On Saturday, the 16th of February, students and journalists gathered to unbox much of the media rhetoric on the relationship between India and Pakistan at “Deshon Ki Saqafat,” an event hosted by King’s College London’s Indo-Pak Development Forum (IPDF).
The panellists included Hamid Mir, a journalist and News Anchor at Geo News; Suhasini Haidar, the Diplomatic Editor of The Hindu; Muaaz Ahsan, Director of Programming and Public Awareness Campaigns at Geo News; and Gurmehar Kaur, activist and author of “Small Acts of Freedom.”
The aim of this event was to discuss the geopolitical conflicts between India and Pakistan, both external and internal, and the role of the media in bridging the gap between the two countries.
Despite months of planning, however, the event was almost cancelled in light of the terror attack that took place two days prior in the politically fragile region of Kashmir.
PULWAMA ATTACK AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
On the 14th of February, a deadly terror attack killed around 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers in the Pulwama district of Kashmir. The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber from the Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. The terrorist drove a vehicle carrying over 100 kilograms of explosives into the soldiers’ bus, killing at least 40 and injuring over 20.
This attack has heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, with many people taking to social media to propagate hatred, point fingers and demand ‘vengeance.’ It is because of this state of increasing frenzy across the border of the two countries that the IPDF Committee briefly considered cancelling the event. However, it was later decided that it was vital to facilitate dialogue between Indo-Pak journalists in the aftermath of the attack, and the event continued to be held.
According to Mohammad Ameer Hamza Bullo, President of the IPDF, the goal of this discussion was to paint a proper picture of the role journalism plays in politics. He stated: “The reason we chose journalism is because it, along with democracy and bureaucracy, plays a huge role when it comes to solving disputes between India and Pakistan.
“The fact that journalists who are on different sides of the border report on similar issues that are prevalent in both countries show that they are willing to go that step further. When you have journalists with so much experience in the media industry, as we have today, sharing their experiences goes a long way. It also shows, in the wake of the Pulwama attack, that no matter what the situation is, there is always room for peace and improvement.”
THE EVENT: UNBOXING THE INDO-PAK MEDIA RHETORIC
The event began at 5:00 p.m., with Ameer stating that he condemned all acts of terrorism, within and around the Indo-Pak border, and calling for a minute of silence for the victims of the Pulwama attack. He stressed the role of the media – specifically that of journalists – in dispute resolution, deeming it one of the pillars of democracy.
The issue with India and Pakistan is that each side has misgivings about the other, despite having a common historical struggle for independence, and common current issues such as poverty and widespread inequality. Ms. Gurmehar Kaur spoke about the irony of two countries that are so close geographically having to meet in a third country, hundreds of miles away, to engage in political dialogue. The Indo-Pak media has an important role to play in shaping bilateral relations and bridging this gap between the two countries.
In her keynote speech, Ms. Suhasini Haidar said: “Some would say that now is not the best time for Indians and Pakistanis to be sitting together, in the wake of the terror attack. However, I think it is possible for anyone who is against terror, who doesn’t believe in violence as a form of expressing anger, to stand united.
“When civilians die, it shouldn’t matter which side the casualties are. Journalists need to develop a collated view of what is going on, independent of what side of the border they belong to. We have to go back to our identities of humanity and realise that terrorism is terrorism.”
The second keynote speaker, Mr. Hamid Mir, emphasised the current fragility of Indo-Pak relations. He spoke about the mainstream media and ruling elite of the two countries, both of whom continue to create and contribute to situations that escalate tensions. According to him, “By pointing fingers and promoting hatred, the governments and the media are playing directly into the hands of extremists.”
THE PANELLISTS: ON THE ROLE OF JOURNALISTS
The panellists spoke at length about the evolving role of journalists in the 21st century.
According to Ms. Haidar, the role of the media needs to be redefined: it is often expected of journalists to not only uncover the truth, but to bring to light a truth that is convenient for the masses. In response to this, she said: “A journalist cannot have your biases, your views.”
