Kashmir printed a story saying that a lady reporter of Star News had egged on students to raise slogans against Pakistan and when they refused there was an altercation in which her camera was broken. We eventually aired the story in a raw, pretty much uncut kind of form, just showing what these people had to say. And once again I got slammed by both sides. In Kashmir, there are these kinds of stories where you cannot aggregate and balance out an overall reality. There is a little bit of reality here and a little bit of a reality there. Every angle of a story has one truth attached to it and one lie. A reporter’s job is to sift through the various truths and lies and glean something worthwhile from both sides.
This raises questions about objectivity in reporting. My attempt at objectivity is defined not so much in the traditional way, which would suggest leaving your own subjective perception of the situation outside the story. My definition is to be allowed to tell every side of the story with my own subjective perception because I do not believe that it can be left out. If there is an emotional engagement with the story, as there often is when reporting J&K, then there should be the scope to report with the same degree of emotional empathy for the story on either side. Of course that kind of luxury is only available in the format of a longer programme. For those reporting within the framework of a 1 minute 40 second slot in the main news bulletin, this kind of formula where you can tell both sides of the story is not possible. This problem is more acute reporting something very specific like a troop build-up at the border. The only option is for a reporter over time to throw in an array and variety of stories and build up a reputation of being independent.
Media during intense conflict
‑ Rehana Hakim
In 1998, when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, editors from all over the country were invited to Islamabad to offer their opinions on Pakistan’s nuclear options. India had tested at Pokhran and Nawaz Sharif wanted to know how Pakistani journalist, felt about the issue. I suspect the decision to go in for the tests had already been taken but the government wanted to know the media reaction. What was surprising was that 90 percent of the journalists were for a commensurate response from Pakistan. There were journalists present who said, “if you do not go ahead with the blasts your authority will wane”. There were a group of us from Karachi and Hyderabad who tried to point out the political and economic ramifications of the Bomb and how it would adversely affect Pakistan. At that point the country’s foreign exchange reserves were dangerously low, the level of external debt was very high and we thought that this was really going to create a lot of problems. But nobody was willing to listen. In fact, the overwhelming reaction ,to our opposition was that Karachi people speak like banias, they cannot get out of the accounting mind set.
Soon thereafter Chagai happened and for many journalists it was a sobering moment. There were many lessons to be learnt from it, particularly on the question of whether the media can defuse tension. It seems to be quite evident that most of the time the media is not driven by noble intentions. More often than not, they are just chasing a story. That is the ground reality. But having said that, I also find that there is a certain change in Pakistan-India coverage that has come about gradually. I would like to believe that it has a lot to do with the interaction and dialogue between Indian and Pakistani journalists meeting over the years at various conferences. I think one of the first of such conferences was in Kathmandu and I remember being very irritated when an Indian journalist asked me whether we are allowed to wear sarees in Pakistan. Sunil Sethi was one of the first journalists who did a detailed cover story on Pakistan and he seemed to dwell at unnecessary length on the meat eating habits of Pakistanis. But I think those were the initial days and as we met over the years things improved.
One change in particular is striking. In the past when it came to domestic issues the Indian media had very divergent points of view but on foreign policy issues they followed the establishment point of view. On Kashmir, too, the Indian media seemed to disregard the fact that a problem did exist. This went on for some time. But of late one sees much more independent reporting on Kashmir. It is also heartening that there are some individual journalists who are willing to go on record in Pakistani publications with their critical views.
A question that repeatedly comes up during conflict situations is how to cover issues like the Gujarat carnage or the Babri Masjid demolition. Are passions going to be inflamed in Pakistan by covering these issues? I feel that these stories have to be told no matter what. Newsline’s coverage of Gujarat was by an Indian journalist. We thought about it and wondered if Newsline would be accused of inflaming passions. We eventually went along with the story and I feel that we did the right thing. But the reaction is often a cause for concern. Newsline did a story on Dawood Ibrahim and it was used by Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh to make a diplomatic claim on Pakistan. In response, Pakistan demanded that 20 people based in India be handed over. Such reactions make us wonder if we are doing the right thing.
There are no definitive rules and a responsible media has to go by its instincts. The media cannot prevent war largely because the government does not much care what the media feels on these issues. But the media can certainly publicise the consequences, for instance, of a nuclear war, by covering the human aspect, the economic aspect, the refugee aspect. But there are so many divergent views, there are different media with differing compulsions and motivations. The Urdu press in Pakistan is far more conservative. The English media is often criticised for being very liberal and pro-India. But such criticism should not be allowed to come in the way of fulfilling responsible objectives.
