War, with ad breaks

The theatre of conflict has shifted to media where battles are lost and fought on a daily basis

Written by Raza Rumi | Published:October 20, 2016 12:22 am
In Pakistan, journalism has turned into a vehicle of articulating “national interest” as defined by the state. In Pakistan, journalism has turned into a vehicle of articulating “national interest” as defined by the state.

In a world where “war on terror” is the overarching framework, the India-Pakistan conflict has entered a dangerous game of one-upmanship through popular media, where news outlets, cinema and the movement of artists are viewed as instruments of conflict. This makes the pursuit of normalisation, or even the resolution of long-standing disputes, difficult, if not impossible.

Some years ago, I began hearing the term “non-kinetic” in the context of warfare being waged against Pakistan by its adversaries. I found it refers to the use of informational, psychological and technological means to undermine “national will of the adversary”. The security jargon keeps creating new ways to keep the war business going — a main lever of security states is the media.

Islamabad and New Delhi have discovered a new source of national prowess — the howling television anchor, along with the toxic analyst who simulates multiple defeats of the “enemy” within seconds. Information warfare is not new. The best example is perhaps the United States where popular media is an instrument of war propaganda. The classic case is the way The New York Times supported the invasion of Iraq and built public support, citing inside sources. Thirteen years later, there is consensus that it was a colossal mistake — even politicians like Donald Trump are eager to distance themselves from that misadventure.

Reporting on national security issues in both India and Pakistan largely propagates state narratives. The role of media has been critical to the trajectory of bilateral relations but the emergence of media as a party, or worse, an abettor of conflict, is worrying. By its very definition, journalism serves public interest, but in our case, it has turned into a vehicle of articulating “national interest” as defined by the state. Questioning the state is misrepresented as attacking “vital national interests” in both countries. Even mildly critical journalists are immediately termed “anti-national” and advised to move to the “enemy” territory.

Powerful corporate interests drive this show. In Pakistan, the military is hegemonic. In India, corporate power is aligned with political elites. In this process, truth is secondary. Both on the Uri attacks and the subsequent “surgical strikes” (which Pakistan vehemently denies ever took place), the publics in both nations believe what their governments tell them. On social media, Pakistanis have been lampooning the trumpeted strikes, while Indians have been celebrating a victory reminiscent of India’s role in breaking up Pakistan. Pakistani media says the country is not isolated as China, Russia and the US are still allies. Indian pundits cite the cancellation of the SAARC summit as a sign of successfully isolating Pakistan.

The war theatre has shifted to media where battles are lost and fought on a daily basis.

Recently, Pakistan’s leading newspaper Dawn published a report recounting how, in a high-level security meeting, the civilian government officials reportedly warned the military leadership of the growing international isolation of Pakistan and sought consensus on fighting non-state actors. After two denials, the chiefs of army and the ISI met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif where the Dawn story was discussed. The prime minister’s office issued another denial, lectured the media on principles of reporting “national security issues” and called for “stern action” against those violating these principles in this case. The journalist who wrote that report was placed on the Exit Control List for a few days. After national and international pressure, the ban on his travel was lifted.

Dawn has come under the dark cloud of state oversight because it sought to expose that the national security doctrine is contested and not uniformly viewed by civil and military actors. Perhaps what alarmed the security establishment is that the report became major headlines in Indian (and global) media. Hyper-nationalists saw it as information warfare from within, as it benefits the “enemy”.

Indian journalists have also spoken out over the recent India-Pakistan crisis. A number of Indian liberal journalists criticise the warmongering model where studios are converted into “war rooms” for commercially driven ratings. Some have questioned state narratives, especially on the “surgical strikes”. But in the echo chamber of propagated “party lines”, these voices have been drowned by the mainstream. Punishing and bombing Pakistan — forgetting there are 200 million people living in that country — has been the loudest of “solutions”.

In such an environment, media persons are left with few choices: To conform or be ready to pay the price for independent reporting. Both in India and Pakistan, those questioning the dominant discourse are “enemy agents”. Self-censorship in the name of security is hence another practice by media outlets, with smug declarations of adhering to “national interest”. An Indian television channel decided to censor an interview with P. Chidambaram, India’s former home minister, on the “surgical strikes” inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir. National security trumped domestic politics, was the line taken by the channel.

If the task of journalists is to inform, educate and question, then this line is untenable. How can a politician’s questioning — especially someone who’s been at the helm of power — risk national security? Whether there was covert governmental intervention or not, it is baffling as to how a supposedly independent media house assumed itself to be an arm of the security architecture of the country.

In recent months, the loss of hundreds of lives of Kashmiris received far less media condemnation as opposed to those of soldiers. The binary of a “martial” Pakistan versus a “democratic” India dissipates into thin air when a country’s media wants to launch a war for the loss of soldiers, but doesn’t urge the government to soothe the troubled soul of Jammu and Kashmir. The reduction of the Kashmir issue to that of Pakistan’s intervention is a mirror image of what the Pakistani public has been fed with — that terrorism, the Baloch insurgency and natural disasters are all due to India.

The net result is, spaces for accurate, verified information, constructive opinion-making and reasoned dialogue are eroding. The public in India and Pakistan, fed on statist narratives, view the “other” as singularly responsible for acrimony, terror and domestic turbulence. This line is convenient as it denudes the scope for governmental accountability. Hatred and aggrandisement have grown. History tells us such passions are lethal — let alone capable of providing a solution.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘The Friday Times’, and teaches at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs