Media for peace
IT is a shame that Pakistan declined at the last minute to sign a pact on a new liberalised visa regime with India. Although the governments agreed in principle to ease restrictions on business travellers, they were unable to finalise a broader agreement to facilitate cross-border exchanges.
The need for increased people-to-people — as well as business-to-business — interaction across the eastern border cannot be stressed enough. Despite the reluctance of politicians in Islamabad, gains towards improving bilateral relations were made in Mumbai where Indian and Pakistani journalists came together to call for improved cooperation. Since Pakistan’s independent media has demonstrated its ability to shape bilateral relations, this was a significant step towards stronger India-Pakistan ties.
The journalists gathered at the Mumbai Press Club, which was celebrating ‘Karachi Week’ in honour of a visiting 14-member delegation comprising media professionals from Karachi and Hyderabad. Representatives of the Mumbai and Karachi press clubs called for visa liberalisation for journalists from both sides.
They also identified the need for an online news and information exchange system to boost cross-border media cooperation. Most importantly, the journalists urged their peers on both sides of the border to cease using hateful language when reporting on each other’s countries.
This positive signalling shows how far we’ve come, and portends well for how far we could go, towards normalising relations with India. After all, Pakistan’s independent media was itself liberalised over a decade ago in an effort to counter ‘Indian propaganda’.
The Pakistani establishment first recognised the need for a diverse and proliferating media landscape during the 1999 Kargil war. At the time, in the absence of a private Pakistani broadcast media, millions of Pakistanis tuned into Indian channels via illegal satellite dishes to learn about the conflict, only to be bombarded in hysterical detail about the Pakistan Army’s setbacks during the operation.
Our military also perceived that its position before the international community was compromised as a result of the vocal and virulent anti-Pakistan stance of the Indian media.
Having lost the media war along with Kargil, the establishment acknowledged the need for an indigenous media that could counter the Indian narrative. Over the years, we have seen the media live up to this mandate by weaving numerous conspiracy theories, blaming Indian agents for suicide bombings, vociferously denying Pakistani involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and reporting on fake Wikileaks cables aimed at undermining the Indian military.
But now, thanks to initiatives such as the meet-up in Mumbai, we’re seeing elements of an industry that was conceived as an instrument of hate transform into a conduit for dialogue.
This transformation, however gradual, is an important dimension of improved Pakistan-India relations. At present, Pakistan’s national narrative about India is determined by Zia-era school curriculum, anti-India organisations, rabid clerics and, sadly, certain sections of the media.
Progressive elements within Pakistan’s popular, trusted private media may be the only ones who can challenge the national narrative about India and prime the Pakistani public for increasing cross-border engagement. Officials in Islamabad and New Delhi who are seeking improved trade relations should also facilitate media cooperation — the two will necessarily go hand in hand.
At early stages, journalists’ exchanges can substitute for or amplify any people-to-people contact: reporting from across the border on non-security issues can help humanise the previously demonised other and begin to alter perceptions of the perennial dushman.
More collaboration and information-sharing between media professionals from Pakistan and India will also create a sense of accountability to colleagues across the border. This could create an opportunity for both media industries to improve their standards: in Pakistan and India, booming, competitive industries have led print and electronic outlets to resort to sensationalism and misreporting to get the highest ratings. An understanding to produce jingoism-free news coverage of bilateral issues could serve as an incentive to be more fair and factual.
Media buy-in to the idea of normalised relations is also important at a political level. Pakistan and India pursue policies of ‘incrementalism’ whereby a step-by-step, confidence-building path towards resolving major issues is established. As governments take small steps (business visas, counterterrorist information exchanges), the media can help publics stay focused on the bigger picture (regional stability, trade corridors, shared energy grids) rather than the setbacks that occur en route.
Moreover, if a significant event such as a terrorist attack threatens to derail the normalisation process, an unbiased, fact-based media response from both sides of the border could prevent the situation from spiralling out of control and circumvent the need for populist responses to a political problem.
During a meeting of Pakistani and Indian journalists in 2009, the editor of the Indian Mail Today expressed scepticism at the media’s role in improving relations: “India and Pakistan do not determine their relations and national interest based on what the media saying.” That is not entirely true. In Pakistan, the media has accrued the power to whip up public sentiment and that sentiment increasingly backs policymakers into uncomfortable political corners.
Consider how the Pakistani media has been used as a negotiating tool in the context of US-Pakistan relations. The establishment pointed to the (initially manufactured) anti-American narrative in the media to explain Islamabad’s inability to accept certain requests from Washington. But the media’s staged indignation opened a Pandora’s box of authentic anti-Americanism and suspicion among the public.
Now, when the political and security establishment is seeking a working relationship with the US, it is constrained by the resentment of an angry public that froths at the mouth at any mention of US-Pakistan cooperation. Learning from past mistakes, the government should now turn to the media as a positive influence in the trajectory of Pakistan-India relations.
The writer is a freelance journalist.