PAKISTAN-INDIA, February 25-March 7, 1997

Can Public Journalism Help the Indo-Pak Problem?
(Span Magazine, June/July/August 1997)

My second conversation in South Asia took place on an early-morning flight from Karachi to Lahore, in late February of this year. A college professor had the seat next to mine. As we chatted it became clear she was gracious, accomplished, a family woman; properly modest but also strongly self-confident. I told her I had flown over from the United States to moderate a set of seminars for South Asian journalists, on what role the media might play in resolving the Indo-Pak conflict. At this she put aside the airiness we had fallen into when talking about family and the Pakistan countryside and the strangeness of my home town, New York; her brows knit; and she said, "Of course we're all very worried about this problem; we'd all like things to become normal - - after 50 years! But I feel very good about the things Nawaz Sharif is saying, and the [then] foreign minister I.K. Gujral in India. I think we may have reached the point where matters are going to change."

It was a sentiment that, by the end of the day, I would hear a few dozen times at least, from every Pakistani who broached the subject at all. "But why do you think so?" I asked her, because it didn't yet make sense to me. "What is it about Sharif? He was prime minister before; and he left the Indo-Pak situation exactly where he'd found it. What's changed?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. I can't say specifically." She shrugged, a strange, frail gesture for someone so confident in everything else. "I just hope he has changed, that is all, and the Indian leaders, too. You have to have hope, and this is our only hope."

In one way of looking at it, the two-week-long "travelling seminar" I was going to join that morning in Lahore had been convened to test whether this college professor was right, whether people like Sharif, Gujral and Gowda were her only hope. She was locked into a worldview that was very familiar to me as an editorial writer on foreign affairs, one that's so widely shared it often seems to go without saying: a belief that the solutions to the wars and near-wars that embroil whole peoples are held hostage to the vision, the talents and the personal quirks of that small coterie of politicians, intellectuals, generals and tycoons whom the social scientists like to call "elites." If elites rise to great statesmanship, if they educate their people to peace and outmaneuver their rivals, then conflicts may end; if, as is more often the case, they fail to rise so high or be so lucky, the wars and arms races and worries persist. All of which leaves ordinary people, from illiterate villagers right on up to lady college professors, with no power to control their future at all, except on election days when they can choose new "elites" and (as my seatmate was doing) try to hope these will succeed where the last ones failed.

The dozen men and women I met in Lahore that day and the next editors, reporters and media professors from the gamut of Indian and Pakistani cities had been assembled by the seminar's sponsor, the United States Information Service, because they seemed open to the idea that the media could play a more active role in bringing about peace between the two countries. This necessarily meant that the public could play a greater role, because while the press often writes as if it's holding a private conversation between its pundits and the powers-that-be, the only real audience a newspaper has the power to move are the thousands or hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who read it, or have it read to them in tea stalls all across South Asia. Writers know that words, by themselves, can do nothing to end a war or an arms race unless someone with more power than a journalist picks them up and uses them. And anyone who's written for a newspaper long enough knows that public officials will do what they choose regardless of the wisdom or foolishness they find on the editorial pages.

The public, however, is something else. For most ordinary people, unlike for their leaders, newspapers, magazines, radio, television and to a minuscule but growing extent electronic mail and the Internet are the only windows they have on the world beyond their daily lives and extended families: the only connection most Indians have with most Pakistanis, or for that matter, most Tamils with most Marathas or Bengalis or Kashmiris. If they're to come to terms with one another, they have to do it through the media. And even if public officials can't be swayed by jingoistic reporting or editorials preaching tolerance and accommodation, they will most assuredly have to take account if the public, with the press's help, forms some kind of clear and stubborn opinion of what to do about the Indo-Pak conflict. Public outrage can block presidents and prime ministers from doing all sorts of things; public tolerance and conciliation can sometimes prod them to be bolder. It's conventional wisdom in the United States that president Richard Nixon was forced to wind down the Vietnam War because Americans, saturated with pictures of dying U.S. soldiers and napalmed children on the television news, had turned against it. Equally, that the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., broadcast on TV and radio, and the many news clips of dogs and water cannons being turned on peaceful black marchers in the American South, created the public sympathy that enabled presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to enact the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

