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Reporters Not Decision Makers: Why Primetime Is All About War – OpEd


“The Change in the nature  of military operations brought about by the end of cold war along with a revolution in communication technology has transformed information and the news media into an even more vital component of conflict and conflict management. ” — Warren P Strobel

In his renowned work, “Social Contract”, Rousseau said, “War is no way a relationship of man with man but a relationship between states, in which individuals are only enemies by accident, not as men, but as soldiers. Once soldiers lay down their weapons they again become mere men. Their lives must be spared.”

Conflict is the core component of the Realist approach in International Politics and some of the other cognate disciplines. The very essence of human nature is that human beings are in a state of perpetual conflict leading to a dangerous struggle for power. The adjective ‘dangerous’ has been used because countless lives have been lost in this mad race for political power and territorial ownership and the struggle continues. Even as I write this, India’s surgical strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) post the Uri attacks is being widely debated. The political cauldron is burning with key question – Pakistan is a Terrorist state, it needs to be diplomatically isolated from the rest of the world. The SAARC summit has been cancelled. Pakistani actors are being asked to return to their country. Indian Actor Salman Khan and several others feel isolating Pakistani artists alone is not the solution. It is the Indian government which gives them visa and work permit.

In a state of panic every sentiment however is against Pakistan. Watch any Indian News Channel; they would be conducting comparative study on what if Pakistan strikes back. How well prepared are we. Whether Shaheen will destroy Delhi or Bhramos will destroy Pakistan and China. This is a major move and will have serious repercussions later on if remedial measures are not taken as soon as possible. So what are these repercussions? A full fledged war with Pakistan? The role of China in the entire war game? What’s the economic impact of war going to be like in an era of defence budget cuts? And all this seems to be decided between 9 pm to 10 pm on primetime news shows. The Mediatised war has given a definition to news reporting today.

Indian Media and the War Game: The real time accuracy of News Reporting and Media intertwined, is an Omega dialogue within itself and is slowly becoming a self sustaining system. In the 21st century the world as we know it, is largely and both loosely dependent on how it is shown or talked of, using various means of communication.

Global broadcast Media agencies and the news industry in India, has sped through many pivotal turning evolutionary stages. This is an account of many diverse purposes and paradigms that they operate on or for. For a decade now, multi-variate chaos and conflicts have affected world affairs and it’s stability in different shapes and sizes. Mediating information and/or using admissible credibility, to report frivolities during a crisis is usually accepted or believed to be a norm supporting ethical journalism.

Diabolically under many circumstances the very same means was found to be a result of an orchestrated propaganda, designed by facilitators of organized conflict and systematic control. I firmly believe that media under this model works stronger off late. Overturning governments, civil crisis, industrial espionage, global terrorism and many other focus of reporting are slowly creating an automatic system of different situations being identified as an offspring of each other.

Media discourses have undergone discernible changes in the last few decades and with changing global political order, wars, natural calamities and political mobilization a fresh approach towards understanding the functioning of Media in times of conflict and peace becomes inevitable. Equally, the need of the hour is to remember that an arbitration by juxtaposed media, however well meaning may serve to aggravate situations, inflame passions and therefore subvert or frustrate conflict resolution measures.

In all intents and purposes the mushrooming of 24×7 News Channels , widespread use of the world wide web and the rise of Social Media platforms (The Burhan Wani effect) recently have redefined the mental constructs that helped us to understand the functioning of Global political order especially in times of Conflict and Peace. The effect of a strongly linked, cosmopolitan and international neighborhood owing to superior access to all forms of media may not necessarily be a positive aspect; ideologies, identities, territorial integrities, and indeed the very concept of nation states may be challenged by perceptions of global institutions percolating via the Media.

Access to 24×7 real time information through diverse media forms and their ability to mould perceptions have forced a reevaluation by governments, international businesses and even non state actors to view the heightened role of the Media in the shaping of conflict. Time and space are two distinct variables in communication studies that have aided paradigm changes in existing theories and questions that have already been answered but need a fresh perspective that can solve key issues which affect the socio political environment in contemporary times. With real time broadcasting of on ground events our perceptions about the world around us has undergone significant changes.

