The media and Mumbai – By Dr Tariq Rahman

THE Mumbai attacks have seen the media, especially the electronic media, in both countries conduct itself in an irresponsible fashion.

Hours after the attack began, the Indian media started showing Bollywood-style films about the perpetrators of the carnage allegedly in Pakistan. Just as quickly the Pakistani media went into complete denial.

Both responses were exaggerated and irresponsible. The Indian media could not have made any credible film on actors within Pakistan and the Pakistani media could not be sure that there was no Pakistani connection. The Indian media ignored the possibility of the fallout of such hysterical coverage, for after all it could play into the hands of Pakistan-haters in India who do not want peace. Had troops been moved the western border of Pakistan would have gone to the Taliban and India would have faced the intensity of the ‘Islamic’ threat. That would have been tremendously dangerous for India.

As for Pakistan, the media did not show sufficient sensitivity for the dead and wounded in Mumbai. That is a moral failing. Then, to make matters worse, the whole history of the creation of the jihadi outfit in Pakistan was not even mentioned. This is not just insensitive; it is dysfunctional. Nobody outside Pakistan buys the argument that Pakistan is not a base for terrorist outfits which have been around since the Afghan war days and were fed on American money and allegedly supported by the security agencies.

Very often they do not even deny their involvement in what they still call jihad and have even accepted responsibility for some actions in India. With this history, it is obvious why westerners and Indians blame Pakistan even before the evidence is fully in. The Pakistani media need not react against this. Instead it should see to it that it does everything in its power to change public opinion in a way that our governments can fight terrorists and dismantle terrorist outfits in the country.

But what have sections of the Pakistani media been doing? After having denied that there could be any evidence regarding the involvement of elements in Pakistan, they attack the civilian government’s attempt to arrest suspects from an extremist group. Anchor persons, among them some respected for their stance on issues like the removal of the chief justice and the rule of law, dismiss the government’s actions as a consequence of external pressure. Even respected columnists can be criticised on this score.

This is exactly what the media had been doing with reference to the Taliban’s attacks on Pakistan’s cities until the Taliban started owning them. The attacks increased at such a pace that some people started debating whether the war in Fata and Swat was Pakistan’s war after all. And yet, such is the confusion among Pakistanis that even now most people think it is America’s war and not ours. With Nato vehicles being burned and disparate groups of people defying the state, the reality is that the state is losing its sovereignty over parts of Pakistan. Still respected members of the media are in a state of denial that this is Pakistan’s war.

Why this inability to see the truth? I believe there are many reasons. Firstly, there is much hatred against the United States and India. America is hated for its unjust support for Israel, the totally uncalled for war in Afghanistan and criminal aggression in Iraq. India is hated for its suppression of the movement for self-determination in Kashmir and recent reports on the discrimination against Indian Muslims. Secondly, there is much in Pakistani textbooks and the media against India. Some of this matter is wrong and fabricated while some is correct. There is nothing in the textbooks against America but there is no shortage of anti-American stories and conspiracy theories doing the rounds. Indeed, there are conspiracy theories in which Indians, Americans and Jews feature prominently and people believe them. And, lastly, there is the blindness induced by nationalism (or shall we call it chauvinism?) which makes the media so hawkish.

These factors combine to prevent our anchorpersons and columnists from understanding that they should acknowledge the truth before moving on to suggest cures. And much can be done against the Taliban who attack our cities and other groups who presumably still operate across the border. The media can strengthen the government as no other organisation or force can but the media so far chooses not to, oblivious of the great danger in which it is placing Pakistan.

Let it be understood, if the government still does not act against terrorists the United States will make a pariah of us which India will welcome. That such an eventuality is neither in India’s nor in America’s interest the two countries will only understand when they find the Taliban staring down at them. Pakistan is needed as a stable, democratic and peaceful force in South Asia to undo past evil. This can only happen if the media allows the government to suppress the extremists.

The government also needs the help of the media to confront the army and intelligence agencies which act as parallel governments in Pakistan. They have always had an anti-India bias of the kind which has prevented them from appreciating that it is peace which is in the interest of Pakistan and not war. I do not know what the army thinks in this crisis though so far there is reason to believe that it has been supportive of the government in its efforts against the Taliban. Even if the army remains supportive while extremists are suppressed within Pakistan, help from the media will be welcome as ordinary soldiers are as influenced by the ubiquitous media as other people.

The government too should make the media’s job easier by presenting proof against those they arrest and take action against. If this involves confessing to past blunders let it be so. The public mistrusts the government because officials lie but if they start telling the truth the trust deficit can come to an end. Governments on both sides have been pretty balanced and responsible so far. Now the media on both sides has to control itself in the interest of peace in South Asia. (Dawn, 14 Dec 2008)