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Analysis: Indo-Pak relations and the curse of 24/7 TV

 

By Imtiaz Gul

 The Express Tribune, May 23, 2013

 

ISLAMABAD: By snubbing Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to be part of his swearing in, the Indian prime minister hardly surprised anybody.

War lobbies in both India and Pakistan continuously focus on the issues that prevent reconciliation, and the media happily stokes differences.

A recent appearance in a live debate on one of the prime Indian channels made me wonder whether such militant attitudes can help in peace-building at all?

Arnab Goswami, the host of the one of Times Now’s popular talk shows, came across as somebody bent upon demolishing the offer that Nawaz made two days after his election victory.

“Why should we or can we trust Sharif? Will Sharif have real power or just be a puppet in the hands of the military establishment?”

These were some of the questions Goswami premised his entire programme on, including flashbacks to the Kargil episode. Despite some positive comments by the four Indian and three Pakistani panelists, the anchor refused to budge, repeatedly bringing up the issue of Kargil and trust.

“Why and how should we trust Sharif, and for that matter Pakistan?” was his refrain.

This non-professional, hawkish and haranguing anchoring went on for almost 35 minutes.

Frustrated, and sensing there was little I could contribute to this rabidly negative debate, I unplugged the microphone and walked out of the programme while cameras still rolled in the Islamabad studio – something I never had done before in my entire professional career.

And although the programme producer begged me to return to my seat, I refused saying that Arnab was not doing a professional tv programme and instead projecting a certain lobby’s view point. Thus there was little point in being part of this cacophony in the name of journalism.

This particular episode also reminded me of a recent meeting with the president of the Australian upper house of Parliament – the Senate.

“Standards of journalism have declined and the 24/7 cycle of news has virtually destroyed objectivity and fairness. It also has undermined reporters’ capacity to report objectively,” remarked Senator John Hogg, during a meeting with journalists from Pakistan.

He made those remarks to the context of a media ombudsman bill that the Australian ruling party had proposed but eventually had to shelf.

While the ruling party, led by Premier Juila Gillard, had deemed the bill necessary for bringing discipline to the media, detractors called it a draconian law aimed at circumscribing media freedom. The outcry forced Gillard to abandon the move.

But Senator Hogg had a point in characterising attitudes within the media. And, interestingly, it fits the Pak-India political and media landscape as well.

The media on both sides of the border is always on the prowl for news that can stoke emotions or kick off new controversies. They live and thrive off a contentious style of reporting and analysis, at the cost of established journalistic norms that are fast fading in the face of the quest for breaking news and ratings.

Shoddy news reporting, driven by the 24/7 cycle and commercial considerations, clearly obstructs or at least blurs the vision of politicians who usually are already handicapped by domestic socio-political pressures.

In this context, the media assumes the role of a conflict-stoker, instead of peace-promoter. Rather than building on available ingredients of peace and trust, media – anchors, reporters and analyst-anchors –keep digging into past acrimonies, and inadvertently inject poison into public minds, thereby vitiating the atmosphere for political leaderships.

While political parties need to refrain from deploying media to their advantage, big media houses also require balancing their commercial compulsions with the larger public interest, which they undertake to safeguard while establishing their ventures.

In the words of Senator Hogg, “the media is not a law onto itself … while they demand responsibility and accountability of the government, they must subject themselves to the principles of accountability and responsibility.”

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk