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A War of Words? Conflicting Media Narratives Between India and Pakistan

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A War of Words? Conflicting Media Narratives Between India and Pakistan

In a game of optics and perception, India’s Modi and Pakistan’s Khan each have come away with a victory.

A War of Words? Conflicting Media Narratives Between India and Pakistan

A Pakistani watches a broadcast of captured Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s handover to Indians at the Wagah border in Pakistan, Friday, March 1, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

Last month, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for a February 14 suicide attack on paramilitary troops in Pulwama district, situated in Indian-administered Kashmir. After the attack, a flurry of reporting, analysis, opinion pieces, televised debates between politicians, retired army generals, and political commentators emerged from various media outlets both in Pakistan and India. The framing of content to depict a narrative on mass media played a very important role in forming opinions about the Pulwama attack and later as the conflict escalated with Indian air strikes on Pakistani territory on February 26.

Comparatively analyzing the framing of content, the intended target audience, and the reactions evoked, one can understand how media outlets have influenced public opinion and imagination. The effect of framing and content on public opinion, coupled with the isolation of national audiences from conflicting narratives portrayed by mass media from across the border, will affect the domestic political climate and international perception of the two nations and their leaders in the near future. National audiences, however, are not completely isolated from content from across the border because each nation’s media would subsequently cherry-pick content generated from the other side of the border and frame it in a manner that suits their respective national narrative.

Phraseology and Content Framing

The disputed nature of Kashmir as a territory is displayed through the difference between how Indian and Pakistani media term the two sides of the area divided by the Line of Control (LoC). Pakistani media terms Indian-administered Kashmir as “Indian-occupied Kashmir” (IoK) or “Indian-held Kashmir” while its own side of the border is known as “Azad Kashmir” (free Kashmir). Indian media terms Pakistan-administered Kashmir as “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” or PoK. The phrasing of territories as “occupied” or “held” by mass media propagates a sense of illegal occupation, even though the status of the region has been in dispute since the 1947 partition that split India and Pakistan.

On the day of the Pulwama attack, Pakistani media house Dawn published a report of the attack that contained a response from Pakistan’s foreign office. The piece was purely reportage of events and was devoid of suggestively framed content. However, on February 15, another Pakistani newspaper, The News, published an article that contained an objective lead followed by a couple of paragraphs of statements from Kashmiri separatist leaders, then a description of the suicide bomber’s final video. This contrast in framing is indicative of a polarized mass media in Pakistan. Considering Pakistan’s official stand for the self-determination of Kashmiri citizens, the article from The News aimed at a domestic audience seems to be an attempt to propagate the government’s official stance on the Kashmiri issue to the general audience of the newspaper.

On the other side of the border, The Hindu, an influential English daily, published a fairly objective report in its February 15 issue, but with one small section of the lead focusing on a tweet from Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh in which he blamed Pakistan for housing and backing JeM. NDTV, a media conglomerate with vast digital operations and television channels, published many articles on its website in relation to the Pulwama attack. Some were objective reports of the attack in various Indian languages while others were strongly worded statements by politicians. While these pieces did not explicitly state Pakistan’s complicity in the attack, the “Pakistan-based” prefix to the mentions of JeM was a suggestion of such complicity.

After the Indian air strikes on February 26, Dawn first published an article based on information from the Twitter account of Pakistan’s Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor. Ghafoor claimed that the Indian Air Force intruded across the LoC and into Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Indian authorities later that day claimed they conducted air strikes on a JeM training camp in Balakot, which is across the international border and not across the LoC. While Dawn’s reporting was a reproduction of quotes and paraphrased statements, The News ran stories with suggestive and provocative headlines such as “We will pick time, place to hit back” and “Balakot residents expose Indian claim.” This narrative takes an offensive position against Indian claims and the air strike.

On the Indian side, India Today, a media conglomerate that publishes magazines and runs a television news channel wrote in one of their articles published on February 26 that violating a foreign country’s airspace is considered to be an act of war and in the same article suggested that India attacked Pakistan, as it did not just cross the LoC but “went deep inside the Pakistani territory.” This type of framing of the air strike is particularly dangerous because the article may, to a lay-person, suggest that India and Pakistan are at war which is not the case. The same publication also carried pieces headlined “India strikes Pakistan: Congratulate PM Modi, says Devendra Fadnavis” and “Surgical Strike 2 on Pakistan: Anupam Kher tells Rahul Gandhi to start saluting PM Narendra Modi” which clearly portray the prime minister as the personality responsible for brave strategic moves. He was thus portrayed in numerous articles published around the same time by many outlets.

The Hindu, in comparison carried articles such as “India bombs Jaish camp in Pakistan’s Balakot,” which was relatively objective and contained quotes from a press conference held by the Ministry for External Affairs. More importantly, the article contained a barrage of information about the operation, including specific details of the target, jets used, type of bombs deployed, and many other operational specifics. Though this kind of reporting does not have the same dangerous effects of the framing used in the India Today example, such reports with specific information of air power and ammunition used certainly displays India’s hard power clearly to its audience.

