Indo-Pak monitoring: the General’s visit

IN Media Monitoring | 07/09/2005
Indo-Pak monitoring: the General’s visit


Looking back, NDTV and Aaj Tak were indistinguishable in their attempts to turn the summit into an emotional spectacle.



In 2005 the Hoot has done a fresh round of Indo-Pak media monitoring. We begin here with General Musharraf’s April 16-18 2005 visit, to be followed by an analysis of comparitive coverage of events in July.




Ramesh Ramachandran



Expectations ran high as television channels competed for the coverage of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s April visit to India. Speculation also soared when it came to deducing what the meeting between the two leaders would yield.


NDTV para-dropped its reporters to cover every conceivable angle to the unfolding story but lost the story in the bargain. The channel positioned reporters outside Parliament House and Hyderabad House, and outside its studio as well, but had very little to show for it. The channel could throw little light on the exercise by India and Pakistan to hammer out a broad understanding or get any official comment from either side. Instead, the fare that was served on NDTV had more of Barkha Dutt and more of recycled opinion from commentators such as Haroon Hamid and Ayaz Amir. Viewers missed Prannoy Roy.


NDTV, as is its wont, relied more on studio discussions, unlike Aaj Tak, which is conscious of its mass appeal and therefore had more news packages replete with graphics. It also had a slug which was comment, for its coverage of the visit: "Phir Wahi Dil Laya Hoon." (I have come with the same heart.)


Interestingly - and this should come as no surprise given the Indian’s tendency to emotionalize almost anything - NDTV and Aaj Tak were indistinguishable in their attempts to turn the summit into an "emotional spectacle" (as journalist Somini Sengupta chose to describe it in NDTV’s weekly programme, ‘Foreign Correspondent’.). So one was treated to visuals of old men and women praying for peace and tranquility in the subcontinent, and the presence of a large constituency for peace on either side of the Line of Control.


The Agra Summit and the subsequent reiteration for the need for talks between India and Pakistan were continually referred to, as was the people’s reaction to the starting of the Muzzafarabad bus service, which was propped up as a means of building bridges and uniting loved ones across the borders.


This restraint in the mood and presentation by the channels during President Musharraf’s April visit was in sharp contrast to the Agra meeting, where these 24-hour channels were criticised for opting for the sensational rather than the sensible. But though the treatment was restrained, in their zeal to beat competition and boost TRPs, television channels played to the gallery.


Aaj Tak showed Kashmiri men and women offer Friday prayers at the Hazratbal shrine. An employee of the Jammu & Kashmir Government, Ghulam Nabi, was heard saying that if the intentions on both sides were honourable, God would bring peace to the region. Resumption of the bus service was shown to appeal to the emotional sensibilities of the local people. A resident of Srinagar, Kausar Jahan, turned nostalgic when giving her views on the resumption of the Srinagar—Muzaffarabad bus service. "All of us want peace to return, people want to live the way they used to at one time ... we have come here to pray for peace," she said in a report filed by the Aaj Tak correspondent in Srinagar, Ashraf Wani.


NDTV on their part seemed to have given the people’s views a miss. Instead of showcasing the general mood in the Valley, they chose to engage the viewers in studio discussions. Haroon Hamid, present in most discussions, was asked to comment on nearly all issues by anchor Barkha Dutt.


But the general optimism in the Valley did not leave reporters entirely untouched. In a package put together using file visuals, Aaj Tak’s Mrityunjay Kumar Jha postulated that the resumption of the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad has forced Pakistan to soften its stand on the Jammu & Kashmir issue. Pakistan, he said, still harped on the J&K issue but it was, at the same time, also taking steps to allow Kashmiris on both sides to interact with each other and to open up the Line of Control and the international border.


Barkha, known to forge familiarity with the Kashmiri people, opted to seek the views of the APHC (All-Parties Hurriyat Conference). In her programme ‘We the People’, she sought the views of Hamid, Omer Farooq, Manoj Joshi and Ayaz Amir.


The speculations about what transpired behind the closed doors over, it was time for both the channels to focus on the two leaders who came out for a joint statement. Prolonged visuals of both the leaders shaking hands were common to both the channels.


Body language seems to have emerged as an important aspect of the discussions, and was referred to albeit subtly. A smiling Manmohan Singh was shown shaking hands with a thoughtful if not pensive Musharraf. The ceremonial shaking of hands, which went on for a while for the benefit of the media, showed Musharraf almost masticating his thoughts while the seemingly tranquil Manmohan Singh used both his hands to shake the Pakistani leaders’.


Aaj Tak showed a clip of the Pakistan Premier talking of an out-of-the-box solution. "We have suggested opening more routes in fact, so that is what I would take that soft border implies, but if you are talking of a solution, I have made it very clear that the finality of the Line of Control is not the solution and that […] also is very clear to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that we cannot accept the Line of Control to be the final solution. So therefore we have to find an out-of-the-box solution," President Pervez Musharraf held forth in a pre-departure interview.


In its visuals, Aaj Tak showed Musharraf alternate between wearing civilian clothes (a sherwani or a blazer), and an army general’s uniform. The television channel used graphics to explain the proposal for opening up new routes across the LoC and the international border at Suchetgarh, Poonch, Mendhar, Uri and Tanghar. Also mentioned was the proposed trade route linking Jammu and Sialkot, and the bus service between Khokrapar and Munabao. Both countries have already agreed on opening the Khokrapar -Munabao rail route.


If Islamabad was expectant, New Delhi was unusually restrained in its response. Perhaps the ghost of Agra has not been exorcised yet, for statements emanating from South Block were uncharacteristically discreet. "There is no fixed agenda but we also don’t want to convert a basically sporting event into a full-fledged state visit because it is not," External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh reminded media persons ahead of Pervez Musharraf’s visit.


That, however, did not stop Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, foreign minister of Pakistan, from being any less forthcoming than his President. "What next?" the interviewer asked Kasuri, to which he replied: "The Kashmiri leaders must start talking among themselves … Indian and Pakistani governments must allow Kashmiri leaders … APHC leaders … to talk to governments of Pakistan and India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked me when I went to Delhi, you meet with Kashmiri leaders and would we be allowed to meet leaders on your side? I told him we have no objection; you can meet with the Sadr Azad Kashmir, you can meet with Wazir-e-Azam … I told him you can also meet with the Opposition leaders."


While Aaj Tak barely gave airtime to the APHC, NDTV’s Barkha Dutt spoke to Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, leader of the moderate faction of All-Parties Hurriyat Conference who told her on telephone from Srinagar that the APHC would want to meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh only after their talks with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. He said, "Well, the most important issue for the Hurriyat is going to be that, although Hurriyat supports the India-Pakistan dialogue and we want India and Pakistan to go ahead with the dialogue, we feel that this process is incomplete without the inclusion of Kashmiris."


Aaj Tak followed the General’s visit to Ajmer, where the Pakistan President was to land on the first leg of his tour of India. Correspondent Vijay Vidrohi spoke to the secretary of the Dargah (mausoleum) and the superintendent of police of Ajmer for a story on preparations for the visit. The story outlined the security paraphernalia that had been galvanized for the occasion and the itinerary of President Musharraf and the First Lady. The secretary of Anjuman Dargah Sharif, Sarwar Chisti, hoped that an offering of flowers would triumph over the gun and bring peace to the region. The superintendent of police, Janga Rao, limited his observations to the security arrangements - how police were checking restaurants and visitors. The media package did not come without its share of bloopers. The news anchor, Ritul, informed viewers that ‘Sharif’ would be reaching the venue [Dargah Sharif] by helicopter from Jaipur, before correcting herself. ‘Sharif’ (presumably the former prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif), must be ruing the day he was exiled by his former protégé.


Upon reaching New Delhi from Ajmer, the Pakistan President had this to say in Hindustani: "Bahut positive ummeedein hain, koshish karenge ki problems ko address kiya jaye aur unko resolve kiya jaye …. Insha Allah Tala saari optimism hai aur koshish poori hogi ki achche nateeje nikle." ("There are lots of positive hopes, efforts would be made to address problems and resolve them … God willing, there is much optimism and every effort would be made to deliver good results.")


India responded with equal warmth, although it was the spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry who addressed media persons and not a minister. "It was a very good meeting. The external affairs minister was with President Pervez Musharraf for about 20 minutes. It was a very warm and cordial meeting. President Musharraf told the external affairs minister that he was extremely glad to be in India and that he had come with an open mind. He [Musharraf] told him about his visit to Ajmer Sharif and also underlined the fact that there he had prayed for amity, goodwill between the two countries, India and Pakistan, and for a hope that relations would get better and better," said the spokesman.


In contrast, the Pakistani side fielded its foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, to brief reporters. "This visit that the President is undertaking is with the aim of further promoting relations between our two countries. The President has brought here […] the message of the people of Pakistan … it is a message that was actually delivered today in the form of a prayer at Ajmer Sharif in which he prayed that the people of the two countries could live in peace and harmony and in that manner there could be development for both the peoples … Basically, that is the   message the President has brought and it is a very auspicious omen that he started with it through the shrine of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer who, of course, is an apostle of peace," Kasuri said.