The media is placed under enormous strain during periods of intense conflict. The capacity for objective reporting can be a casualty when patriotism rises to the surface. People do tend to take sides and the media is not an exception. Besides, access to information is limited. Journalists are not allowed to investigate independently and so they have to rely on the government. But usually, and of late, once the event is over, there is a fair bit of introspection, as happened in the case of the Kargil war. By contrast, in the case of the Bangladesh war, the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report was released only 30 years later. Because of these changes, there is ground for optimism and hope that the media can mitigate the effects of conflict even if it cannot prevent one. Nevertheless, there are still certain areas where the mindset needs to be changed. I am not certain it is possible in any comprehensive way, but it is still worth trying for.
Quest for credibility
– Mushahid Hussain Sayed
In Pakistan-India coverage, both the market and the nation-state converge to an extent in the expectation of the audience. India is not just another foreign country in Pakistan. There is a special aspect to the relationship, and coverage is coloured to the extent that both states largely define each other as adversaries or even ‘enemies’. Nationalism and the so-called national interest, what I call the officially certified truth, take precedence. The market represents what consumers want and there is a passion for Pakistan- India news. When Musharraf visited Agra he got the kind of coverage in India that even Clinton did not get. That was because he happened to be the President of Pakistan. It was the same when Vajpayee came to Lahore. The special relationship is therefore an element of the market.
But there are other ways in which the market comes into national considerations. When 1 was in government, we launched PTV World. An important factor for us was that Zee TV was getting a lot of Pakistani advertisements in the Gulf area. Pakistani advertisements were going to ‘the other side’. In that sense the market factor is important. But in a fundamental way, political considerations and the so-called national interest, and not economic factors, take priority.
Since Indian news has a certain allure in Pakistan there is the question of how to counter it, how to make ourselves more credible. That is one of the reasons private channels have been licensed and this will to some extent redress the television imbalance between the two countries. This is the change that could potentially manifest itself on the airwaves. It has been basically motivated by competition with India, but it is not economic competition. It comes out of the quest for credibility and the need to reach out to the Indian audience. The emergence of private channels will also drive the market forces, but it is useful to remember that trade between India and Pakistan and pure commercial considerations are way behind political factors.
That being the case, some specificities of politics are significant in influencing coverage. It is interesting to note that there is a similarity of pattern in the coverage of the military regimes of Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Military regimes elicit a particular kind of coverage, especially in the Indian media. Because they are not legitimate, they tend to reach out more. Musharraf is a very media-friendly person. He loves to talk to the Indian media. Zia, who we as carrying so much excess baggage, used to do that40o. He had hanged Bhutto and his rule was quite oppressive. But despite that he got reasonably good press in India.
This of course applies only to coverage in relatively normal circumstances. Under conditions of tension, it is a different matter altogether. There have been two near-war situations, Kargil in 1999 and again continuing tension after 13 December. In such situations nationalism, even chauvinism come to the fore. There is little room at such times for so-called independence, objectivity or even liberalism because that is deemed to be unpatriotic. Nation, mindset and market come together in a particularly potent form on such occasions.
Because the nation-state commands the relationship between the two countries, the attitude of the establishment becomes crucial, and in both the countries it is very rigid, conservative and hard-line. This can be a hindrance to greater media access. At the time of the Lahore Declaration, one of the basic aims was to really open up on the media front. There was a lot of pressure from within Pakistan and India for more media exchange. We considered visa exemptions for accredited journalists cleared by both sides. But the security establishments of the two countries came in the way. They objected on the ground of security risks.
Because of all these reasons, between India and Pakistan many of the conventional rules and protocols of journalism do not seem to apply. The focus often is to look for negative stories. The killing of Muslims in Gujarat would be of interest. Similarly, sectarian terrorism in Pakistan is of great interest in India.
A certain mindset and world view by and large influences media issues. In 1999, when the Indians banned PTV there was a lot of pressure on me as Minister of Information to do likewise with Indian TV. Since the instinct is tit-for-tat, we do not often think things through. Instead of banning Indian TV we decided to counter the Indian point of view by taking columns from the Indian press that were critical of the Indian government and using them against India. That is legitimate propaganda.
