Role of media in promoting regional understanding in South Asia

By I. Ramamohan Rao

New Delhi, Feb.7 (ANI): South Asia has gone through a turbulent period in the last five decades.The countries of the region have seen conflicts, both internal and against each other, as also international. Media organisations in these countries have played an important role in reporting on these conflicts and they have also

tried their best to promote harmony. At times, they created disharmony and are continuing to do so.

During the last decade, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses has been conducting interaction among security experts, scholars and journalists to help promote a better understanding of the situation in the region, both from the security as well as the economic aspect.

The latest subject of discussion — eighth in the series — was the role of the media in promoting regional understanding. It was held in Delhi in October 2015.

The general consensus at the conference was that the media should give greater coverage to issues related to the neighbourhood. To help this, there were suggestions that journalists should be given multi-entry visas to make reporting on neighbouring countries easier and exchange of articles by newspapers.

Various papers presented at the conference reflected the media’s influence in their respective countries. Smruti Pattanayak in her paper on the media in India and Pakistan revealed that while on the one hand there were programmes like Aman ki Asha, on the other, there were programmes that spewed venom against the neighbour.

The South Asia Free Media Association has tried to play a positive role, but the attempt of channels to increase their TRPs has resulted

in their playing a hostile role against the neighbour.

Papers presented at the conference also narrated the role of the military in promoting ‘media jingoism’. Smruti Pattanayak and Asok Behuria have pointed out that the beaming of the Kargil War into the drawing rooms of the people left India-Pakistan relations more embittered. Similarly the coverage of 26/11 Mumbai attacks left an indelible impact on the people of India who came face-to-face with the hatred emanating from sections of people in Pakistan against India and Indians.

There is difference in the roles played by English newspapers and agencies and the regional language newspapers. While the vernacular media often tries to manufacture ‘ nationalism’, the English media is much more liberal in countries of the region.

Of late, there are threats by non-state forces against the media in Pakistan and fringe groups in other countries of the region. The paper presented by Rasul Baksh Rais from Pakistan makes a study of the role played by the media on the Kashmir issue, against developments in Afghanistan and on issues relating to Islam and the West.

The paper presented by Syed Badrul Ahsan of Bangladesh traces the law pertaining to the media from the War of Independence. While there was total censorship during War of Independence in 1971, the situation has gradually changed. The government of Zia-ur-Rahman in Bangladesh changed the law, but journalism has been ‘politically partisan’.

Newspapers in Bangladesh owe fealty to one or other political organisations in the country. With television channels providing 24/7 service, newspapers too have tried to provide the same service through their online editions. Overall, the media maintains a vital and energizing presence in Bangladesh, says Ahsan in an objective

assessment of the media.

An interesting paper presented at the conference pertained to Afghanistan which focussed on the post 9/11 period. Amrullah Saleh in his paper has given an overview of the role played by international broadcast organisations like the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Voice of America, the Deutshe Welle , Radio France, Radio Mashad and Radio Liberty.

Saleh has pointed out that channels have changed their stances after 9/11. The media has also played an effective role in conducting psychological warfare. Efforts have been made to try to use the media as a voice for justice, as a tool of influence, and as a medium for

promoting activism, raising awareness, and propelling action.

The Afghan media has played a significant role in explaining to the people facts about their country, the region and made them alert to issues of human rights, gender and justice and government policies. The media has also been a big factor in the political defeat of the Taliban. Pakistan is the foremost important factor and is

extensively covered by the media in Afghanistan.

Kunda Dixit in his paper points out that there is camaraderie or a nexus between officials and journalists in all countries of the

region.

The paper presented by Sri Lankan participant Dilrukshi Handunetti gives an overview of the role played by the media in eliminating the LTTE and bringing the war to an end. It has been largely consistent in its anti-India stance often failing to differentiate between Delhi and Chennai politics. Lakshman F. B.Gunasekara of Sri Lanka in his paper has focussed on the media as a commercial venture and profit driven. They must make a profit if they are to survive and deliver income to their owners.

An interesting paper presented at the conference is on the role that the media has played in Myanmar by Myo Lwin, which gives an overview as to how it is still evolving at the moment.

The panel discussion at the session focussed on the role the media can play in promoting regional understanding. The session was chaired by Dr. Chandan Mitra, Member of Parliament from India and a few eminent journalists.

One of the Indian journalists, Nitin Gokhale, underlined the need for more dialogues like the one conducted by the IDSA by similar organisations and think tanks in the region and for initiatives to have more exchanges for the cross-postings of articles.

Syed Badrul Ahsan from Bangladesh underlined the need for media persons to give up their narrow prejudices, because the media in all three countries (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) must understand certain realities and country perspectives.

There was an appreciation of the role played by organisations like SAFMA and the need to open more windows to enable people of the region to understand what is happening in the neighbourhood.

The conference also brought out the differences in the status of the media in the different countries and how the media can play in strengthening regional understanding.

One should complement the Institute of Defence Services and Analyses for organising the conference and to have brought out the book edited by Priyanka Singh which is a timely and useful account as indicated by Brigadier Dahia (Retired).

Book Review: The Role of Media in Promoting Regional Understanding in South Asia; Editor Priyanka Singh ; 256 pages; Pentagon Publishers;

pages 256; price 995.

Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer of the Government of India. He can be reached at raoramamohan@hotmail.com (ANI)

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