Journalists From India and Pakistan Discuss Role in Wake of Mumbai Siege

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 16, 2009

NEW DELHI, April 15 -- Nearly five months after the deadly attacks in Mumbai that revived tensions between India and Pakistan, journalists from both countries gathered in New Delhi on Wednesday to examine their role in fueling regional hostilities.

At a freewheeling panel discussion titled "Is Media Jingoism Fanning Indo-Pak Tensions?" journalists spoke about the challenge of maintaining their professional impartiality since the attacks.

"There is rarely any neutral view. The debate in the media has often showed diplomacy as not only a softer but as an undesirable option, as well. The language of the discourse is couched in 'us' and 'them,' " Aniruddha Bahal of India's Foundation for Media Professionals said in opening remarks.

More than 170 people, including six Americans, were killed in the three-day siege in India's financial capital in November, in which 10 gunmen attacked 10 sites, including two five-star hotels, a restaurant, a train station and a Jewish outreach center. The nation was paralyzed as its nascent 24-hour private television networks showed the horrific events unfolding. India has since accused the Pakistan-based outlawed Islamist group Lashkar-i-Taiba of directing the assault and has abandoned its four-year-old peace talks with Islamabad.

The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars since 1947.

Many blogs and non-mainstream media in India have criticized the country's TV networks for whipping up hysteria and outrage over the Mumbai attacks. Wednesday's meeting was the first time journalists from both countries had sat down together for a session of unflinching self-scrutiny.

Bahal said that since the attacks, about 80 percent of the prime-time coverage of the top 20 Indian news channels has been about Pakistan. He cited programs provocatively titled "Beware, Pakistan" and "Improve Now, Pakistan" and said they were often accompanied by ominous music to create "fear and panic" among viewers.

Saeed Minhas, who edits the Pakistani newspaper Daily Ajkal, said that the race for breaking news was "breaking all the barriers of morality and impartiality."

"We have thrown all caution to the dogs," he added.

In the prevailing climate of distrust, neither country allows the other to beam its news coverage across the border. Last month, when the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in Lahore, Pakistan, some Pakistani media commentators blamed India.

Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani freelance journalist and filmmaker, said she is often called "unpatriotic or an Indian agent" when she talks about peace or dialogue with India.

But some Indian editors and columnists at the meeting said the news media's role should not be exaggerated.

"India and Pakistan do not determine their relations and national interest based on what the media is saying," said Bharat Bhushan, editor of the Indian tabloid Mail Today. But he said the Pakistani media were "in denial" after the Mumbai attacks, "even as they pointed a finger at the Indian media for being hysterical."

As the journalists debated and took questions from the audience, a handful of men began chanting anti-Pakistan slogans. "The only solution is war with Pakistan!" they shouted. The men, who identified themselves as members of the radical Hindu group Sri Ram Sena, were immediately removed from the room.

After a few minutes, a member of the audience reported that an Indian TV channel was running a news flash declaring, "Pakistani journalists attacked in India."

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