South Asia media landscape – 19 Feb 2023

THE storm in India over a carefully researched and crafted BBC documentary had barely begun to die down when the international broadcaster`s offices in Delhi and Mumbai were raided by `tax authorities`. The documentary had suggested that the UK government of the time had held Prime Minister Narendra Modi responsible for the pogrom in Gujarat two decades earlier when he was the state`s chief minister.

The events before and after this episode are an illustration of how India, once the bastion of democracy and free debate, has now clamped down on all information challenging the Hindu nationalist BJP`s pre-eminence or threatening its reputation in any way.

This mirrors the policies of its western South Asian neighbour and fellow nuclear-armed power Pakistan which also heavily polices media content and, just as in the BJP`s case, either has co-opted major media organisations as partner or simply browbeaten the dissenting ones into silence. The `tax raid` on the BBC and detention of some of the staff for over 24 hours was no more than a warning.

There`s no point in repeating the details of the documentary contents, as this newspaper`s eloquent India correspondent Jawed Naqvi has covered that aspect well and also reported that the Indian prime minister will remain unscathed from the fallout, particularly in domestic politics.

That was always going to be the case, considering that Mr Modi had already been given a clean chit by his country`s supreme court in the case of the communal violence, which saw over 2,000 people, predominantly Muslims, slaughtered.

This was so, despite overwhelming evidence to suggest that at best he told the police not to intervene as violent Hindu mobs went on the rampage and killed, raped, burned and plundered in Muslim neighbourhoods. This was not innocent dithering. Some observers believe it was a pogrom that accelerated Mr Modi`s journey to the top office in the country.

A military commander was later to say in his book that his troops were poised to step in to restore order but waited endlessly to be asked by the state government.

The BBC documentary not only talked to eyewitnesses and those affected, including some who lost family members to the mind-numbing massmurder, but also secured access to official reports sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, headed by then Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, by the British mission in Delhi, detailing the gruesome event and the role played by the state authorities.

As soon as the two-part documentary was aired on BBC, the Delhi government used its massive commercial clout to have it killed on social media sites such as Twitter and YouTube, and there was considerable criticism in India on the grounds of misplaced nationalism. Predictably, motives were attributed to the BBC for making the documentary but its content was hardly addressed! The BJP and its corporate backers, who control the billions worth of advertising, have either coopted or subdued the bulk of the Indian media organisations, including some established ones that represented better journalism in the past.Now they aren`t a shadow of their former selves.

Of course, notable exceptions are there and one can only salute their resilience and commitment to independent journalism and their desire to see their country represent pluralistic values rather than one dominant strain. This is even more remarkable given how grave the financial consequences can be of such editorial positions.

Among mainstream TV news channels, NDTV represented one of the last perceived to have had relative independence. Then recently, news emerged that in one major swoop, the Modi-allied Adani Group had purchased a controlling share in the organisation. What followed was an exodus of those responsible for directing that independent policy and those exe cuting it on the editorial floors and in the field.

Apart from India`s loathsome Kashmir policy of oppression, Pakistani liberals for years saw the eastern neighbour as a distant island, one that rep-resented values that many of us have longed for in this country: democracy, free press, secular values, pluralism, etc.

The Babri Masjid demolition and the frenzy that preceded it, and then, of course, the Gujarat pogrom served as a major reality check. How the frenzy kicked up by such ghastly events completely enamoured such a large number of voters was heart-breaking to witness.

It was even more heart-breaking when the realisation began to sink in that Indian democracy was being transformed into a neo-fascist state, where some of India`s brightest sons and daughters were being imprisoned for publicly calling for pluralism and true democratic norms and where dissent was now a crime.

None of this should make me, a Pakistani, feel superior. Where India`s current state of affairs was reached in recent decades, we stole a march over them from the first decade onwards of our independence. It would not take much to say who is or has been responsible.

In Pakistan as in India, the systematic undermining, muzzling and dumbing down of an independent media means that any struggle for change for the better is that much more uphill. This, when the battle wasn`t a cakewalk to begin with.

I am not aware how significant a role `social media personalities` such as those with their own YouTube channels play in shaping public opinion, but in the case of Pakistan, their role is not insignificant. These were erstwhile state assets nurtured to demonise the `enemies`, both domestic and foreign.

Today, many have gone rogue and become the bane of the same establishment`s existence.

Tragically, their orientation may be anti-establishment at this point in time but their anti-democratic DNA remains the same as when they were produced. No surprise then that mass confusion, anxiety and instability are the only result of their often misinformed content, even where it is not disinformation by design.

Many readers criticise us analysts for only listing the issues and rarely suggesting solutions. As a media professional in my 39th working year, I must concede, I am at a loss. And feel defeated. • The wnter is a former editor of Dawn.

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