One of the sterling examples of this was demonstrated during the 9/11 attacks on the American mainland; raw ability to transpose events as they unfolded into people’s homes was on evidence, giving a perspective not seen hitherto fore.

It has been widely debated that the Media is prone as well as responsive to influences wielded by governments because of their inherent need to access corridors of power. Contrarily it has also been argued that governments are vulnerable and inclined to pressures by commercial media, due to their widespread reach and their ravenous yearning to connect with the masses. Eminent political philosopher Aristotle had said that man is by nature a social animal and therefore the relationship that thus develops between man and the state becomes an important subject matter of research, with ultimate aim of that defining relationship being welfare and happiness.

The unparalleled growth in mass media channels have widened the the roles it could play in diverse areas apart from performing the functions of providing information, influencing public opinion and social attitudes, entertainment and bringing about greater social integration.. In contemporary times, the media plays an important role in providing information through news reports and analysis, which is beneficial in assessing the role it plays in conflict escalation and peace building processes

In Indian context, the press has historically played a powerful role in motivating people to participate in the freedom struggle during the pre-independence era. After independence, the press included the more powerful electronic media, radio and television in communicating political information to the people. All these media channels compete with one another to bring people closer to the political processes, important issues linked to them and their probable effects on society. Panel discussions, opinion analysis, talk shows, interviews and speeches on the mass media attempt to create a political awareness and influence the future course of political activity in the country.

The mass media are now regarded as intervening influences in creating political awareness and assessment of political performance. In India the differences across local, state and national elections may also be a factor which determines political awareness, interest and voter participation.

Wars and territorial conflicts have long served as empirical test ground for theories of politics and how different groups of people understand political communication processes within society.

Voices all across the journalistic community however elicits the response that media coverage of stories today does not focus on real issues affecting millions of people and instead is led by sensationalism and glamour. Monroe E Price & Mark Thompson argue that today the human mind is exposed to modes of political influence that are more persuasive , insinuating and sophisticated than was easily imagined half a century ago and Media are prime conduits and agents of this influence. The editors of “Forging peace: Intervention, Human Rights and the Management of media Space opine that a good deal has been written about the strategies of media exploitation that were used to bring about particular conflicts. It is widely accepted that media played a central role in fomenting ‘ethnic violence’ in Rwanda and Bosnia Herzegovina where government forces and rebels or other factions contested the very organisation and content of the press and broadcasting. The impact of international media on diplomacy, mediation and humanitarian assistance has also been appraised.

There are important pragmatic lessons to be learnt from the examples of Rwanda and Bosnia. A coherent international policy on these issues is unlikely to emerge especially one that might involve specific duties of intervention for the international community unless a framework is developed for addressing the information on challenges and needs in conflict zones as well as for evaluating the different techniques of what has been called ‘Information Intervention’. Forging Peace. analyses the tension between interventive action of governments, international organisations and military forces on the one hand and the international legal protection of freedom of Media & information on the other.

Gadi Wolfsfeld expresses concern over the research about the role of news media in political conflict and war with little work done on role of news media in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. “There is not one major study which has looked at the role of the news media in an ongoing peace process…Even the most casual observer cannot fail to be impressed with the ability of the news media to serve an either constructive or destructive role in the promotion of peace. The news media have become the central arena for political conflicts today.”

With the advent of the print media in the early 17th century, it’s promise as a means to both spread objective information as well as misinformation in order to control and manipulate the views of the populace was realized. Thus its emergence as a powerful tool. In the last century this has been further reinforced with electronic media acting to speed up the process, with its amazing reach as well as inherent hastening of the ability to reach masses

In his monograph Ajai Rai has explored the causal relationship of conflict situations and the media. According to him, the inertia, the incompetence and the corrupt motives of the individual media-man often bring about conflicts, or prolong or aggravate them. The internal and external vested interests also create and perpetuate conflicts of all types to promote their social, religious, political and economic agenda. To attain their nefarious ends, these forces manage and manipulate, corrupt and coerce the media in several ways, and use it as a pawn in their diabolical chess game. Under these inexorable pressures, a media outlet either closes down, cowers or allows itself to be controlled and corrupted. Sometimes it becomes a willing partner in the wicked game. A few withstand all pressures, but this “tribe,” is almost extinct and has been driven out by competition by those who run the media for purely commercial interests. This is very evident in contemporary Indian electronic media where invariably the commercial interests coupled with the intense political news room pressures result in a scenario of this sort.

