Media war and India-Pakistan tension

As the world worries about India and Pakistan going to war over the Mumbai attack of November 26, 2008, Pakistan is all set to take on India if it attacks. Defence ministry officials in Islamabad, responding to an intelligence report saying India had prepared for a war with Pakistan, were quoted by the press Saturday as saying “Pakistan is not afraid of India’s preparations for war” and that “the Pakistan Army has been making its own preparations for a possible war”.

Anyone outside South Asia would be shocked at this kind of news. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and any conflict between them is bound to escalate into a holocaust for the region. Then why are the two sides hyping up a conflict neither can afford? What is pushing them to the edge, if it cannot be reason and good sense?

It is clear that the Indian media is setting the stage for the Indian Congress-UPA government to put on the warpaint or take a defeat in the coming elections to a more jingoist BJP. The Nepalese journal Himal (December 2008) wrote: “There is an attempt on to generate mass hysteria in India as television channels compete for ratings. The channels are using the Bombay attacks of last week in a dangerous game of TRP-upmanship [TV’s target-rating point] which can well derail the political process and set back the India-Pakistan peace train. Going far beyond what is required of them even in times of crisis, some media houses are leading campaigns to get citizens to take pledges of patriotism. They are pushing a brittle, monochromatic vision of the resilient country we know as India”.

Sane voices in India are also worried. Shekhar Gupta, editor of Indian Express, noting the way the TV anchors in India were getting savagely emotional, wrote to advise the two sides to bring down the temperature of the media war: “This hostility must end and senior media people on both sides, particularly editors, need to intervene before this great professional bond starts to fray. Journalists are of course loyal to their countries, but are never to be held accountable for their governments’ policies. They can neither be framing state policies, nor be their spokesmen, and certainly not be waging wars…It is time media institutions and senior editors from both sides intervened and ensured it does not get out of control”.

In Pakistan the “reactive” assault by the media has brought out the dark side of the Pakistani state, oblivious of any strategy of restraint and more worried about how bad the government will appear in the eyes of the people overwhelmed by the anti-Indian fury of key TV anchors and newspapers columnists. One senior columnist laid down the terrain on which the war of the anchors and columnists is being fought when he said there were only two kinds of journalism, one for the country and the other for one’s self. But what about the facts?

Daily Jang (December 13, 2008) reported that its team went to Faridkot in Okara to inquire whether the terrorist caught in Mumbai Ajmal Amir Kasab was an inhabitant of the village. According to the report it was greeted at first with cover-up stories. Then a villager disclosed that Ajmal had disappeared but when he came back he showed off his physical prowess and taught karate to village children. More and more people reportedly started complaining that intelligence agencies were actively discouraging people from telling the truth. The president of the local press club said if Ajmal was not from the village, why were the secret agencies putting pressure on the village? People said the terrorists were not only bothering India but had made life hell for Pakistanis too.

This report seemed to substantiate the contents of an earlier report about Faridkot in London’s Observer. But then some TV channels went to Faridkot and reported that Ajmal Kasab had not lived there. Other reports told us how the villagers of Faridkot were out in processions saying no Ajmal Kasab had actually existed. What then are the facts? India initially said it was in the process of putting the evidence together. Now, its external affairs minister says his country has given evidence to Pakistan but Islamabad is not acting against the culprits on the basis of that information. The Interior secretary, Kamal Shah, was quoted by Nawa-e-Waqt (December 14, 2008) as saying that the captured terrorist Kasab was not on the record of NADRA and he did not possess a Pakistani ID card.

The entire issue has got mired in politics and nationalistic sparring. The “pause” in normalisation means the only framework in and through which India and Pakistan were moving forward and could, under the circumstances, is now in abeyance. And just when the two sides needed it the most to not only tackle the Mumbai episode but by agreeing to contextualise the problem of “terrorism” move towards a lasting solution of the problem. Now sane voices in India are asking their media to cool off; in Pakistan too sane voices must start speaking up so the issue can be put in the proper perspective. * (Daily Times, 22 Dec 2008)