Sticking to the official line

IN Media Monitoring | 16/04/2005
Officials of both countries wanted to use the media to get their point of view of across and the Fourth Estate, instead of following an unfettered line of thinking, acquiesced.
 

 

 

 

Indo Pak Monitoring-III

 

 

The Hoot has been running a series on how India and Pakistan cover each other based on month long monitoring exercises. This is the third  part, based on monitoring done between July 15 and August 15 2004. The monitoring was done by the Centre for Advocacy and Research in India, and Media Solutions in Pakistan. This is first of two articles on this period.

 

 

 

 

Mannika Chopra

 

 

Historically, Indo-Pak relations have been dotted with setbacks, false starts and full stops. The vacillating relationship between these two rivals has been reflected in their coverage in the newspapers of the respective countries. But July 15 to August 15, 2004 was an eventful four weeks. In this month foreign minister’s of the SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Countries) met; a series of interactions between India and Pakistan on confidence-building measures took place as did the heartening release of prisoners of war (PoW) and the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka. Against this background the general tone of reportage on both sides of the LoC verged on cautious optimism rather than in a visceral, rabid reaction to events.

 

Over all, in the articles culled from Dawn, Daily Jang, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Jansatta and Dainik Hindustan a few common denominators emerged. News reports when connected specifically with the India Pakistan dialogue very clearly emanated from official on-the-record briefings or from off-the-record backgrounders. It appeared that officials from both countries wanted to use the media to get their point of view of across and the Fourth Estate instead of following an unfettered line of thinking acquiesced. It was very rare to find a pro-Pakistan line in an Indian newspaper or vice versa.  Writing in favour of the ‘national interest’ and dependable journalism seemed synonymous.

 

Reports based on people feelings and reactions to connect the story to the community were absent. Whether it was papers like Hindustan Times or Dawn the official line became the news report. Editorially, there seemed to be a slim grasp for the need to connect between content, credibility and readership. There was little indication of selected newspapers conducting informed investigation on their own. But extensive reporting on the release of two Indian PoWs and their reunification with their families provided a refreshing, new voice in the reportage. It was a change from the dreary chronicle of he said, she said kind of journalism.

 

Despite the huge potential for trade and business between South Asian neighbours, the papers on both countries gave the topic little coverage. Cricket was the flavour of the month especially as the Asia Cup was being played. Exhaustive coverage was given by publications like Hindustan Times which brought out a daily page, entitled may be in the absence of a cross border conflict,  ‘Battle for Asia’ The multi-coloured page was crowded with in-your-face visuals, graphics, reports and analysis. Even the regular sports page that faced the paper’s edit page had, on occasion, three four stories on Pakistan cricket/cricketers or the Indo Pak confrontation. Further away from the cricket stadiums of Sri Lanka but matching hyperbole for hyperbole was Dawn. In its sports page on its Internet edition, the Pakistani paper highlighted the defeat of India by shouting, "Sri Lankans throttle India to clinch finals. " (August 1)

 

In the run up to the meeting of SAARC foreign ministers in Islamabad, dailies on both sides of the border highlighted the issues that would dominate the two day talks.  If the sources were Pakistani then the spin was that the issue of Kashmir needed to be included in the regional talks. If the source of information was Indian then the angle was that under its mandate SAARC is all about regional issues and not the platform to discuss bilateral disputes.

 

In its curtain raiser report, Jansatta (July 16), quoted the Pakistani High Commissioner, Aziz Ahmed Khan: " We are hopeful that things would move positively since the environment is more conducive." The diplomat also felt that Kashmir was an issue that needed to be included in any on going dialogue between the two countries. The Indian Express front-paged its pre-view report (July 19) with a double-decker headline: "Pak wants Security Talks; it’s not listed, says India."  The report written by Pranab Dhal Samanta  from Islamabad. detailed prominently the lobbying that was being pushed by Pakistani officials to include ‘‘peace and security issues for SAARC to emerge as a vibrant organization.’’  Hindustan Times used practically the same line and similar headings on two consecutive days: "Pak harps on K- word on eve of SAARC meeting." (July 19, Saurabh Shukla along with PTI ) and "Pak presses the K button ahead of meet. " (July 20, Saurabh Shukla)  Both reports came with an Islamabad dateline.

 

India’s stonewalling tactics on Kashmir was highlighted by Dawn in its Internet edition. In a front page report quoted the welcome address given by Pakistan foreign Minister, Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri: "… the air of is full of hope but. SAARC’s needs to give some thought to discussing ways and means whereby differences and disputes can be settled amicably. " Later, the paper reported  ‘Key India Pak issues discussed" (July 21) in ‘a two hour meeting on the sidelines of SAARC sidelines. Both sides agreed to continue talks.’

 

Apart from the controversy of including bilateral disputes in the talks, there was a surfeit of coverage often with a strong visual element. The Indian Express, using a Reuter’s picture (July 21), front-paged a photo op of the Indian foreign minister, K. Natwar Singh, interim Pakistan Prime Minster, Shujaat Hussein Chowdhury and Prime Minister designate, Shaukat Aziz in an awkward, American high school style team hand shake. A similar close-up shot appeared on the same day in Dawn.