Ajai Rai further goes on to say that this ground reality of media vis-à-vis conflict situations contrasts sharply with the defined role of the media. In actual or potential conflict situations the role of the media is crucial. It should on no account itself contribute directly or indirectly to the creation of conflicts or situations which breed conflicts. It has to avoid oral or written words, projections of scenes and depictions of pictures, which may inflame passions of the people, create hatred between different sections of the populace, or lead to violence. All audio-visuals, news and views disseminated by it, and the manner and method of their dissemination, must conform to the most elementary precautions taken for civilised living. In practice this does not happen.

In the field of conflict resolution, media can really play a major role in enlightening the public, building up opinion and in guiding people towards cognizance of the need for peace. Its role dictates that it should take all steps within its reach to help end conflict and ensure the restoration of peace. Media can also help find amicable and effective solutions and possibly be the guiding beacon to prevent any relapses or recurrences.

Specifically, in the cases of armed/military conflicts, the objective defined for the media is “humanitarian reporting”. Though it may sound ironical as there is hardly anything humane about conflicts; Essentially humanitarian reporting entails focusing on violations of the conventions of war by either of the protagonists of the conflict. These conventions governing the conduct of armed conflicts are called the humanitarian law of war. These laws declare that the object of war should be to eliminate the possibility of a total war. In view of this legitimate objective, the use of certain types of arms and ammunitions which unnecessarily aggravate the suffering of disabled men, or render their death inevitable, is prohibited. All poisonous gases and bacteriological methods of warfare are banned. The comprehensive treaty not only prohibits the use but also their development, production and stockpiling. The law protects the wounded and sick, the shipwrecked and the prisoners of war. It also protects civilians who have fallen into the enemy’s hands, from arbitrary treatment and violence. The basic purpose of these laws is three-fold. First, they are essential to prevent man’s fall from decency to barbarism, and to mitigate the horrors and hardships of the conflicts. Second, the laws ensure a disciplined army, which is distinguishable from the marauders and plunderers. Third, the observance of rules also creates goodwill among belligerent states, their armies and civilian populations and helps restore peaceful relations between them sooner when the conflicts cease.

Ideally, human rights reporting of armed conflicts should be objective, fair and impartial, irrespective of the nationality, race, religion or ideology of the violators of the law, and of their victims, and has to be above all uninfluenced by biases and prejudices. In practice it is not so because even in peaceful situations, reporting is subject to internal predilections and external pressures, apart from human biases and opinions. Thus, armed conflict witnesses this all the more. Few can withstand the pressures and the influences of the social groups in which they operate, and fewer still can overcome their predispositions actuated by their own nationality, race, religion, culture and ideology. However, without being immune to outside and inside forces, one cannot discharge his/her duty as a humanitarian reporter.

The main objective of reporting on violations of humanitarian law of war ought to be to preserve and promote human dignity. Individuals do not lose their rights as human beings , whether they are part of the armed forces of their country, or innocent civilians caught in a crossfire in conflict zones. Just as combatants are not individually responsible for their action, so are the civilians equally unable to do anything about their precarious situation.

In an age of fast paced instant gratification via the electronic and cyber based information, the media’s role in conflict situations has come to acquire new meaning. Contemporary wars and political conflicts will be preceded by “infoattacks”—disinformation, psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns. Warring forces on the other side of the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) will attempt to win without firing bullets and rockets. It has already happened. The CNN won the war for the US-led multinational forces in the Gulf well before the Iraqi soldiers and their camps were destroyed.

Academic Researchers have focused their analyses and examinations and envisaged the issues around the distinctions between state authorized and rogue use of Media to incite conflict, between authorized and unauthorized incidents of information intervention and between preventive intervention as opposed to that directed towards resolving conflict.

