Indo-Pak press code
By A.G. Noorani
THE Mumbai blasts in November 2008 were bound to affect relations between India and Pakistan. But it was the media on both sides, print and electronic, which made a bad situation worse; barring, of course, some notable exceptions.
What Kissinger wrote of the American media is true of South Asia’s media, no less. “Ubiquitous and clamorous media are transforming foreign policy into a subdivision of public entertainment. The intense competition for ratings produces an obsession with the crisis of the moment, generally presented as a morality play between good and evil having a specific outcome and rarely in terms of the long-range challenge of history.”
They prefer, instead, to set the agenda for today for the government to follow. Even in the early years of independence leaders of both countries were concerned at the destructive role of some sections of the press though it was not as powerful as it is today. However, when the state begins to meddle with the press, the result will be a total mess. There existed then an Indo-Pakistan Consultative Committee on Information.
It was set up by an agreement signed on Dec 14, 1948 which recognised “that the wholehearted cooperation of the press is essential for creating a better atmosphere” between the two countries. Its remit covered books as well as film. But it is hard to believe that hardheaded ministers could endorse something as vaporous as these clauses.
The press must not “indulge in propaganda against the other dominion, publish exaggerated versions of news of a character likely to inflame … publish material likely to be construed as advocating a declaration of war … or suggesting the inevitability of war between the two dominions. …[T]heir respective organisations handling publicity, including publicity through the radio and the film, (should) refrain from and control propaganda against the other dominion, and publication of exaggerated versions of news of a character likely to inflame, or cause fear or alarm”.
The publicity organs of both governments have been the worst offenders. The often feed and instigate the media, build up public opinion and plead inability to compromise.
In the Nehru-Liaquat agreement of April 6, 1950 the two sides solemnly pledged themselves to “take prompt and effective steps to prevent the dissemination of news and mischievous opinion calculated to rouse communal passion … The guilty of such activity shall be rigorously dealt with; nor permit propaganda in either country directed against the territorial integrity of the other or purporting to incite war between them and shall take prompt and effective action against any individual or organisation guilty of such propaganda”.
The committee met in New Delhi on April 27-28, 1960. Pakistan’s delegation was led by the Minister for National Reconstruction and Information, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Indian delegation was led by the Minister for Information and Broadcasting B.V. Keskar whose only claim to a place in history is his bar on the playing of the harmonium on All India Radio.
The committee, which also comprised representatives of the press in both countries, Â“examined in detail the joint press code which was adopted by the All India Newspaper Editors’ Conference and the Pakistan Newspaper Editors’ Conference” on April 28, 1950 and adopted 12 guidelines to supplement the code.
Their exhortation to virtue verged on the fatuous. The editors were asked to “observe voluntary restraint”. How? Sample these: “by avoiding dissemination of news calculated to undermine relations between the majority and minority communities in the two countries; by refusing to give currency to mischievous opinion of individuals … by excluding rigorously from the press of each country opinion directed against the territorial sovereignty of the other … by avoiding alarming headlines for reports of communal incidents … by examining objectively outstanding problems between the two countries … confining comment to the merits of the problem” and not making such problem “the basis of a general attack on the two governments”; eschewing personal, “contumacious or scurrilous attacks on the respected leaders of either country or the religion, culture and faithful of the people of both countries; and by avoiding historical controversies which may create or revive bitterness between the two countries.”
Would that cover a debate on the partition or on Kashmir?
The second meeting of this body on Nov 26, 1960 made two specific suggestions which are relevant still. One was to increase the facilities given to journalists of each other’s country. It found “the present procedure to be unduly restrictive”. The committee “favoured the exchange of visits by personnel of the two broadcasting organisations and wherever possible the joint production of programmes”.
The committee vanished into thin air taking its guidelines and the code with it. We face an altogether new situation today. The media will not allow itself to be lectured to or regulated by the state. But it can and should bestir itself to improve matters. The Press Council of India set up by law is an irrelevance because leading media figures are not represented on it. In contrast, the British Press Complaints Commission was set up by leading members of the media to oversee and enforce a code of practice “framed by the newspaper and periodical industry” itself, nearly two decades ago.
This is an example worthy of emulation; not only domestically but also at the Pakistan-India level. Any prominent editor on either side can take the lead; form a small team within his country and invite leading media personalities from the other country to embark on a joint exercise.
It should begin with modest steps: review recent developments in the media; set afoot studies on a Pakistan-India press code; and set up a joint committee which would meet periodically in each other’s country to pronounce on major breaches of the code and review the state of press freedom on each side. The media will be striking a powerful blow for sanity in the relations between India and Pakistan.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.