 

Mostly reportage on the SAARC meet was routine with a whiff of new insights.  Hindustan Times reported extensively that, ‘ Talks were friendly but irritants remained with India bringing up the issue of infiltration (July 21)."  Lighter snippets on SAARC appeared as sidelights in the form of ‘Pakistan Diary., compiled by Saurabh Shukla’ One such-- that Natwar Singh was being nicknamed Not War Singh in the local media and that new age spiritualist, Sri Sri Ravi Sankar, the Art of Living guru, speaking to a packed hall in Karachi was advocating the Art of Peace. But these silver linings were backed by negative over tones: "PoK bus may remain a dream," stated one diary item.  On the day when foreign ministers were scheduled to meet The Indian Express carried a small report on its International page (July 21) that according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, " Pakistani intelligence agencies were interfering in the affairs of the autonomous state of PoK."

 

Perhaps more than other dailies, both Indian and Pakistani, The Indian Express used a sense of occasion in its reporting on the emerging closer ties between the two nations. The buzzwords were composite dialogues and confidence building measures (CBMs) but the approach was celebratory.  In its coverage of the series of talks on the on the eve of the meeting between culture secretaries of India and Pakistan the publication highlighted that such interaction taking place after a gap of six years, (August 2) The long front page report by Jyoti Malhotra , continued on Page 2, spoke of how culture and increased people to people contact would forming the bedrock of emerging closer ties between the sparring nations.

 

At the start of the first round of Siachen talks, Daily Jang, in a main page lead, too, sounded hopeful that the Siachen might be declared a no military zone (August 6.) In contrast, on the same day, Hindustan dismally reported little progress on the first round of Siachen talks. " The Indian army is well stationed and positioned in the Sachin glacier and giving away positions to Pakistan can never be considered," said the report quoting an anonymous source.

 

Audience retention on Indo-Pak reportage was perhaps greater when news moved away from the tedious, apparently unfruitful official talks to more investigative enterprise. For instance, a detailed front-page anchor in Hindustan Times (July 25), coinciding with Vijay Divas, on the failure by the Indian intelligence and the Indian army to pick up infiltration by Pakistan soldiers during Kargil made an impact. The report by Kanwar Sandhu outlined how the Pakistan benefited from lax attitude of Indian officials. The in depth story later lead to an edit page piece as well, Kargil Uncovered (August 4).

 

Weightage of opinion pieces on the edit and op-ed pages during this month tilted more towards Kashmir, security issues, human rights, role of America in Pakistani diplomacy and women’s rights. These were not cut and paste jobs, or spots reports burdened by news element, but provided food for thought. Apparently, more than news reporters, edit page writers largely see themselves as problem solvers.

 

In a bizarrely argued righteous opinion piece in Daily Jang (July 18) Mushtaq Ahmed Qureshi wrote on reports appearing in the Indian media about how Indian armed forces faked killings of Pakistanis in order to win civilian awards.  The writer used extracts from Indian news publications to outline his argument but ended with salutations to Allah. ‘’ The Pakistani forces do not commit such crimes in defense of their country. They now that they are smaller in number and they don’t even have access to resources that the enemy has but they have the power of faith which each Pakistani soldier has in abundance. As the enemy has no faith, no religion they can do anything against us, therefore one cannot trust them."

 

The following day an op-ed piece (July 19) by Hamid Mir argued that India wanted Pakistan to send forces to Iraq so that there would be an increase in problems for Pakistan in the Middle East and dilute its position on Kashmir"…. If …. Pakistan helps in aiding America take control of Iraq it will morally weaken its stand on Kashmir. Then it will be easy for India to say that the country who helped an occupied force to take control of Iraq cannot blame Indian forces for doing the same thing.’’

 

Far more reasoned and balanced was an editorial in Dawn, (July 29). "President Musharraf`s dilemma is clear and to an extent understandable. He is saddled with an ally-cum-opposition that is raucous in its anti-Indian stand. He probably also faces pressure from foreign office bureaucrats steeped in years of shaping a crusty policy vis-à-vis India, and indeed from elements within the military who have not yet reconciled themselves to the new ground realities. The course of negotiations between India and Pakistan has been a tortuous one. ……Now that the thread has been picked up again after bitter lessons learnt by both, the greatest care is needed to ensure that the goodwill generated and the small steps towards reconciliation already taken are not in any way endangered. He needs some visible advance on the Kashmir track to be able to silence the many obstreperous critics all around. India should not lend strength to the view that it is foot-dragging on Kashmir while it is happy to speed up resolution of other problems. "

 

In a more discordant tone, Kuldip Nayar in The Indian Express (July 27) on Kashmir said no amount of Pakistan sponsored infiltration has changed the ground situation. "All it has done is to communalise the Kashmir movement which was once indigenous in content and national in character. Islamabad fails to realize that Kashmir is not a religious issue". The edit appeared again in the Dawn internet edition (July 31). Vir Sanghvi in his column, Counterpoint, in Hindustan Times (August 6) was uneasy about the general optimism about peace with Pakistan.  Explaining his stand he wrote,  ‘’ It is because I am not convinced that Pakistan establishment shares public enthusiasm for better relations."

 

Two different voices on the edit pages came from women ironically on the same day. Hindustan Times printed an edit page piece, Carry on Democracy (July 26) by Sherry Rehman, president of the Pakistan People’s Party, Central Policy Planning Wing. She stated that General Musharraf’s support base ‘’has been rocked to the core and that he heads a floundering dictatorship." As Rehman is a political activist she clearly had her own axes to grind.  Introducing new insights in a different kind of edit page piece in The Indian Express, Pamela Philipose said, " Muslim women in India are way behind their counterparts in Bangladesh and Pakistan.  "Unlike Pakistan where women have access to those in power, in India they form most invisible communities in terms of education, employment rights and decision making." The writer argued that it was this invisibility that accounted for low social conditions of Indian Muslim women. Reports like these made one hope that someday media without borders could be a possibility.

 

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