The retaliatory mode is pointless. When the Musharraf regime banned Indian TV, I was one of the first and one of the few to publicly condemn the ban. I said this is not necessary; Pakistani viewers are capable of making their own distinctions without having to be supervised. I know of many Pakistani households in which children are not allowed to watch Indian TV because of its proclivity to show half-naked girls dancing in a strange manner and that sort of thing. There is no doubt a lot of that in the international media too, but Indian TV is of more consequence because the language is so much more accessible.
On the whole, despite periodic efforts made by the leadership of both countries, I see difficulties ahead in promoting accommodation. There is an appreciable level of interaction but interaction has to be a two-way street. A lot of Pakistanis who went to the Agra summit came back with horror stories. So it is clear that just interaction is not enough. But the conflict between the two countries notwithstanding, I think we in South Asia have been far more civilised with each other than most Western countries. The coverage of the war on terrorism on American TV has been absolutely offensive. No Indian or Pakistani journalist would stoop to the levels that American journalists have. There is a civilisational sophistication among South Asians and that is a saving grace and a reason for hope.
Censorship, information and understanding
— Mani Shankar Aiyar
HAVING BEEN a government servant in the external publicity area where I was given the task of, a) protecting the blameless Indian mind from nasty propaganda, and, b) revealing the naked truth to the other side, I found this whole exercise of trying to either defend our own minds from the other side or inflict our point of view on the other side so naive. It assumed that you could very easily change what the other person’s perception was or get your own perceptions so easily changed. The attempt to use intelligence information or the media for propaganda purposes is doomed to failure, especially in our countries. I was myself very deeply involved in trying to see how we could use radio as an instrument of propaganda before television got so widespread. I had just come back from Pakistan and was Joint Secretary, External Publicity. I was pulled into a group whose idea was to use All India Radio (AIR) to spread our message, and the message was always against Pakistan. In Pakistan I had met a lot of people who were extremely pleasant. I suggested that the most effective way would be to use AIR to tell the Indians what nice people the Pakistanis were. When the Pakistanis discovered that we are saying nice things about them, at least their hostility towards us would get reduced. Thus, we could more effectively change the situation in the Subcontinent than by attacking them. But the suggestions were obviously dismissed out of hand.
The attempt to use the media as an instrument of state policy in relatively open societies is doomed to failure and it is best for us to advocate against it. If you want to resolve any India-Pakistan issue, the Indians must get to know what the Pakistani point of view is. And reciprocally, the Pakistanis must get to know what is the Indian point of view, so that you get not an India- Pakistan divide but a viewpoint on this side which has some sympathy in Pakistan and a viewpoint on that side which has some sympathy for India. From that a rational solution may come. To put it very simply, the answer is to have a cricket team where we have five Indians and five Pakistanis and get a Kashmiri to be the captain.
There is precedent of how just the flow of information can change perceptions. In the Vietnam War, which began on a major scale from about 1965, the Americans were absolutely delighted that technology had reached the point where a large number of American cameramen, academics and print media journalists could go into South Vietnam. Special arrangements were made for them to travel along with the heroic army that was going to defeat the reds. The stories came into the US in such a way that initially there was a huge upsurge of support for the American cause in Vietnam. But in time this same lot of media people started telling other bits of the story, which would otherwise never have reached America. And at the end of the day, two schools had developed, for and against fighting the communists in Vietnam. Over a period of time there was such a huge amount of information that had spread that many people had more information than either only their conclusion or their prejudices justified. So they began to see that the other side could hold a completely different opinion. A process of getting this kind of information across, which is usually blocked, will eventually weaken the idea that this is a fight between India and Pakistan and perhaps legitimise the idea that this is really a struggle between the preservation of human decencies and their violation. And the violation is done by both sides, as much as the preservations up to a point are by both sides. And that is why I am against this censorship. Any attempt at using the media as an instrument of state policy or preventing the other side from using their media as an instrument of state policy is ultimately self-defeating to the state which propagates or indulges in censorship. We should really try to see whether the media community of the two countries cannot make a greater contribution, simply by dedicating themselves to their respective versions of the truth, being allowed to function as much as possible and being heard on the other side of the border.
What struck me when I was in Pakistan was how much the Pakistanis have to say which makes sense in terms of their perceptions, their realities, their national requirements. Therefore, we need to listen in India. This is where the media could play an important role, since Indian diplomats in Pakistan spend all their time reporting to Delhi what Delhi wants to hear instead of reporting back to Delhi what Delhi does not know. I am sure that applies reciprocally. Which is why I feel that the truth, as seen by Pakistan, should come to India, and the truth as seen by India, should go to Pakistan. Then we may arrive, over a period of time, at a common understanding of what is the truth.