Media Reception in Pakistan

How they see it

Print edition :
A look at how the Pakistani media covered India’s raid on Balakot and the subsequent attack by Pakistan.

If the Pakistani media are to be believed, Prime Minister Imran Khan enjoys the unparalleled support of the military forces in the country. After India’s Balakot raid and the subsequent attack by Pakistan, Mosharraf Zaidi wrote in The News: “The rank and file as well as top leadership of the army believe in his [Prime Minister Imran Khan] sincerity of purpose. This trust is what has allowed for swift and decisive decision-making with relatively little dissonance or white noise between Islamabad and Pindi.” He went on to advise: “PM Khan will not be Pakistan’s leader forever. Future Prime Ministers should examine how valuable trust with Pindi has been in the last week.” Zaidi not only analysed the relationship between Prime Minister Imran Khan and his military in a positive way but also had something meaningful to say on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s invitation to India. “At the OIC meeting in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan was unable to force India to be disinvited. But, in equal measure, India was unable to prevent Pakistan from drafting and passing a clear and comprehensive resolution about Jammu and Kashmir and India’s brutal occupation of it.”

Unambiguous about Pakistan’s failure

The columnist was unambiguous about the failure of Pakistan to rally the international community around it after India’s raid. “Pakistan watched in awe as the Balakot attack was treated by literally every major country on the planet as something that Pakistan (the victim) was equally culpable for as India—the aggressor. France was perhaps the most egregiously pro-India in its response to India’s Balakot attack. But the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom (the last of P5+1 powers to speak on the matter) were all decidedly on India’s side throughout the ordeal. I would argue they still are.”

Not everybody was as dispassionate in their analysis. Leading the cheerleaders was Fahd Husain in a piece dripping with satire in The Express Tribune. In the article, headlined “Delhi in Disneyland”, he wrote: “In a span of one week, India dropped its payload, its military reputation and its moral standing. What a week for Narendra Modi and his plans to dominate the escalatory and electoral ladders. Now both are in disarray…. Remember the picture of the captured Indian pilot, with a bloody nose? While the pilot’s nose may have already healed, India’s nose will not heal so soon.... By trashing Pakistan, bad-mouthing Pakistan, threatening Pakistan, many Indians perhaps subconsciously tried to validate their deeply ingrained delusions. So we saw India’s politicians and media people obsessing about Pakistan. To them Pakistan was a carpet under which they could hide their own dirt, and perhaps their insecurities too.” Somewhat pompously, he continued: “Modi tried to kill Pakistan’s deterrence, he ended up killing India’s dream.”

If there was a saving grace to Husain’s analysis, it was his mention of the upcoming general election as the possible cause for the growing unease between the two countries. Imran Khan had himself more than once alluded to the Indian election in his speeches, thereby hinting that the conflict was aimed at rallying support for Prime Minister Modi in India.

On March 6, Dawn came up with a feature headlined “Foreign journalists find holes in the Indian narrative on F-16 usage, Balakot strike”. The paper appeared to toe the government line, yet it tread with caution. It said: “New Delhi’s narrative on the India-Pakistan standoff appeared to crumble further on Wednesday [March 6] as foreign journalists unearthed new details about the events of the preceding weeks.”

The New York Times journalist Maria Abi-Habib revealed that “contrary to India’s insistence, Pakistan may not have necessarily violated its F-16 sales agreement with the U.S. even if it may have used the American-made fighter jets to shoot down Indian aircraft. On Feb 27, Pakistan Air Force had announced that its jets had flown into occupied Kashmir to demonstrate its capability to respond to Indian aggression, locked on to military targets, and then spared them. It had later shot down two Indian aircraft inside Pakistani airspace when they tried to give chase to Pakistani jets.”

Besides cheerleaders in the media, the country also had some cold, old-school logic and analysis in newspaper columns. This was encapsulated the best in Moeed Yusuf’s article titled “Not isolated” in Dawn.

Going back in time to explain the latest conflict between the two nations, he pinned the blame on Uri and the way events unfolded after it. Yusuf argued that the choice of Balakot was influenced by Uri. He wrote:

“Consider Pulwama. This crisis was preceded by the 2016 Uri episode. A strike killed 17 soldiers in an Indian military camp in Kashmir in September. What followed was defined as a watershed moment. India broke from its so-called strategic restraint in the face of terrorism by claiming that it had conducted surgical strikes across the LoC [Line of Control]. The ‘strikes’ were little more than the usual kind of cross-LoC incursions. But Prime Minister Modi went to town. Even as Pakistan rubbished India’s claim, in the public perception, especially in India, Pakistan had been forced to absorb the strike.

