Is media obsession on security issues affecting Indo-Pak trade?

BY Rahul Mediratta| IN Media Practice | 13/10/2014
DOCUMENTATION: The underreporting on trade-related activity between India and Pakistan is an important impediment to trade normalization between the two neighbouring countries.
RAHUL MEDIRATTA’s quantitative analysis of five newspapers in an ICRIER working paper (PIX: The Times of India, October 12, 2014).
Is trade captured in popular discourse on India-Pakistan relations? Over the past two decades, officials in India and Pakistan’s industry and Governments have been involved in several activities regarding bilateral trade normalization. These developments have been concentrated around three periods: the late-1990s, mid-2000s, and early-2010s. Activities have ranged from conducting roundtables and negotiating agreements, to coordinating trade expos and enhancing trade facilities at border crossings. 
 
Are these waves of trade-related activity reflected in popular media coverage? This question comes at a time when popular media is being increasingly evaluated for its breadth of coverage on India-Pakistan relations. A longstanding and important criticism of media coverage on India-Pakistan relations is it tends to be pre-occupied with developments in the security realm, to the exclusion of developments in non-security areas. Among these works, there is consensus that media tend to favor reporting on negative events in order to improve viewer ratings. For example, in her analysis of the press’ reaction to the Indo-Pak People’s Conference in Delhi in 1995, Sumanta Bannerji (1995) finds that Indian mainstream press quoted hostile opinions expressed by Pakistani officials and no positive comments which appeared in Pakistani newspapers. This conference brought together Indian and Pakistani delegates from many professional backgrounds, such as politicians, activists, lawyers, scientists, trade union representatives, journalists, and artists. Smruti S. Pattanaik’s (2004) examination of coverage on Kashmir, nuclear arms, and trade in India and Pakistan’s English-language print media reveal that “there are limitations in expressing opinions… the commercial aspect is paramount—news has to sell… [and] newspapers are sometimes reluctant to publish material which would unnecessarily drag them into controversy… the opinion page, though maintaining a certain degree of autonomy, generally avoid confrontation with the official stand” (p.178). Beena Sarwar’s (2009) analysis of coverage on more recent events such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks showcases the media’s ongoing bias in favor of negative statements. Since no other string of events between India and Pakistan are more frequently negative than developments in the security context, this may partly explain the media’s seemingly lackluster reporting on events beyond conflict, such as with trade-related activity. A recent volume on Media Practice in Twenty-first Century India thus characterizes Kashmir as a “media mecca” denoting that “Kashmir dominates media and analytical spheres” (Ninan & Chatterji, 2013, p.xv, p.21).
 
These criticisms imply that information on non-security issues such as trade, has limited penetration into popular discourse on India-Pakistan relations. A dearth of popular awareness on trade-related activities between India and Pakistan may limit the extent to which it is politically feasible for governments to invest further resources towards trade normalization, or perhaps the extent to which the public necessarily pressure politicians to do so.
 
Communication studies scholars label the effect of mass media on influencing public opinion and the public agenda as ‘agenda-setting’. The foundational study in this literature by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972) purports that though the media cannot necessarily tell the public what to think, it can influence its readers on what to think about, by divesting more coverage to certain issue areas and less coverage to other areas. Greater coverage can powerfully influence the select issues that public opinion focus on, and thus determine the public policy agenda.2 Consequently, underreporting on trade-related activity can amount to an important impediment to trade normalization between India and Pakistan which can be labeled as an ‘informational barrier’. Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director General of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, thusly commented the following at the 7th South Asia Conference:
 
“Adversarial and negative perceptions come in the way of regional cooperation and integration. Hyperactive 24x7 media plays a role in perpetuating cynicism. A cooperative approach to resolving regional issues remains elusive. But this need not be so. An effort to forge positive perceptions about each other must be made” (2013, October 30).
 
Similarly, Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Centre for Policy Research, pointed out the following in an article in the Indian Express:
 
“Even simple things like trade and investment involve large assumptions about what you will let people do, how you will let them travel, how much presumed trust you repose in them and so forth…They have to make reference to a larger story towards which we are driving.” (2013, October 13)
 
India-Pakistan trade normalization is especially pertinent in the wake of India’s Spring 2014 elections. Pakistan has indicated they plan to grant Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) to India, with the entry of India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Nigam, 2014). Industry voices such as Zubair Ahmed Malik, the President of the Federation of Pakistani Chambers of Commerce and Industry, urge that “MFN [Most Favored Nation] status must be given to India” regardless of the electoral results (“Pakistan should grant MFN”, 2013). India’s past Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh responded that he hoped tovisit Pakistan should MFN be granted to India (“Manmohan may visit Pakistan”, 2013).These discussions intimate a future vision of India-Pakistan relations anchored on greater cooperation and less animosity, but does this discourse reach the newsstands? Recent scholarship on Indian public opinion and the country’s foreign policy suggests that “with thespread of education and media, the Indian public is becoming increasingly aware of India's foreign policy options and the issues at stake” (Blarel & Pardesi, 2013). Thus, to the extent that media coverage on India-Pakistan exercises a security bias, this trend may constitute an informational barrier to normalizing India-Pakistan trade. 
 
The paper continues as follows. The next section reviews barriers to trade, which are typically categorized as tariffs or non-tariff barriers. Examples are cited for each barrier type in the India-Pakistan context. Overall, literature on informational barriers is least developed. The subsequent section summarizes trade-related activities between India and Pakistan over the past two decades, which has been concentrated around three periods: the late-1990s, mid-2000s, and early 2010s. 
 
This summary serves as a baseline for evaluating if news dailies capture these periods of activity. Methods for measuring quantum of coverage among five newspapers are described, which are the Times of India (TOI), Economic Times (ET), Business Standard (BS), New York Times (NYT) and Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The results reveal that the ET, BS, and WSJ capture the dynamism of trade-related activities over the past two decades between India and Pakistan. The TOI and NYT, by contrast, do not. The paper concludes with an in-depth discussion on why underreporting in the TOI and NYT is problematic, and future research directions. Subsequent research work may entail a qualitative content analysis to evaluate biases in reporting, agenda-setting in India’s Internet age, agenda-setting in India’s cognitive and social contexts, and a concept labeled the 'media agenda’ as it relates to the Aman ki Asha peace initiative between the TOI Group and the Jang Group of Pakistan.
 
The full ICRIER working paper is available here.
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