Who has the “most free” media – India or Pakistan?
Across both India and Pakistan, the media is booming. New television channels are starting up and people are buying more newspapers than ever before. Forget about the crisis the traditional media is facing back in the West with declining readerships and audiences, here in south Asia it feels like bonanza time. [The recent launch of the splendid "i", the first new quality paper to be produced in the UK for 20 years, is, of course, an obvious exception to the rule.]
But just how good is that media? The veteran dissident and intellectual Noam Chomsky triggered an interesting debate when in a recent interview with India’s Outlook magazine, during which he repeated some of his well-known comments about the control of the media, he said: “I spent three weeks in India and a week in Pakistan. A friend of mine here, [I think he was in London when he was interviewed] Iqbal Ahmed, told me that I would be surprised to find that the media in Pakistan is more open, free and vibrant than that in India.”
He added: “In Pakistan, I read the English language media which go to a tiny part of the population. Apparently, the government, no matter how repressive it is, is willing to say to them that you have your fun, we are not going to bother you. So they don’t interfere with it.”
Now, I have to politely disagree with Mr Chomsky, at least with with one of his points. The Pakistani media, often courageous, sometimes fawning, is most certainly not let alone by the authorities in Islamabad. There are lots of instances of reporters being harrassed, beaten and threatened by the authorities. Owners and editors are put under pressure. As one commenter points out, a number of newspapers in the “restive” province of Balouchistan have been shut down. And it’s not just the local media: a friend of mine from an international publication had to quickly leave the country when he was “outed” as a CIA officer in a ludicrously false story that had been planted on the front page of a Pakistani paper by some unknown, ill-meaning hand.
But I started wondering about whether the broader point was true, and whether the Pakistani media was actually freer? Again, Mr Chomsky is wrong if he thinks the journalists in Pakistan are free to write what they want. While politicans may be criticised by various papers, depending on their political bias, one almost never reads anything that questions or criticises the role of the military or its senior officers. One Pakistani journalist friend told me that over the years, journalists had learned how far they could push and where the line had been drawn.
You’d think that in India, the world’s largest democracy, the media ought to be better. Certainly, there are some great newspapers and magazines – Tehelkha, Outlook, the Hindu and the Indian Express among them. But for all the purported freedoms they have, do they always use it?
I’ve been thinking about this more and more, first since the recent Commonwealth Games fiasco, when almost overnight, the Indian media went from being critical of the games’ preparation to being critical of foreign media daring to point out problems that they had – until that point – also been raising.
Far more serious has been the recent treatment of writer Arundhati Roy, who may not be to everybody’s taste but who I think is very brave. She was recently threatened with sedition after suggesting Kashmir had never been an “integral” part of India. The media witch-hunt that followed, and the subsequent attack on her home by a right-wing mob that the media had been tipped off about in advance, was shameful.
Much of the Indian media’s coverage of things such as the Naxal movement and the violence in the north-east of India is not much better. Reports about China and Pakistan also need to be treated with caution. Indeed, asked about the India media in his interview, Chomsky said: “The media in India is free, the government doesn’t have the power to control it. But what I saw was that it was pretty restricted, very narrow and provincial and not very informative, leaving out lots of things.” Not surprisingly, a lot of the best commentary is on the internet.
And I would not, for a moment, suggest the Western media is necessarily any better; if the pressures, controls and restrictions Chomsky identifies can be applied to the media in south Asia, then surely they apply to the media in the US and UK as well. [For a recent decent polemical take on this, using the Wikileaks Iraq logs as an example, I'd suggest turning to this report by the always-thought-provoking writers at Media Lens.]
On the issue of the media of India versus that of Pakistan, I suspect I am not really sure where I come down. Anyway, as I said, Chomsky’s interview has triggered some good discussion. With no small irony, Jawed Naqvi in Pakistan’s Dawn paper, is among those who had some of the most intelligent things to say on the topic.Tagged in: asia, India, media, Pakistan
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