It should go without saying that the media has a role in informing and educating a citizenry about the issues of the day, providing background, context and holding the powerful to account. A case study in how not to go about this is currently being provided by the electronic media in its coverage of recent raids and counter-raids on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, in which two Indian soldiers have been killed, and one allegedly subjected to post-mortem mutilation. Instead of questioning the narrative, news television and some print outlets have instead blatantly beaten the drums of confrontation, hyping even relatively calm statements by the army chief into belligerent displays of national machismo. Coming at a time when the government is attempting to move forward on dialogue with Pakistan that is very much in the national interest, the question should be asked: are some of India’s news channels, and their pursuit of eyeballs, turning into a national security hazard?
Were the media living up to its duty to provide context and to explain developments, then it would have been made clear that the incidents at the border are reflective of the barbarity that two armies long in confrontation can sometimes descend to. There would then be, perhaps, some space for reflection on the degree to which that should be corrected. It is also worth noting that an intensification of India-Pakistan tension at this time serves, most of all, hardliners within Pakistan who wish to steer that country’s national conversation away from brutal massacres by militants of religious minorities, the coming national elections, and various attempts by the Pakistani military establishment to regain control of its terrorist proxies who have slipped the leash somewhat in recent years. Meanwhile, India-Pakistan negotiations have successfully focused on trade and integration issues at the expense of the issues that Pakistan’s establishment considers “core” disputes, like Kashmir. If the electronic media dragoons a weak Indian government into raising the ante with its Pakistani counterpart at a time when it needs instead to be an ally against the powerful Pakistan military’s ability to hijack the security agenda, then the national interest will suffer a serious blow. More, it will count as a signal ethical failure on the part of whichever media outlet is sacrificing context to sensationalism.
Naturally, no form of media regulation can ever address so difficult a problem. However, the government’s continuing weakness and inability to seize control of the narrative are again on display. The foreign minister, at least, has shown care to say that the government will “not be pressured by wild calls for revenge and reaction”. This should be backed up with firmer statements across the government, and a sustained effort to ensure that proper context is provided privately and publicly by the Indian army, as well. A handful of bellicose television supremos cannot be allowed to dictate a foreign policy that hurts the interest of India’s citizens.