Role of Media
The Role of Media in South Asian diplomacy is not very different from the role of media in any country when it comes to national issues. When it comes to foreign policy issues, the South Asian media can become very partisan, jingoistic and even prone to state propaganda. It is rare for media houses to question their governments on the issue of foreign policy.
In the SAARC region, India has by far the biggest and most vibrant media, and as SAARC movement is usually held up by India – Pakistan disputes, it would be good to take a look at both the Indian and Pakistani media.
With the advent of numerous TV new channels, cable news has become a very competitive and TRP driven phenomenon. This has resulted in TV channels in India and Pakistan going for a race to touch the lowest denominator, where at times, news has become more of an entertainment.
If TRP was worse enough, some TV stations – particularly one very loud English TV channel in India has discovered that nothing can push up TRP ratings higher than evoking nationalistic passions by bashing a rival nation almost every evening. On the other side, the conspiracy theories spurted out by some TV stations in Pakistan is no less amazing.
The programmes on both sides of the India – Pakistan media borders always treat the other nation and its people as the big other. Conventional stereotypes are reinforced, prejudices hardened, and old hatreds are hardened.
More often than not minor diplomatic issues are blown completely out of proportion and hawks are treated as the norm, while the doves and saner voices as either not patriotic enough or even traitors. By the end of the show, the viewers are left high on emotion, but as clueless and ignorant, as ever, on vital diplomatic issues.
Apart from such talk shows, there is also biased news – usually from unnamed government sources or at times mere speculation that does not help the matter. This kind of drawing room journalism, if you can call it that, has both short-term and long-term damaging effect on diplomatic ties.
In the short-term, it increases the public and diplomatic temperature on both sides of the border, and in the long- term, makes it near impossible for governments to budge even an inch from stated hard line positions due to the polarized public opinion.
There are also many inaccuracies in the media when covering news about other countries. In Bhutan’s example, despite Bhutan successfully removing all ULFA, NDFB and KLO militant camps from Bhutan during the 2003 ‘Operation All Clear’, led personally by His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, still there are some occasional reports in sections of the Indian media on the possible presence of camps. At the moment, such reports are far from the truth, and there are no such camps, as evidenced by the testimony of security forces and local people and villagers travelling through the same area.
Prior to 2003, Bhutan never denied that there were real camps, and instead, informed India of the steps it was taking in relation to dealing with the militants.
With the rise of social media there has also been the rise of social media facebook pages, twitter accounts and blogs of people outside the media. The radical and unfiltered content and the wild conspiracy theories on some of them have also vitiated the atmosphere between South Asian countries.
However, it will be doing a disservice to South Asian journalism if the vastly more positive effect of the media is not highlighted.
First of all, foreign and defense policies in any country is largely driven and set by the government, and when it comes to the media’s role in promoting peace and cooperation, the onus lies mainly on the governments and people of the region.
The media, while being a factor in regional harmony, primarily reflects and responds to what is already happening. It is in many ways a mirror to the societies and countries in the region and nothing more.
At the foreign policy level, there are examples of the Indian media which along with other media in the region are becoming more mature, questioning the claims of their own government agencies on key foreign policy issues.
A prominent journalist in Pakistan went against his own state security agencies in the interest of truth and was shot for it. In the longer run, with the progress of democracy, education, and economic development in the region, the media, overall, is heading towards a more mature and conflict resolution mode. There seems to be a much bigger constituency for peace and cooperation than war and conflict within the South Asian region.
South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) is also an example of the attempt of journalists of various countries in the region coming together to better understand each other and each other’s countries.
In South Asia, more than conflicts and problems across the borders, the vast majority of our problems are created domestically. More often than not, these domestic problems can spill across borders and become foreign policy headaches.
It is important to mention that the media is not the silver bullet to resolve any problem; it is only one of the many democratic tools and institutions to tackle problems that afflict all South Asian countries.
The South Asian press has had a long and distinguished history in fighting for democracy and democratic rights. It has stood up against political corruption and abuse of power by the powerful. Many journalists have lost their lives for this and still continue to do so with the South Asian region being one of the most unsafe places in the world for journalists to work in.
It has been the ultimate watchdog, going far beyond its mandate, to secure justice for the oppressed. The media has stood up for human rights and promoted them.
For those naysayers, the media in South Asia, at this moment, is the freest it has ever been, though it is not without its imperfections and problems. The media in the past suffered from two major problems; its major inclination towards pro-establishment and it was susceptible to pressure, and on the other hand, a lot of the content was not legible or relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
The 24-hour cable TV news, for all its flaws, has brought about a virtual revolution – bringing the power of information to the people. Its activist role in promoting justice and highlighting the abuse of the rich and powerful has been dramatic. Some examples, again from the Indian media, are the Jessical Lal case, Pridarshini Matoo case, the Lok Pal movement, the Nirbhaya case, and many more.
In Bhutan, the advent of the private media since 2006 has played a strong role in fighting against corruption and abuse of power, promoting transparency, bringing about accountability, and creating a strong democratic culture. The media is also more aware of foreign policy issues, and as a result, there is more analysis and depth on various issues, ranging from WTO to Climate Change.
The South Asian media, in the larger context and in the longer run, is mainly a force for democracy, stability, and peace – though an admittedly imperfect one.
This paper was presented by the writer at a regional conference organized by the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University from 24th to 25th March 2015 in New Delhi. The aim of the conference titled ‘India and its Neighbors: Policy Priorities for the new government’ was to solicit independent views and recommendations on India’s regional foreign policy. All recommendations will be published as a book and will be presented among others to the new Indian government.