Such framing of content can also be observed in official government communications. Immediately after the air strikes, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations of Pakistan tweeted about the incident. Specific wording was used to emphasize the quick response of the Pakistan Air Force and to soften the blow dealt by the intrusion of air space. The tweets characterized the strike and nature of the bomb drop as “[u]nder forced hasty withdrawal aircrafts released payload which had free fall in open area.” In comparison, the Indian Foreign Secretary’s statement termed the strike as a “non-military pre-emptive action” in an “intelligence-led operation.” The Indian government’s statement portrays itself as being on the offensive, but against a terror outfit and not against the state of Pakistan. The Pakistani army’s statement is an example of defensive framing of content by terming a bomb as a “payload” and characterizing the withdrawal of fighter aircraft as “hasty.”

Effects of Video Content

A variety of content was used by both sides in the days after the air strike. Some video content stood out and created an impact in the minds of domestic and international audiences. An important characteristic of the video content used was that it was short in form and could be shared easily, unlike newspaper articles and television broadcasts.

On February 27, after an aerial dogfight between the Pakistan Air Force and Indian Air Force, an Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who ejected from his jet after it was shot down was captured in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. What followed in Pakistani media and social media websites was a series of videos of the captured pilot released by the Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistan Armed Forces. Although this was arguably a violation of the Geneva Convention, it served as a tool for the Pakistani army. The first video of the pilot involved a mob battering him, followed by two videos of him speaking to a camera. In one of the videos published on the website of television channel Dunya TV, he appeared relaxed, and appreciative of the Pakistani army for rescuing him from the mob and looking after him.

The intended objective by releasing such videos was to achieve a positive domestic and international public opinion of the armed forces and based on various social media posts that objective seems to have been achieved. Although there was no direct appreciation of the Pakistani army for looking after the pilot, based on a cursory mining of social media posts, there was minimal disapproval from across the border of the Pakistani armed forces with regard to how the pilot was treated. However, there were many opinions stating that the videos violated the Geneva Convention.

On the other side of the border, these videos were used by the Indian media to establish the pilot as a heroic character. The pilot, in a video, gave very minimal information to protect national security; no details of the mission he was on, the jet he was flying, and other sensitive information seemed to have been given away in the video. India Today used that line of argument in an article titled, “That’s all I can tell you: Even after capture, IAF hero Abhinandan oozes courage, dignity and pride.” The headline paints the fighter pilot as a hero on the back of the same video that gained the Pakistani army positive public opinion and approval.

In Indian television coverage of the return of the pilot to India on March 1, news anchors and journalists stated that he had captured the nation’s imagination. He was exalted by Indian media as the perfect soldier who survived and behaved in a dignified and composed manner in enemy territory. Based on the content published by news media around the return of the pilot, one can conclude that public imagination was strengthened by the media framing. The construction of such a public imagination has been performed by various other mass media tools such as movies, songs, and stories of martyrs and heroes, long before the present India-Pakistan conflict.

The release of the captured pilot was termed a “peace gesture” extended by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. There were many articles published by various outlets expressing appreciation for the prime minister such as, “Indian Twitter erupts in praise over Imran’s decision to release IAF pilot” in Dawn and “British PM May lauds PM Imran’s act of releasing Indian pilot” on Dunya TV’s website. An article headlined “Pakistanis sign petition seeking Nobel Peace Prize for PM Imran Khan” in The News reported that many Pakistanis called for Khan to be given a Nobel Peace Prize as he was perceived to have de-escalated tensions by freeing the captured pilot.

Effects on Populism, Nationalism and Electoral Politics

Positive public opinion of the Indian and Pakistani armed forces, displaying the heroism of a soldier, framing news in a manner that holds one national leader responsible for displaying a brave offensive against terror and praising another for exhibiting a calm and smart approach to peace, lead to the strengthening of a sense of patriotism, trust in leadership, and national identity and pride. This building of national identity is one of the processes toward promoting a strong nationalistic polity.

Public opinion in India for stern action against terrorism has been growing stronger over the past few years. The unprecedented display of air power against terror has appealed to people based on the various reactions one can observe in mass media and social media. This general appeal to popular public opinion is a textbook example for populism in action. This move, for a populist, nationalist leader such as Narendra Modi will enhance his campaign for the general elections that he is contesting in a couple of months.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has been in office for a little over half a year. He was seen as a political novice after a major victory for his party last year. This development would see an increase in his approval rating, which would enable him to take on other political adventures. Moreover, the international recognition of his “peace gesture” has added a peace-loving dimension to his persona, which would boost his personal interactions with other world leaders as a new prime minister.

The relative isolation of national audiences from conflicting narratives depicted by mass media from across the border has led to two individual victories of populist and nationalist leaders in one game of optics and perception.

Akash Sriram is a postgraduate student studying Conflict, Development and Security at the University of Leeds, UK with a background in media studies.