Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

INDIA/PAKISTAN: Hoax Call Hyped by Media – Get Hostilities to Brink

Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Dec 6 2008 (IPS) - A hoax phone call from India to Pakistan’s President threatening military reprisals in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Mumbai city, hyped up by media, brought the nuclear-armed neighbours close to conflict.

However, analysts believe that the hostilities arising from the attack and the media hype can still be contained.

The three-day standoff in Mumbai was barely over on Nov. 28 when the late-evening phone call was made, supposedly from India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. Because of the heightened tensions, his staff bypassed routine procedures and transferred the call to Zardari.

The imposter “directly threatened to take military action if Islamabad failed to immediately act against the supposed perpetrators of the Mumbai killings” according to a report in the daily Dawn, Pakistan of Dec. 6, which reveals that the call was a hoax that sent Pakistan into a state of ‘high alert’ last weekend, “eyeing India for possible signs of military aggression”.

The “aggressive” call, as the news trickled out, created grounds for anger in Pakistan and was used to create public opinion against sending the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to India as the Pakistan government had agreed to do.

A tussle over the issue between the Pakistan army and the civilian government ended with the government reneging on its promise and saying that only a ‘representative’ of the ISI would be sent.

Hostilities had already been exacerbated by the Indian media playing up the Pakistan angle and indignant Pakistanis responding by poking holes in the claim that there were Pakistani links to the Mumbai attacks.

Pakistani media also highlighted hostile Indian commentary and programming, which does not help, as Nirupama Subramaniam, Islamabad-based correspondent of the respected Indian daily ‘The Hindu’ pointed out as a guest on one of the several talk shows she wasw invited to after the Mumbai carnage began.

Asma Shirzai, ARY Television’s host, asked her to comment on a clip from an Indian channel in the ‘movie trailer’ mode bringing in the Pakistan angle. “This channel, ‘India TV’, is not one that most Indians watch. It has no credibility,” said Subramaniam, “But if you guys play up such clips on your channels, it’s only going to increase hostilities by giving the impression that this is [official] India’s view. It’s not.”

‘Nationalism’ trumping journalistic ethics is neither new nor restricted to India and Pakistan, note analysts.

Journalists in the United States fell into this trap when al-Qaeda carried out aerial attacks on that country on September 11, 2001. Their unquestioning over-reliance on a blinkered establishment prepared the ground for bombing Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. The information provided by the security apparatus turned out to be false, but by then, it was too late.

In contrast British and Spanish media, say observers, dealt more maturely with the situation following terror attacks on their countries, keeping matters from spinning out of control.

After Mumbai, Western media have also been accused of playing up hostilities. “Right off the bat they have been saying that this is a problem that has emerged from Pakistan (without making a) distinction between the role of the state and those who are outside the state,” Tariq Amin-Khan, a Toronto-based college professor told ‘The Real News’, Canada, a web-based television channel in an interview on Dec. 4.

“They have also talked about the idea of war, and these are responsible outlets such as the BBC and CNN. Of course they’re saying that’s the word on the street but I thought they should have been a bit more careful.”

The viewership of India’s 24-hour news channels jumped 180 percent thanks to the live coverage that began with the first assault on the night of Nov. 26, according to Television Audience Measurement data for the week ending Nov. 29, reports the Dawn’s New Delhi correspondent Jawed Naqvi.

There has been widespread criticism in India of how the live coverage of the 60-hour-long battle between commandos and the 10-odd gunmen was handled. “Fears have been expressed that a few of the victims died because TV anchors identified their locations and the gunmen used the information to direct their fire with precision,” wrote Naqvi.

“But the government is evidently also worried about social repercussions in a communally charged situation the attacks have created.”

The Indian information ministry has now sent an advisory to all TV channels with guidelines regarding coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks, that seeks “an assurance that channels would avoid running stories pertaining to the recent attacks, which might make the terrorists feel that their operation was successful,’’ wrote Naqvi.

So will saner voices prevail over public anger and the Indian government’s need to act ‘tough’ in this situation, given that this is an election year with huge political pressures?

Siddharth Varadarajan, deputy editor of the respected Indian daily ‘The Hindu’ believes that, despite the setbacks, it will be the former. “I am not pessimistic about relations,” he said in an interview with ‘The Real News’ on Dec. 3. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that relations will take a nose dive and there’ll be a conflict.”

Pointing out the “unprecedented advances” over the past five years, he noted that Indian authorities have been careful not to blame the Pakistan government, but “elements from Pakistan” for the Mumbai attacks.

And, despite the political opposition’s attempts to “ratchet up their rhetoric and to paint the government into a corner,’’ he stressed the need to appreciate the depth of the unprecedented public sentiment “against politicisation of this tragedy”.

In the end, international pressure on Pakistan to cooperate with the probe will prevail, believes Varadarajan. “We have this curious situation where if the Pakistan government and Pakistan army are serious about the long term survival and viability of Pakistan as a nation state they’ll find it in their interest to fight these groups.”

Republish | | Print |