Mr. Mir spoke about the duty of the media to minimise tensions and “transform the news space” from war-prone to peaceful. He mentioned that today’s media is losing its objectivity and spoke about how the truth cannot be silenced, stressing that it is the ultimate responsibility of the media to uncover the same and become tools of conflict resolution. Ms. Haidar was in disagreement with this, and said: “It is not a journalist’s job to promote peace. Our job is to promote a story. We open windows for the world to see what’s outside, no matter how ugly.”
Moreover, according to her, journalists cannot be expected to be unbiased. She stated: “It is impossible and inhuman to not grow up with certain biases. There are some biased positions that journalists take quite naturally: in favour of the citizen versus the state, in favour of the state one belongs to versus another state, the consumer versus the corporate. I think what is most important for us today is to recognise these biases.”
She also addressed the fact that people often call the media “the problem,” asking: “Is the media a part of the problem, or is it a part of the solution?” According to her, the answer is neither. The media should neither be a part of the problem, nor the solution: in fact, it should be a “fly on the wall,” reporting truths as they occur.
Adding onto Ms. Haidar’s points, Mr. Mir said that all major media groups from South-Asian countries should collaborate to form a joint strategy based on the IFJ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists. He reaffirmed that the biggest asset a journalist has is the truth, and declared that reporters should not follow particular agendas. Instead, they should simply follow the international standards of media and become ambassadors of the truth.
ON THREATS TO FREE PRESS
In today’s world, there exist political leaders who call journalists “prestitutes”, “news-traders” and other demeaning names. Ms. Haidar said that it is these people who pose the biggest threat to the media, stating that “the real issue is not the people who think there’s good and bad journalism, journalism they’re comfortable with and aren’t,” rather the issue is the people who try to make the media irrelevant by disregarding the duality of every story.
Agreeing with this being the biggest threat to modern journalism, Mr. Ahsan said that every time someone isolates journalists in smaller groups, it is to “build a narrative based on insecurities.”
Ms. Kaur spoke about her own experience as an activist in India, describing being called “anti-national” for simply trying to promote peace. This is a common struggle for journalists in India, who get slapped with sedition cases and the label of being “anti-national” in their attempt to champion the truth. Ms. Kaur shed light on the immense backlash she has received for wanting peace with Pakistan in times of terror and crisis, and mentioned feeling like the press isn’t always allowed to be “free” in these countries.
For Mr. Mir, those who survive death threats and labels of anti-nationalism are the true champions of society, because the act of surviving is symbolic of having the public on their side: and once journalists have the public on their side, they have won. He also mentioned that those who try to make the media irrelevant simply do so in fear of its sheer power.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND ITS EFFECT ON MODERN JOURNALISM
When asked to discuss the role of social media and its effect on the journalism in the 21st century, the panellists reached a consensus: social media has more positive effects than negative.
Despite the fact that social media reports cannot be fact-checked or held accountable, Ms. Haidar said that their existence has resulted in better journalism – because journalists are aware that their sources for every story will be checked and their incorrect facts called out. When a lie comes out on social media, it can never be fixed, and it is the fear of this that has brought “facts back into fashion.”
According to Mr. Ahsan, social media strengthens the media’s own vices. He said: “Journalists cannot reach as many people as social media does. It brings people from opposing views together to share their opinions.”
Ms. Kaur agreed, stating that social media “has been a boon for our generation.” Reiterating Mr. Ahsan’s point, she said: “Journalists do not always get to report in other countries because of visa issues, but social media reaches these places and uncovers their stories.”
Even Mr. Mir concluded that social media can be looked at in a positive way, despite previously speaking about the “hate moguls” who comprise of a majority of Twitter and stating that “nations should not become hostages of social media and its evils.”
All in all, the event showcased a stimulating discussion on the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan and reinforced the strength of the media rhetoric in shaping the same.
Ameer, President of the IPDF, said: “What we hoped to achieve from this event was to give a proper picture of the role journalism plays and how it can complement democracy, bureaucracy and politics when it comes to bringing these two countries together. I feel like we achieved that very well, because the questions asked by the audience and the moderator were given answers that were very prevalent in relevance to the terror attacks and the misunderstandings that both the sides have for one another.”
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