“Rather than focussing solely on ensuring de-escalation as they had previously, the U.S. and third parties accepted India’s action as self-defence. Simultaneously though, they made clear that escalation was unacceptable. India therefore communicated to third parties that its action was only aimed at letting off steam to alleviate domestic pressure. The international community counselled restraint to Pakistan, offering guarantees that India won’t escalate if Pakistan would forgo retaliation.

“India’s decision to strike after Pulwama would have been facilitated by two Uri-related factors. First, the Pakistani decision not to strike back. While this choice de-escalated tensions at Uri, it had an emboldening effect on India. Second, the perceived support of the third parties, which India had reason to perceive as stronger than at Uri. Several capitals were sympathetic to India’s air strike and privately communicated as much to India and Pakistan. The choice of Balakot as the target also seems to have been influenced by Uri. Modi was boxed in. By blaming Pakistan for Pulwama, he was de facto accepting that his post-Uri action hadn’t deterred militancy. More had to be done to make it sellable [sic]. Thus, the decision to strike beyond the disputed territory. Still, from its perspective, India was deliberately choosing a relatively barren target, though it claimed otherwise to satisfy domestic audiences, to keep Pakistan’s pain limited.” If Yusuf is to be believed, India “deliberately” chose “a relatively barren target”. This claim flies in the face of the huge casualty figures of 200 to 400 dead terrorists reported by the Indian media within the first hour of the raid. No Pakistani channel or newspaper bought India’s claim of sizeable human casualties in the raid. Only Yusuf, though, put things in perspective by stating that the strike was deliberately on a barren target. He did not buy the official line of a failed strike. He was not trolled.

Ashis Nandy’s diagnosis

Meanwhile, the writer-lawyer Asad Rahim Khan in Dawn (on March 4) attempted to get into the mind of the Indian Prime Minister. He wrote: “Well before he was swept to [New] Delhi, an RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] unknown called Narendra Modi sat down with Ashis Nandy, the famous psychologist. Nandy left the interview ‘in no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a fascist’. Nandy’s diagnosis met all the criteria: ‘massive use of the ego defence of projection… combined with fantasies of violence’. It’s hard to disagree in the wake of the Gujarat riots. Now 17 years since his Muslim constituents were beheaded, raped, or burnt alive, the closest Chief Minister Modi came to remorse was telling Reuters, ‘Even [when] a little puppy comes under the wheel of a car, do we not feel pain? We do.’

“Yet when the Chief Minister became the Prime Minister, some Pakistanis were still smiling. Only a Nixon could go to China, they said, and only a mass murderer could make peace with Islamabad. But Modi made India brutal and brittle instead.... That’s the trouble with electing maniacs: they miss the forest for the trees (or, in this case, a training camp for the forest). Over the past five days, Pakistan and India fought their first air war in half a century, and came the closest to nuclear Armageddon since 2002. Two trends emerge: an Indian press that pushed its own people to war and, to paraphrase Arundhati Roy, a Prime Minister that doesn’t blink in the face of bloodshed.”

While Imran Khan blamed the Indian media for “pushing its own people to war”, the loudest cry against war came not from an Indian news channel or columnist, but from Dawn’s Khurram Husain. In an article titled “De-escalate now”, he made a spirited pitch for peace:

“There are few sights in the world that make one more nauseous than TV anchors hooting for war, hashtag warriors on social media or chicken hawks who’ve never seen a shot fired in anger in their lives squawking out their Kung Fu in colourful studios. All these stay-at-home warriors ought to be made to spend a week in a bunker on the Line of Control before being allowed to egg on their leaderships towards war. Prime Minister Imran Khan is correct in cautioning everybody about the dangers of this tit-for-tat series of strikes getting out of everyone’s control. Even though he didn’t use the words himself, the fact that both countries playing this glorified game of tag are nuclear powers needs to be taken far more seriously by everyone. His call to prevent further escalation and invitation to talk this out is an invitation to end this whole affair with maturity. It should be taken up.”

Incidentally, the Pakistani news channels and newspapers believe that the Indian media took leave of its primary responsibility of depicting the truth and forcing the government to speak the truth. According to Shaukat Paracha, who hosts a prime time news show on Aaj TV: “We saw Indian channels. We were disappointed. When the Indians attacked Balakot and Pakistan retaliated, we were concerned only about two things. First was the resolve that we should not submit as a nation to any power, be it India or any other force. Second we preached peace. We did not seek peace, we propagated it. We worked for peace and dialogue. But we were disappointed with some of the Indian channels. All the time they were talking of war, whipping up war hysteria. Indian media are much bigger with more viewership, readership and advertisement support. We are much smaller. We showed the contrast to our viewers. We saw an Indian anchor asking a guest to leave the show because he talked of peace, and he referred to Geo TV. The media is supposed to be more tolerant.”

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