One Attack, Two Stories: Nationalism in Indian and Pakistani Media
A January attack on an airbase in Pathankot, an Indian city close to the Pakistani border, marked 2016’s first salvo in the decades-long, sometimes violent India-Pakistan conflict.
The English-language press in both countries covered the story extensively. But an analysis of that coverage shows that the stories on both sides were told through nationalist filters, reflecting the deep animosities that have existed for decades since the two countries were partitioned.
“When we cover India and Pakistan relations” in a time of conflict, “there is an automatic precautionary approach,” said Abdul Manan, a journalist at Pakistan’s The Express Tribune, who covered the aftermath of the Pathankot attack. “The press coverage on both sides often reflects the tense relationship between these neighbors.”
Basic facts about the attack are not in dispute: On January 2, militants from Pakistan infiltrated an Indian air force base in Pathankot, India, in an assault that left seven air force personnel and one civilian dead.
The story was immediate front-page news of the most popular English-language Pakistani newspapers like Dawn, The Express Tribune and The Pakistan Observer – and in their Indian counterparts, The Indian Express, Times of India and India Today.
But in the Pakistani papers, all the stories were written by Pakistani journalists based in Pakistan – and Indian journalists based in India wrote every story for their media. Though there is an agreement between both governments to have one Indian journalist based in Islamabad, and one Pakistani journalist based in Delhi, neither the media nor the government in either country has taken the initiative to make that happen.
And the lack of cross-border reporting has impact on the coverage in both countries, said Rohan Yenkat, a journalist at the India-based news site The Scroll.in.
“When there are cross-border attacks like Pathankot, there is outrage, and that leads to a sense of nationalism which then can lead to jingoism within the media,” said Venkat.
The story in India
Within days of the attack, Indian media claimed Jaish-E-Mohammad (JeM), a militant group based in Pakistan, was responsible – though the group itself made no such claims. Journalist Venkat said the accusation of JeM responsibility was based on information given to Indian media by Indian government sources.
“Most of the information given out on stories like Pathankot is based on leaks from within the government,” said Jawed Naqvi, an Indian journalist who writes from Delhi for Pakistani’s Dawn.
Though the attack began January 2, it took Indian forces three or four days to subdue the militants. Some Indian media reported on that as a failure of government and intelligence forces.
“The Indian media is more than happy to criticize its own government and security forces,” said Venkat, who wrote an article listing “eight crucial unanswered questions” about the attack. But most criticism of the government’s handling of the attack appeared in English-language media; Hindi press are less likely to question government actions, said Venkat.
But while the Indian government tolerates some criticism of its actions, said Venkat, coverage of a sensitive issue like the Pathankot attack must clearly pin responsibility on Pakistan as well.
“Pakistan ISI Behind Pathankot Terror Attack,” announced an article in Zee News , an Indian news site that stated an Indian security expert had blamed the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Agency for the attack.
“It’s certainly inaccurate and irresponsible of Indian journalism to jump to these conclusions without substantial evidence,” said Venkat. But it happens with some regularity, he said, because of the frequency of cross-border attacks that fuel jingoistic speculation when there is little verified information.
The story in Pakistan
The Pathankot terror attack news was on the front pages of many English- and Urdu-language newspapers in Pakistan. Early coverage condemned the attack and provided basic information on what took place.
But after Indian media accused JeM of responsibility, and speculated that Pakistan’s government may have had advance knowledge of the attack, the Pakistani papers took a much more defensive tone. Many ran articles pointing out failures of Indian intelligence agencies to prevent such attacks. “India scrambles to solve Pathankot riddle” announced an article in Dawn.
This type of narrative, critical of India, would be welcomed by Pakistan’s military, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. “There would be very few Pakistani media people who would be willing to criticize the official line on something related to India,” said Rashid, “simply because it would be viewed by the army with great anger, and there would possibly be repercussions.”
Following the official line means criticism of India is fine, but criticism of Pakistan’s military or intelligence establishments is not – though Rashid said that some of Pakistan’s liberal elite media would not hesitate to report that Pakistan likely would have advance knowledge of a militant group’s attack plans. Such reports are more likely in Pakistan’s English-language press, said Rashid.
“Despite the threat and dangers of reporting something which is totally contrary to the official line, people do in fact do it,” he said.
Criticism of the Indian government’s intelligence flaws, on the other hand, would just be a standard part of reporting in Pakistan, said Abdul Manan the Express Tribune reporter.
“The Pakistani press can report the findings by the government, but the Indian press always takes what is said from Pakistan as duplicitous,” said Manan. “Same goes the other way, that is the relationship.”
The Pathankot attack interrupted a peace process that had been encouraged by media in both countries. Coverage of the attack showed that it took very little to send media back to their familiar antagonistic discourse.
“I don’t think the media coverage will change until there is major political progress between the two sides,” said Rashid. That would mean resolving longstanding territorial disputes like the status of the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both countries claim. “There are some really important disputes within the countries, and none of them have been resolved in all these years,” said Rashid. “It’s a huge blow.”