There are few relationships as abusive as the one we have with our electronic media. We watch far more news and talk shows than is healthy. We rage at the screen, our tempers flashing as red as the breaking news slides. We scan any number of the myriad websites that post such talk shows online, eager to see who’s ‘blasting’ who and who’s getting ‘exposed’ this week. We post memes and video clips alternately praising or condemning anchors for their treatment of our pet causes and politicians, sometimes doing both in the span of a single hour like a bunch of borderline schizophrenics.
Caught in the throes of this love-hate relationship we pronounce, with great solemnity and certainty, that ‘media nai is mulk ka bera ghark kar diya hai.’ And all the while, we keep watching — as one does when faced with a slow-motion train wreck.
Granted there’s a lot to complain about: This is the media landscape where anchors have blatantly lied on air, where the death of dozens in Mohmand [Agency] quickly gave way to the arrest of Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader Khawaja Izharul Hassan in Karachi, where programming and propaganda is often indistinguishable.
But now, Indian media has done something we had thought impossible; they made the Pakistani media look good.
In the aftermath of the Uri attack, one witnessed the march of the TV brigades, fearless warriors with military microphones broadcasting belligerence to an eager audience. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little old fashioned jingoism, but Indian media went full Bollywood. Decibel levels soared as anchor after anchor made blood-curdling threats to annihilate Pakistan. Twitter hashtags flew like ballistic missiles and graphic departments in newsrooms across India were called into action to perform such feats of arms as turning the map of Pakistan into the body of a dog. War may be too important a matter to be left to military men, but no one said anything about news anchors.
And then came the ‘surgical strike’ and things really got interesting.
But before we talk about that, let’s give a special mention to the Indian newsmagazine The Quint, which actually performed a bit of time travel and reported the strike a full eight days before the Indian military announced it. Be that as it may, once the news of the strike was made public, it was taken as gospel truth. And when the actual information given out by the Indian military wasn’t spicy enough, details were added to it.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little old fashioned jingoism, but Indian media went full Bollywood.
Helicopters were sent carrying commandoes. No, airstrikes were used. No, over a hundred commandoes infiltrated the LoC, crawled three kilometres into Azad Jammu and Kashmir, killed a bunch of terrorists and got out undetected and while suffering no casualties. None of this information had actually been provided by the Indian military or government, it came from ‘sources’ that quite naturally chose to remain anonymous.
This didn’t sit well with all Indian journalists, of course. Praveen Swami tweeted: ‘In the bad old days, journalists used to ask to see some evidence of claims at briefings. So glad we’re done with that.” Rezaul Hasan Lashkar made a similar comment, saying: ‘Fascinating that so many journos on both sides unhesitatingly buy into positions taken by their militaries.’
Guilty as charged. Much of Pakistan’s media does indeed kowtow to the powerful establishment and doesn’t need much prompting to don camouflage gear and breathlessly report on how impregnable Pakistan’s defence is or how many wars we have won against India. There is no shortage of paeans to how wonderful the military is, especially when compared to those horrible, venal politicians. And during this latest conflict, there was plenty of televised jingoism on our end as well: There was a comical Modi lookalike cowering as CGI missiles flew over his head, there were shouting anchors promising bloody retaliations, there were – to our shame – at least two news reports and tickers that used ‘Hindu’ as a derogatory term. There was even an attempt to ape Indian media by using hashtags like #bharatronabandkero and so on, but they didn’t really catch on.
If anything it reminded me of when Pakistani dramas, awed by the success of India’s saas-bahu epics, tried to replicate what looked to be a winning formula. Strong characters were replaced by caricatures talking about hundreds of crores. Plot development was sacrificed for endless zoomed in shots and no woman could walk around without wearing half of Pakistan’s GDP as jewellery. It didn’t take, as poor imitations tend not to.
There is no shortage [in Pakistan] of paeans to how wonderful the military is, especially when compared to those horrible, venal politicians.
After all, you can’t beat the masters at their own game.
But for all its many faults and foibles, the Pakistani media also has a tradition of speaking truth to power —sometimes with terrible consequences. Part of this is born out of the historically rocky relationship media has had with the powers that be, but whatever the reason, we see little questioning of the state narrative in Indian media these days. Instead, we see hashtags like #ForcesFirstNotPak and the creation of an atmosphere where the slightest hint of dissent, or even daring to ask questions, is treated as treason.
As in the norm in such inquisitions, the guns are now pointing inwards. From Pakistan itself, the targets switched to Pakistani artistes and now to Indians who aren’t displaying enough patriotism to suit the anchors. We’ve been there too, we’ve seen our share of on-air witch-hunts, but never on this scale or with this much venom.
Some of it is about ratings; some of it is about simply reflecting the nationalistic mood that has swept across India. Some of it is also about the coziness between Narendra Modi and business tycoons like Mukesh Ambani who is now also the owner of one of India’s largest media groups, Network 18. But none of it is journalism, and none of it is good.
Zarrar Khuhro is a journalist and co-host of the TV talk show, Zara Hut Kay. He tweets @ZarrarKhuhro