Pak-India journalism: Inciting hatred or promoting peace?
Yesterday, at a seminar titled ‘Pakistan-India relations: What can media do?’, Mumbai Press Club’s President Gurbir Singh reportedly urged the Indian as well as Pakistani media to stop airing Television Rating Point (TRP)-grossing talk shows that negatively affect peace prospects between the two nations. This statement comes as a remarkable affirmation of a commitment to peace that needs to be strengthened by the media fraternity on both sides of the border.
It comes close on the heels with Kamal Siddiqi’s recent piece titled ‘Talk peace, be damned’, where he laments that war-mongering brings ratings but at the expense of the dividends that peace can bring. He goes on to say,
“In my view as a journalist, possibly the role of the media… is more important than we think it is. We need to give both sides of the story, something that we have not been honestly doing.”
As I read on, I found it refreshing to come across a journalist who is willing to take responsibility for the role of the media in influencing the relations between the two South Asian neighbours. We desperately need more journalists to do the same so that their power can be channelized to offer alternative images and perspectives that challenge and break down hostilities in the minds of people in both countries. However, the assumption here is that journalists think of themselves as stakeholders in peace building.
I do not get to see Pakistani news channels, so I cannot comment on their reportage. However, when I look at media coverage related to Pakistan on Indian news channels, I begin to feel nauseous. When journalists interview politicians on primetime talk shows, they often use language designed to provoke these politicians into making hostile statements about Pakistan. It seems as if to feel good about one’s identity as an Indian, one is required to speak ill of Pakistan.
That is plain immature.
There are very few positive images of Pakistan available in mainstream Indian news media. We hardly get to read about the tremendous work that is happening in various parts of Pakistan in terms of mobile libraries for children from low-income families, youth activism for interfaith harmony, or literature, art and film festivals around the country.
Our newspapers and television screens do not show us the streets of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad or Peshawar. We do not get to see common people. We only get to see the likes of Atif Aslam, Veena Malik, Ghulam Ali, Nawaz Sharif, Hina Rabbani Khar, Imran Khan, Bilawal Bhutto, Hafiz Saeed and Ajmal Kasab. Imagine having a whole country being represented only by politicians, terrorists, actors and musicians. Of course, Malala Yousafzai lies outside these categories.
Journalists in India may argue that it is not their job to seek and showcase positive images of Pakistan. Last year, when I participated in a conflict transformation workshop in Delhi that brought together Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris from both sides of the Line of Control, a senior TV journalist who was part of a panel discussion on ‘peace journalism’ laughed at the very idea of ‘peace journalism’. She went on to say,
“Helping to make peace between India and Pakistan is not my job. My job is to report.”
When I protested saying,
“But everyone is a stakeholder in peace,”
I received a smirk in response.
Even if we buy the argument that a journalist’s job is only to report, it is worth examining what gets reported.
Why do cross-border firings get reported and not student exchange programmes, youth festivals, reciprocal visits of peace delegations, or the movement of pilgrims from both countries who visit shrines in the other country?
The answer perhaps lies in Siddiqi’s argument about ratings. It is unfortunate when one sees journalists pick up stories through which they can whip up nationalist sentiments instead of researching stories that could possibly help Indians think of Pakistanis as people like themselves.
The way Indians imagine Pakistan is also seriously limited because Indians do not get to watch films and television shows from Pakistan. This is quite unlike what Pakistanis get to access from India. During my time in Lahore and Islamabad, I have heard Bollywood songs playing in restaurants, taxis, homes and street corners. ‘Saas-bahu’ (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) serials from India are hugely popular in Pakistan. School and college students I have met in Pakistan love talking about Indian movie stars.
Through the films and television shows that they feast on, Pakistanis get to experience slices of India. However, Indians do not have the same opportunities. Pakistani television channels are not broadcasted in India. Of course, there are Indians who are able to watch Pakistani dramas through the internet and they are quite riveted by what they have seen, thanks partly to the substandard quality of what is available on Indian television these days.
In the absence of mainstream avenues to experience what lies on the other side, young people in India and Pakistan are turning to alternative spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and online magazines. The interactions that are happening here are quite valuable. In their own humble way, these interactions are helping to break barriers.
I agree with Siddiqi when he says that talking peace between India and Pakistan is a thankless job. However, it is a job that needs to be done. There is no alternative to hope.
We cannot give up. We simply cannot.