Barkha Dutt of NDTV came across as a knowledgeable anchor, but her over-enthusiasm got the better of her sometimes. Like for instance when she spoke to Shivraj Parshad stationed outside Hyderabad House. The meeting, she observed, seemed to have carried on longer than expected. "Any … sort of … whispers … people standing outside the door trying to overhear what the hell is going on inside?" she was anxious to learn. Nonplussed by that question from the studio, the reporter conveniently chose to talk instead about how traffic was "going on as usual" around India Gate which, he explained, therefore meant that a lot of business was being conducted by the two principals heading their respective delegations and there was no indication of them coming out just yet.


Dutt could not resist the temptation of wanting to know from Shivraj the status of the India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline; the reporter unfortunately could add precious little by way of information - or visuals - although he did repeat that he saw the commerce minister and railway minister, Kamal Nath and Lalu Prasad Yadav, entering Hyderabad House, but not petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.


Barkha Dutt`s enthusiasm was sometimes misplaced: she came across as one keen on pursuing a particular line of query at the expense of covering the ‘news as it happens’, to borrow a phrase from NDTV! For instance, the India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline is a talking point all right, but it may not be relevant to a bilateral meeting of the kind one was witness to. Dutt`s keenness to get her field reporters to comment on whether the India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline was discussed at all is understandable, but there is little point in redirecting that question to guests in the studio after a reporter had detailed the issues that were actually discussed - like transportation links - which did not include the gas pipeline. The channel should have known better; the anchor`s job is to report news as it happens and not news as she thinks it should happen.


NDTV chose to go with discussions throughout the day. Hamid Haroon, publisher and chief executive of Dawn from Pakistan and Shashank, a former foreign secretary of India, were in the NDTV studio when news broke that India and Pakistan had agreed to set up a Business Council. "It is a step forward, but I think the people in Pakistan will eagerly be looking for what else accompanies it. It is a step that the Indians would have wanted for a long time; and the Pakistanis have sometimes felt - a portion, a non-professional portion of Pakistani business - has sometimes felt they can use this as a lever to get concessions - but it doesn’t work that way," observed Haroon who did not seem to recognize the significance attached by NDTV to the breaking news.


Shashank’s views on the news about the Business Council are not known because Barkha Dutt was more keen to discuss - what else? - the pipeline. "Mr Shashank," she asked him, "We have not spoken about the pipeline all morning … it is a big, big thing on the table … do you think we are at the point where it is now ready to get off the ground?" A circumspect Shashank observed that "economic security has become a subject in itself" and that energy security was a key issue for a country like India.


Unlike Aaj Tak, which liked to highlight Pervez Musharraf’s role in the Pakistan Army by showing file footage of him in military uniform, NDTV preferred to go with visuals that depicted him in a less martial light. So all visuals on NDTV had the Pakistani President wearing either a blazer or a sherwani. The only exception was the caption for the news package which read, ‘The General Returns’. Shivraj Parshad returned to reporting on the Musharraf visit, this time from Shastri Bhawan. Asked about the "big news" coming out of the Manmohan-Musharraf talks, Parshad recounted the agreements, including the opening of more trade routes along the Line of Control, even as India lost its third wicket with Rahul Dravid walking back to the pavilion after scoring a measly 19 runs. Cricket, certainly, was a top draw as both Aaj Tak and NDTV gave live score updates on their news-scrolls.


NDTV also tried to gauge the reactions in Pakistan. Their Pakistan correspondent Munizae Jehangir reported that political parties supported the dialogue with India but were critical of Musharraf’s ability to deliver peace.


"The main explanation [why] Pakistan would not discuss economic CBMs was that there was no economic official of consequence with them. This time he’s brought Humayun Akhtar Khan. It’s one of the omens we have to read. Fifty-three hand pumps (sic) later, the least you expect is a trade agreement. What we have to ask ourselves is what else would you expect apart from the trade agreement."


A word about visual appeal would not be entirely unwarranted. In spite of 24-hour news channels, why would television networks, including NDTV and Aaj Tak, want to show file footage with a sound byte or a telephone interview when camerapersons were taking turns to cover the Musharraf’s visit, from the time he landed until his plane too off after the summit?


Perhaps it is the language, but Aaj Tak`s coverage in Hindi was more jingoistic than NDTV`s in English. Maybe it had something to do with the catchy slogan of "Phir Wahi Dil Laya Hoon" in contrast to the staid "The General Returns" on NDTV. The titles were shown before every package. So much so that even President Musharraf was not left entirely untouched by it. In his breakfast meeting with top editors, Mushrraf could not resist the temptation of setting the record straight. He said, referring to Aaj Tak`s slogan, that he had come with a new heart and not the heart he had when Kargil happened.


Ramesh Ramachandran covers foreign affairs for Asian Age.Contact:

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