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KARACHI, Dec 8 2008 (IPS) - Pakistani and Indian journalists and columnists, who forged personal relationships over the past two decades during countless joint media consultations and seminars, are struggling to overcome hostilities between their countries since the Mumbai carnage.
Close to 200 people died after a ten-man squad, armed with assualt rifles, grenades and explosives, rampaged through the Indian port city of Mumbai before barricading themselves inside two luxury hotels to hold off commandos for 60 hours from Nov. 26-28.
The one captured gunman’s alleged links to a banned terrorist outfit in Pakistan had barely begun to emerge when belligerent rhetoric from the Indian media drew an indignant response from Pakistanis who have since then been picking holes in the Indian arguments.
Has the media hype contributed to rising tensions between the nuclear-armed states – or are hostilities between the countries contributing to tensions between their media?
Indian voices in the Pakistani media, and vice versa, disappeared after the 1965 war. It was not until 30 years later that journalists who met at a convention of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) in New Delhi, in 1995 began writing for each other’s publications.
In such times, the “internalisation of myths and mindsets” as the Indian journalist Rita Manchanda put it, comes to the fore. “More mundanely and invisibly, such (media) manipulation results from ‘routines’ of news gathering, structures of ownership and the exigencies of technology -the tyranny of ‘live’ coverage on 24-hour news channels.”
Her observations followed consultations about how the media covered the Kargil conflict of 1999, in “Reporting Conflict: A Radical Critique of the Mass Media by Indian & Pakistani Journalists’’, published by the South Asia Forum for Human Rights in May 2001.
A decade later, little appears to have changed. The rise of independent television channels has in fact increased sensationalist reporting as they compete for viewership, with audience ratings jumping during live coverage of crises.
Conspiracy theories on both sides abound. One Pakistani TV host blamed the Mumbai carnage on “Zionist Hindus” and insisted that the captured gunman was actually a Sikh and his killed companion a Hindu. Although the host has little credibility the episode is up on various websites, prompting Indians to ask “Is this what Pakistani channels are showing?”
Observers note that some Indian channels were no better. Such conspiracy theories also have adherents in India, who insist that the Hindu right-wing in collaboration with the Israelis was behind the carnage.
The point is, say analysts, for anyone to discuss the identity of the gunmen is just speculation until the facts emerge fully.
Meanwhile, the non-stop media commentary has “pulled to the surface latent rage, deep prejudices and highlighted the incompetence of the system,” as physicist and peace activist Isa Daudpota commented in an op-ed in Pakistani daily ‘Dawn’ on Dec. 8.
Drawing attention to the “ridiculous confrontation” between India and Pakistan on the Siachen glacier as well as the “core issue” of the disputed state of Kashmir, Daudpota urged the leadership to get together and draw up a lasting peace plan dealing with these issues.
“Not too long ago, the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad made apparent almost identical sentiments and flaws in Pakistan’s systems. In our failures, it is sadly reassuring that we are the same people”.
The commonality in history, culture, language, music, sports and food often creates an instant bond on a human level when journalists from Pakistan and India meet.
One senior editor in New Delhi recalls a Pakistani hotel clerk in Brussels who went out of his way to make the visiting Indian comfortable. “In a sense journalists lead the ‘people-to-people’ contacts by riding first on the Samjhauta Express (train between the two countries) or taking sponsored bus rides to Lahore,” he comments.
Only two media houses in Pakistan and India currently have a correspondent each in the Indian and Pakistani capitals respectively. Others employ locals as correspondents or stringers. With officials in both countries reluctant (or not allowed to speak openly to the media) it is often journalists who stand in for them.
Islamabad correspondent for the respected Indian daily ‘The Hindu’ Nirupama Subramaniam, told IPS that she has been feeling like a ‘punching bag’ since the Mumbai drama began.
“Television talk shows have continuously called upon me as if I was the spokesman for Indian television channels, government of India, Indian chauvinists, the whole of India. But I felt I had to go on those programmes in order to engage with Pakistanis, especially journalists.”
Although she felt she “wasn’t getting through to anyone”, viewers appreciated her efforts. “I liked her honesty, straightforwardness and lack of defensiveness,” a retired doctor in Karachi told IPS. “We need to hear more such (Indian) voices in the media.”
But the prevailing anger in India is hindering dialogue even among journalists. Pakistani TV channel Indus Television’s Director Current Affairs Shaheen Salahuddin who tries to include ‘sane voices’ from India on her daily show ‘Khuli Baat’ (Open Talk) was taken aback by a recent incident involving an editor in New Delhi.
“I had met him at several conferences and called him after the Mumbai attacks. He agreed but after that, I called three times and he was always ‘in a meeting’,” she told IPS. “Finally when I got my secretary to call they told her he wouldn’t talk to any Pakistani journalist. Even Bharat Bhushan (editor of ‘Mail Today’ who is known to be friendly to Pakistan) didn’t call me back.”
When contacted, Bhushan told IPS via email that he had sent a phone text message saying he would be unable to do the interview, which Salahuddin apparently did not receive.
Still Salahuddin does manage to get alternative viewpoints countering the dominant antagonism, like defence analyst Uday Bhaskar who has even helped her with other contacts for her show. A recent episode included the veteran Indian ‘peacenik’ journalist and a former Indian special forces commander.
“Even if there are tensions, war should be ruled out as an option,” argued Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar. However, he added grimly in response to a question about the ‘war hype’, “it is still very much there”.
Indian analyst Lt. Gen. (retired) Afsir Karim put it straight: both countries “should cooperate to combat terrorism. War will complicate, not solve the situation’’.
He agreed that the Mumbai attacks would not have been possible without local help – a point that Pakistani commentators have been stressing. He added that the attackers “obviously wanted to derail the peace process and take the pressure off Pakistan’s western border”.
With the Pakistan-India composite dialogue currently at a virtual standstill, hostile comments on either side are “fed” by vested interests, veteran Lahore-based journalist Imtiaz Alam told IPS.
Pointing to some prominent talk shows and newspaper columnists, Alam accused them of “following the ISI’s mandate”. The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) has for years been involved in nurturing ‘jehadi’ groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) that are accused of being behind the Mumbai carnage.
Alam, who founded the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) in July 2000, said that while the Indian media did “pre-judge and jump to conclusions, this happens at times like these’’.
A voice frequently heard on Pakistani TV channels is that of the hawkish former ISI chief Lt. Gen. (retd.) Hamid Gul. Another retired general, Salahuddin Tirmiz referred to India as Pakistan’s “dushman mulk” (enemy country), even before the Mumbai assaults were over.
“While India goes through its national tragedy, this so-called ‘security expert’ has nothing better to say than dub India as ‘our enemy’ and create mass hysteria in Pakistan,” wrote Islamabad-based analyst Foqia Sadiq Khan in a strong letter of protest about Tirmizi’s comment to the TV channel, a copy of which she sent IPS.
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