The tension-riddled relations of India and Pakistan, ever since August 1947 when they emerged as two independent, sovereign states on the map of the world has also impacted the media in both countries.
Historically, the region has been perceived as an active, rumbling volcano, continuously spewing threatening clouds of a serious clash every now and then between India and Pakistan. Both have spent massive resources in building up their military arsenal, including nuclear weapons and missiles. Far from being friendly neighbours, they have fought four wars, including one of the biggest wars of modern history that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Throughout these years, the media, both print and electronic on both the sides, remained largely aligned to their respective government policies. There was therefore hardly any meaningful contribution from the media on both sides towards defusing tensions between the two countries or bridging the gap between India and Pakistan.
Given the lack of contact, the media largely projected a negative image of the other country. There was little or no access to the 'human face' of the other side, and there always was a clear hostility in the reporting by the two correspondents working on 'enemy soil'.
It was not until 1979 that one journalist from each country was granted a visa allowing him to work in the other country - a representative of the Press Trust of India (PTI) and a representative of Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), both state-owned news agencies. Allowed to work in the 'enemy country', both were seriously and practically considered 'spies' by the intelligence agencies of both countries, and treated as such.
We don't know what the conditions in New Delhi were, but here in Islamabad, the PTI correspondent was monitored and followed around-the-clock. Anybody he met or anybody who visited him would be immediately contacted by intelligence agency sleuths and thoroughly questioned about the purpose of the visit or meeting as well the topic of discussion. And we, the journalists at that time, considered all this to be quite normal.
It was only after a whole decade, in 1989, that the Pakistan-India Joint Commission recommended an increase in the representation of journalists on either side without specifying the numbers. There is practically no documentation on this subject. The Joint Commission, established in 1983 with the aim of providing beneficial cooperation in various fields, held only three meetings between 1983 and 1989; it was revived after seventeen long years, in 2006.
During the year 1993, there was a record number of Indian journalists working in Pakistan - five. Three Pakistani journalists worked in India. This discrepancy in the number of journalists in the two countries was apparently due not just to India's larger population, but also because India did not grant the requisite visas to some Pakistani journalists.
As a result, both sides reduced the number of journalists working in each other's countries to two each in 1994. Once again, this arrangement was a 'verbal agreement'. I have been unable to find anything in writing. The journalists are also more or less confined to Islamabad and New Delhi respectively and usually need special permission to go to other cities.
What has remained unchanged in this scenario is that these journalists working in 'enemy countries' continue to be kept under surveillance by the intelligence agencies and considered as 'spies'. Because of the monitoring by the intelligence agencies, other government departments, especially the Ministry of Information, have never felt very comfortable accepting these journalists' requests to interview government personalities, particularly in the Ministry of Defence and the Army. The Ministry of Interior in Pakistan and the Home Ministry in India have also been cautious in granting them permission to visit areas other than those specified on their visas.
In Pakistan's case, Indian journalists need permission from the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Interior to even go outside the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) limits. In addition, even within Islamabad their movements remain under surveillance.
It is still not unusual for people visiting these Indian journalists or for their hosts, when they are invited some place, to receive visits from intelligence folks trying to gather information on who else was present and what was discussed. It could be a social event or a meeting in connection with the journalist's professional duties.
One wonders when these outdated practices will be finally scrapped so that journalists from both countries are able to work and report from 'the other side' and project a more human face of the 'enemy' to the people at home. They might then find that the human face is pretty similar on both sides.
The writer is a senior journalist working with The News in slamabad.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
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