While there is not yet sufficient evidence to support the claim that media is becoming a controlling actor in the formulation of policy in international conflicts, it plays a dramatic role which affects many important dimensions of foreign policy and diplomacy. As such it may be constraining rather than determining.[ii]

Philip Taylor opines that the convergence between contemporary “PSYOPS” ‘Psychological Operations’ or military propaganda and civilian uses of information technology has important implications. So while popular sentiments may be in favour of diplomatic isolation of Pakistan, Cancellation of SAARC and surgical strikes on terrorist training camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), Strategically it is not a great idea to declare war however much the national sentiments may support it.

Immediately after the Uri attack , in which 18 Indian soldiers were martyred , the nation wanted to know why India was not taking a firm stand. The media houses self declared a war on Pakistan creating hash tags on twitter calling for tough action by the Indian establishment. The Indian Prime Ministers stand on human rights violations in Balochistan also fuelled widespread anti Pakistan sentiments supporting India’s stand on Balochistan. However the media or the fourth estate cannot decide what strategic action needs to be taken. The media is not a decision making body and the reporters however intellectual they may look and sound they are only reporters . Their task is to inform and educate not decide and force their opinion on the viewers. I fail to understand how news rooms are turning into Army headquarters with anchors behaving like Generals .While all this isolation of Pakistan continues Mr. Sitaram Yechury CPIM wants dialogue with Pakistan. Certainly Diplomatic dialogues and bilateral negotiations and Confidence building measures have failed. First Pathankot then Uri. And now the news room. The reporters should stick to causes and actual consequences rather than imaginary consequences.

I am a regular consumer of news at Primetime and I strongly condemn the way news panelists are called, not allowed to speak and everything is being decided by one man and twitter hash tags. For Patriotic rhetoric it is explicable but for strategic action, dear media please let the men in uniform decide. War may be an extended version of politics between nations (Clausewitz) but this TRP competitive version of war which completely distorts public mental constructs needs to stop. It is far more dangerous that what it looks like. However reluctant these news anchors/reporters may sound that they are just doing their job, they are brainwashing the masses into believing that India is at war with Pakistan. We have been in a state of war with Pakistan since 1947 but there comes a point in geopolitics when strategic actions are the only way out to draw boundaries and tackle strategic dilemma, whether to strike or not. Even theoretical ontologisms that call for Jihad and media narratives fail to convince the establishments to stop the propaganda war through the mass media.

*Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote, B.A, M.A, P.G.D, M.PHIL International Relations with specialisation in Politics, Political Science

Reference Reading :
1. Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W Dayton Rowman &Little field 2011 Constructive Conflicts-From Escalation to Resolution

2. Edward Said Covering Islam-How the Media and the Experts Determine how we see the rest of the world 1997 Vintage

3. Amelia Arsenault, Sheldon Himelfarb and Susan Abbott, United States Institute of Peace, Evaluating Media Interventions in Conflict Countries- Toward Developing Common Principles and a Community of Practice, first published in 2011.

4. Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, John Sides, John Kelly, Ethan Zuckerman, United States Institute of Peace Report, 2010.

5. Blogs and Bullets- New Media in Contentious Politics, Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, John Sides, John Kelly, Ethan Zuckerman, United States Institute of Peace Report, 2010.

6. Forging Peace :Intervention, Human Rights and the Management of media ,Indiana University Press 2007 primarily focusses on role of media in conflict situations and impact of information intervention in escalation, de escalation of conflicts.

7. Media and Political Conflict, Cambridge University Press, 1997. This book gives an insight on the role of news media as participants in conflict. The author has analysed the role of media in the Gulf War, the Palestinian Intifada, and the attempt by the Israeli right wing to derail the Israel- Palestine Peace Accord.3

8. Ajai Rai, Conflict Situations and the Media: A Critical Look, IDSA Monograph Series.

9. Philip Seib , Media and Conflict in 21st Century, , Palgrave and Macmillan, 2005.

Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote

Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote is a Communication Professional, Research Scholar and a Defence Enthusiast. With an MA, MPHIL in International Relations, Political Science and Development Communications, Ms Hoskote regularly writes for Eurasia Review on subjects of geopolitical importance.

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