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Sunday, 1 February 2009

Tracking the Media: Interpretations of Mass Media Discourses in India and Pakistan - Book Review

Book review: The venom of Indo-Pak media war — by Khaled Ahmed

Tracking the Media: Interpretations of Mass Media Discourses in India and Pakistan

By Subarno Chattarji; Routledge 2008; Pp302; Price Rs 695; Available in bookstores in Pakistan.

We are familiar with Pakistan TV’s regular Kashmir programme showing clips of Indian atrocities in ‘Held Kashmir’ and the ‘dhong’ or make-believe elections held there while Pakistan lives under military rule, without explaining why there is such a high turnout of Kashmiri voters. But we haven’t really sat down and analysed the discourse of the Indo-Pak media about each other’s country. Author Chattarji examines the press on both sides to see if there is a pattern.

The book quickly latches on to conflict as the theme most amenable to media distortion. It is during times of war or threat of war that the media wakes up from its almost instinctive observance of the rule of objectivity and goes into contortions. If the wars are covered with a slant, periods of tensions are equally seen with special nationalist goggles. This is not the finest hour of the journalists in India and Pakistan. But this is the moment when the journalist becomes heady with the feedback of identity he gets from his end-feeders. A cartoon would depict an anchor sitting on a bidet while his audience has its mouth attached to the ejection pipe.

Chattarji focuses on Kargil. Both sides lied through their teeth. But the Pakistani media — TV was state-owned, the newspapers were spoon-fed — took a fall after Kargil was forsworn by the Nawaz Sharif government, and Pakistan had to finger the pie plastered on its face. India was on its nationalist upswing. And the moment of nationalism never leads to anything good, as the world witnessed in the negative transformation of America after 9/11. There are not many deflators of this kind of media frenzy in Pakistan but there are some in India.

One definitely is Ashish Nandy, who constantly theorises on ‘hatred of the neighbour’ and hatred aroused by religion. He says, ‘When proximity sours, it releases strange demons’. Chattarji says: “The manifestation of the barbaric was preceded and followed in Gujarat by the violence of exclusion and hate speech. Such exclusionary trends take various forms, and post-riots scenarios such as the one in Gujarat are one of them. It is the way in which the languages of patriotism, the national self, and the enemy, within and without, begin to permeate everyday existence that extends the boundaries and temporal locations of conflict”. (p.xxix)

Conflict and strife is the pabulum of the media. And if it allows the journalist to feel the rare warmth of a popular hug of nationalism he can hardly resist the suspiciously political urge to pursue charisma. He becomes the force multiplier of the national effort to confront and defeat the enemy and reduces his own profession to prostitution by ignoring signs of reversal that appear to him clearly at the outset. War is sensation and has its ups and downs that lend themselves to reporting; peace is an unexciting non-event and has no ebb and flow like war. It’s not worth the attention of the heroic journalist.

Indian nationalism was brushed up frequently by the Indian press through its coverage of Pakistan’s recurrent domestic crisis. Journalists and reporters waggled their fingers at Pakistan reminding it of the dismemberment of 1971 and it could break up once again unless it behaved. Bloggers quantified the level of indoctrination the media had unloaded on the reading public. One blogger named Ramanand wrote: ‘Nawab Bugti Singh was a Hindu and he has been eliminated because of his religion. This is not fair and not acceptable to any Hindus in India’.

Chattarji goes to Nawa-e-Waqt to find the orthodox-nationalist coverage of events in Kashmir and India in general, studded with words like ‘martyrs’ and ‘mujahideen’ doing ‘jihad’ against the background of atrocities committed as a habit by the Indian army. It published foreign secretary’s visit to New Delhi to pursue the peace talks right next to the article saying ‘Kashmir can only be liberated through jihad’. Of course, Nawa-e-Waqt has its counterparts in India, like Dainik Jagran, recommending another contrived break-up of Pakistan to wean it from mischief.

Of course there are the never-ending intelligence-fed stories that predict Indian terrorist attacks during important foreign visits and important festivals when Muslims can be accused of killing each other after blasts. The biggest martyrs to this kind of journalism are the bilateral talks that don’t produce quick results in favour of Pakistan, and the CBMs that are actually meant to solve nothing but put the big issue on the backburner forever. The author recalls that Edward Said had described this kind of creation of discourse on both sides as the creation of ‘communities of interpretation’.

The book recognises the difference of discourse in English and Hindi-Urdu. It is such a pity that no reconciliation is possible in the mother tongue of those involved in conflict while it is becoming possible gradually in the English language. If reconciliation is achieved by ignoring the venom secreted by Hindi and Urdu, will it be permanent or merely skin-deep, as if English was our language of posturing? India and Pakistan look at each other through ‘bad news’ filtered through a media intent on focusing on things going dramatically wrong. They don’t need real but unexciting information about each other because they have decided the process of knowing is concluded and is flagged with final judgements on everything.

This book is pioneering in its scope. More of this sort of examination is needed to stem the upsurge of partisan disease attacking the media in South Asia. The perverse slogan is: save the country by sacrificing the ethic and morality of the media. In the end, not even the country you are doing the dirty work for is saved. (Daily Times)

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