India's ongoing war with the Foreign Press

By Nikhil Inamdar. Dated: 8/14/2019 11:27:55 AM

NEW DELHI, Aug 13: Images, videos and reports from international media outlets of protest rallies in the Kashmir Valley denouncing the abrogation of Article 370 have raised a storm on social media in India. The government has accused the BBC of fabricating a video that showed thousands marching in the Saura region of Srinagar where police opened fire on protesters, injuring dozens of people.
A report carried by Newslaundry said, “A week-long communications blackout, and an acquiescent national press that was busy parroting the state narrative, had allowed the government to effectively build an image of calm in the Kashmir Valley. Until the prying foreign media came along and pooped the party.”
The BBC has stood firm, refuting claims that it misrepresented the situation. And more reports of unrest have since emanated from the pages of the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, the New York Times, Reuters and the Associated Press, vindicating its stand.
But in an environment of heightened patriotic fervour, the Indian public is simply disinclined to hearing a narrative that runs counter to its current spirit of jubilation over the August 5 decision. Apart from the liberal credentials of many of the outlets reporting on the situation—who they are loathed to believe—there are other important reasons for this.
For many Indians, fresh off the deliverance of a thumping mandate to a Right-wing Hindu government, a decision such as the revocation of Article 370 holds enormous symbolic value. It represents the idea of a strong, muscular nation which is capable of acting tough. And, of a Prime Minister willing to correct a historic blunder. Nuances that complicate this linear narrative, don't interest them. Differing viewpoints are non-negotiable.
One only needs to rewind to February of this year when the foreign press punctured holes into the Indian government's claims on the number of casualties and the extent of damage done by its airstrikes on Balakot, to recognise that we as citizens are not fond of convoluted screenplays that interfere with our sacrosanct beliefs about issues such as national pride. We want to revel in the glow of an easy triumph, and live happily ever after.
Blame this on a steady diet of the “Us vs Them” brand of patriotism perfected by Bollywood through films like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Or the warrior anchors who deliver high doses of jingoism on our screens every evening, punctuating their shouting with crafty state-fed imagery—such as Ajit Doval's biryani banter—to transmit a sense of all is well. In this environment, one can't blame people for believing that the BBC and the New York Times are part of some international conspiracy hatched to undermine India's moment of glory.
In fact, even as columnists and op-ed writers mourn the near annihilation of the free press in India, and global correspondents increasingly face the wrath of trolls online for reporting what they don't like to hear about their country, a Pew study last year found that Indians' trust in their national media hadn't eroded at all. A whopping 80 percent believed that their country's press was accurate and objective in their reportage as compared to just 43 percent of Americans and a global average of 62 percent.
This might seem ironic in an era where disinformation and fake news have grown exponentially in the country—but is hardly surprising. After all most local news channels in India today do a terrific job of confirming the fears and ideological biases of an electorate that has just like them pivoted emphatically to the Right in recent years.
In this vitiated environment, the global liberal media needs to do a fair bit to regain the lost trust of a people who increasingly view them as enemies. The issue that most of them on Twitter, and in private conversations I've had, took umbrage at, was not the BBC video, but the broader bias prevalent in the foreign media's coverage of Kashmir; the fact that they focused their reporting mostly on the unrest in the Valley, rather than the peace in Ladakh and the jubilation in Jammu.
This is really a straw man argument, since the matter in question is not of bias, but of the authenticity of the viral video footage that showed a large protest that the government was trying to hide from view. The foreign press could also argue that their bureaus were directing their resources to an area of potential conflict rather than places where relative calm was expected.
But explaining such constraints of resources or editorial priority to a deeply polarised nation prone to whataboutery and logical fallacies will not cut ice. It is also equally true that the finger-pointing does hold some merit and the foreign bureaux need to make a more conscious effort to cover the story intricately, rather than merely underlining doomsday scenarios that will make their bosses sitting in London and New York take notice.
In the current scenario that might be the only way to stop the perceptions of prejudice from undermining the value of the hard, intrepid journalism that only they are increasingly in a position to do in India these days.

 

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