THE number of sensational, yet inaccurate, reports in the Indian and Pakistani media about developments since the Uri attack is staggering: India staged the attack; India carried out a cross-border attack against militant sanctuaries; the Russians cancelled planned military exercises — the list goes on, and is particularly ironic given how media- dark the region being reported on is.
Unable (thankfully) to engage in open conflict for fear of escalation — with horrifying consequences — the nuclear-armed neighbours have instead engaged in a media war. The battle is no longer to be won and lost on the front lines; it is a virtual fight that plays out nightly on prime time talk shows and through incessant tweets. At stake — for now at least — is the narrative of Kashmir; the audience is both domestic and international.
India takes the line that Kashmiri unrest is stoked by Pakistan, and seeks to bury the serious issue of systemic and widespread human rights violations in the Valley under a broader conversation about Pakistan’s role in fostering regional terrorism. Pakistan rightly aims to highlight the plight of Kashmiris but simultaneously feigns ignorance about the country’s history of homegrown militancy in favour of emphasising Indian hegemonic intent. For India, the Kashmir issue is a bilateral one; for Pakistan, it is for the taking of the international community.
The media in both countries — faithfully, passionately and with little regard for facts — parrot these narratives and amplify them at the slightest provocation. Some coverage is the product of genuine distress at the state of affairs across the LoC and the nature of Pakistan-India relations. But it would be naive to think that all coverage is the organic expression of a spontaneous nationalism.
On both sides, media outlets are under pressure to tout the state line on the Kashmir issue. Indian journalist Rajdeep Sardesai has written about the pressure on Indian journalists to whip up nationalist sentiment rather than objectively report on developments in India-held Kashmir. In July, Sardesai noted that the “newly minted [Information & Broadcasting] minister has already warned that he expects ‘responsible’ coverage from the media; army information teams have red-flagged any attempt to send out any ‘negative’ news; the social media army of ‘proud Indians’ on Twitter has abusively accused journalists … of being ‘terrorist sympathisers’, ‘anti-national’ and questioned one’s parentage.”
Other media watchers have commented on the lack of coverage of pro-independence rallies in Kashmir. Shoaib Daniyal has analysed how the term ‘terrorist’ is more frequently deployed by the Indian media in reference to activities in Kashmir than in India’s north-eastern states. In August, a Kashmiri journalist resigned from a television channel, complaining that he was being forced to prepare “fabricated anti-Kashmir” reports.
The pressure on Pakistani news outlets is similar. News channels are fearful of commenting independently on foreign and security policies, and certain pro-military voices dictate the tenor of coverage, particularly on television. A deep-rooted culture of self-censorship coupled with the need to demonstrate the strongest patriotic credentials in an increasingly scrutinised and controlled media environment mean that news channels serve largely as PR machines for the powers that be.
Amplifying the nationalist stance — particularly vis-à-vis India — is the Pakistani broadcast media’s raison d’être. Gen Pervez Musharraf liberalised the broadcast media in the early 2000s following Kargil because he realised that in the absence of a vibrant Pakistani media landscape, Indian satellite channels had dominated the narrative. By delivering strong responses to Indian allegations, Pakistani media outlets are in a sense fulfilling their destiny. And in hammering the point that Indian finger-pointing must be preceded by a credible investigation, they are justified.
But there are many downsides to waging media warfare. Jingoistic eruptions distract from the crux of the issue — the appalling conditions under which people of the Valley are living. It is also dangerous to privilege rhetoric over fact when discussing a media-dark region; it is the responsibility of journalists to provide information about the region, whether on human rights violations or levels of militancy. By toeing the state line when bilateral relations are tense, journalists lose credibility as independent voices.
More importantly, media histrionics are creating the appetite for war. Consume enough talk shows about military preparedness and war scenarios and the prospect for real-life conflict seems increasingly palatable.
When nationalism is the need of the hour, very little is said about the real horrors of war. But the public on both sides need to know what they’re asking for when they clamour for war. Media outlets should be wary of creating such hype that reality is forced to live up to the fiction, and politicians compelled to make rash, uninformed decisions. Unlike a television, you can’t turn a war off.