The Other Side: Comparing Biases in Journalism in India and Pakistan

In the early months of 2019, a district called Pulwama in South Kashmir had become a battleground fraught with unease and hostility for Indian and Pakistani armed forces. Tensions would in due course culminate in a fever-pitch by February 14, when a suicide bomber from the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed would claim the lives of 40 Indian paramilitary personnel.

The political baggage of words
A fortnight shy of this attack, the Indian Express had reported, “Two militants killed in early morning operation.” A day prior, Pakistan’s Express Tribune had relayed the same story with the headline, “Two youths martyred by Indian forces in occupied Kashmir.”

A comparative look at word-choice across Indian and Pakistani journals. Sources: indianexpress.com and tribune.com.pk

The two journals use polar-opposite languages in their respective reportage of the clash. Where the Express informs that security forces had been involved in an encounter, the Tribune writes that India had engaged in “yet another act of state terrorism.” Where the Express speaks of militants and terrorists, the Tribune mourns its youths. Where the Express deploys impassive words such as “killed”, the Tribune is sure to invoke the emotional weight of the word “martyred.”

The differences between the words “martyred” and “killed”, “youths” and “militants” — not to mention the emotional weights of “widowed” and “orphaned” — are beyond mere linguistic anomalies. These are conscious decisions on part of both to defend their respective countries’ actions thereby absolving them, to condemn those of their neighbour’s. Their most significant impact falls to the eyes of their readers, among whom they proliferate the idea that India and Pakistan are irreconcilably dissimilar and fated to be adversaries.

In addition to how news is reported, what is reported and what is omitted are equally effective tools in the art of manipulating narrative.

The art of inclusion
Consider this. The Indian Express’ angle had been that after the militants had opened fire on them, Indian jawaans were forced to retaliate, resulting in unintended fatalities. The Tribune had broached the subject differently, taking the opportunity to field a laundry list of atrocities committed by Indian forces on the people of Kashmir. Some are directly and relevantly linked to the story at hand. Some unrelated — the Tribune mentions the demise of a young girl at the hand of an “unknown gunman” in an entirely different district, heavily implying Indian involvement. Other charges date back several years. The concluding lines provide an account of the tens of thousands of Kashmiri structures destroyed, civilians killed and arrested, women assaulted and widowed, and children orphaned since January 1989.

The information, while important, does not necessarily cohere with the news at hand. However, the sheer magnitude and the injustice of the numbers is sure to stir any reader’s moral compass.

And, of course, implicit in it all is anti-India rhetoric. One sees this even in how the Tribune report is interrupted by links to two other articles. The first reads, “Slow-moving Holocaust is ongoing in Occupied Kashmir: AJK president.” The second, “India can’t stop freedom movement in occupied Kashmir: PM.”

Biases in omission
The Tribune had also reported in the same article of Indian troops razing a house to the ground, what they termed as being part of India’s “collective punishment method.” In response, protestors and demonstrators had taken to the streets, and Indian troops had retaliated by throwing tear-gas shells at them. This event, however, found no mention in the Indian Express’ article.

This is a practice not unique to the Pulwama incidents. On the 17th of April, 2018, the Tribune reported that two Pakistani civilians had been gunned down by Indian forces at the Line of Control. There is no record of this in a single Indian journal. A sole indie journal by the name DNAIndia had published an account of the jawaan who was caught in the same crossfire, entirely omitting to acknowledge the folly committed by the Indian troops. Here, through fault of omission, journalistic bias manifests itself again.

What this says about our journalism
Writing, more so the kind that is politically-charged, says a lot about the lens through which it is written. Preconceived notions, baseless prejudices, troubled histories, and sectarian tensions are all factors that are quick to cloud one’s judgement. This is truest when writers who only see the world from one side of the border write about the other. In such cases, it is easy to trace the fault of bad journalism to the author. However, it is equally important to understand that this “indoctrination” has been stitched into our social and cultural education from our formative years on. Consider how common it is to hear Indian crowds in cricket stadiums or at the Wagah Border jeering, ‘India zindaabad, Pakistan murdabad’ — naturally with Pakistani crowds, the inverse holds.

Ridding journalism of these all-pervasive biases requires a recognition, first, of the fact that these are in fact biases. One’s militant is another’s protestor. One’s ‘Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’ is another’s ‘Kashmir’. Second, they have a noxious effect on, both, those who produce information (i.e. on journalists’ ethics) and those who consume it (i.e. on readers, and the perceptions of the other side they are encouraged to form).

Unbiasedness and even-handedness have widely been regarded as hallmarks of journalistic integrity. One comes to expect them of good journalism — and good journalists. However, some (myself included) have argued that there is currently a dearth of journalism “with a spine.”

The two ideas — the need for unbiasedness and the need for point-of-view — can co-exist without being at odds with one another. One must make a distinction between journalists motivated by point-of-view and those driven by agenda. The former may defend their arguments from different perspectives, while still living in a widely-accepted and shared sense of reality. The latter in effect manipulate the fabric of reality itself, such that it best serves their point-of-view.