The first thing all the journalists agreed upon in Lahore was that, if Indians and Pakistanis haven't been able to exercise similar power over their governments, it isn't because of any tragic flaw in South Asians or in their democracy, but because they have no equally sympathetic exposure to one another's countries or equally vigrorous scrutiny of their own shortcomings. They live, in fact, in two worlds almost hermetically sealed off from one another. As the very first person to speak, Jawaid Iqbal of the Pakistani magazine Thirdworld, pointed out, newspapers and magazines don't travel across the border, except on very rare occasions, when (in Pakistan) they can sell on the black market for 10 times their cover price. Although satellite television fares better, most of it is government-controlled. Pakistanis gobble up news from the Indian stations that aren't, such as Zee-TV half a dozen people told me it was the source they most trusted for news on Pakistan's elections but because these stations serve up entertainment first and journalism only incidentally, and because they still see the world from an Indian viewpoint rather than a subcontinental one, they can't yet serve as the neutral forum South Asians need.

This might not be such a problem if journalists themselves traveled across the border and brought back unprejudiced reports, but they don't. Neither country grants visas easily to the other's press; the Indians in Lahore got across the border only through the good offices of the United States. One of them, Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Nai Dunya and Nai Zameen in New Delhi, had to leave our Karachi sessions early because our single night in that city was the first chance he had ever had to meet his first cousins, whose parents came across during Partition; Shahid is probably in his early forties. Going in the other direction, to India, one of the most prominent and respected Pakistani editors in our entourage, Mahmoud Tariq Sham of the daily Jang, was detained three hours at the New Delhi airport without being given a reason. When he was finally passed through, an official warned him he was going to be watched the whole time he was in India. Whether this was official policy, or the petty intimidation of a small-minded bureaucrat, hardly matters. The unwelcome signs are posted at the border, facing in both directions, even for those few journalists who manage to slip across.

The upshot is that Indians and Pakistanis are left to figure one another out by hearing one side of the conversation alone, or else reacting to the snippets of official news that creep over from the other's capital. When (during our trip) the Indian defence minister said Kashmir belonged to India, its fate was not a core Indo-Pak issue, and there were no concessions to be made on it, Pakistanis heard that, but they didn't hear a whisper of contradiction from the Indian public. Khaled Ahmed, editor of the Friday Times of Lahore, said there's no particular reason for Pakistanis to assume India is a monolith of opinion, slavishly agreeing with whatever official policy says, or for Indians to assume the same of Pakistanis, but to judge by the newspapers he reads, they certainly DO assume this. Khaled's colleagues from India, speaking of the Indian press, said the situation was much the same there. They have no firm alternatives to go on. The Indian participants may not have been startled when Khaled described a recent survey of Pakistani public opinion that revealed a multiplicity of views on how to resolve the tension with India, and on whether Pakistan's official policies over the past decades had been right or wrong, but until that moment they had no concrete idea of what the dissenting public opinions might be.

There's a strong feeling, particularly within India, that because the press is an independent, non-governmental voice, that also means it's a fair or broad-seeing one, but the journalists in Lahore were able to come up with dozens of examples of pure, unadulterated jingoism, emanating from both sides of the border, without even pausing to think. When a shipment of Indian potatoes arrived in Pakistan not that long ago, the press dubbed them "Hindu potatoes," as if vegetables might actually be tainted by their growers' faith. During our stay in Mumbai the Indian press, for its part, relished the fact that British actor Christopher Lee a former Dracula had been signed to play Ali Jinnah in a new screen biography; many writers thought it wonderfully fitting for a vampire to play a vampire. These examples operate on the level of symbolism, but there are dozens more that operate on the level of substance, where Indian journalists dismiss Pakistani policies or sensitivities as self-serving, wrongheaded, unrealistic and worse, and Pakistanis do the same of Indian policies.

I said my second conversation in South Asia was with a lady professor. My first conversation had been with a very gentle, easygoing man at the Karachi airport who said he didn't particularly like Indians, because he felt they hadn't made as much effort for peace as Pakistan had, nor were they as honest. At luncheons and receptions all over New Delhi and Mumbai I listened to his counterparts in India, who proved to me by hard logic that the two-nation theory was unsustainable something Pakistanis must realize and so Pakistan should return to India. When I told them that Pakistanis didn't care a whit about the two-nation theory, that they simply felt comfortable in their separation and distinctness as a people, the words washed across their blank faces as if I were speaking in Swedish. This is the natural parochialism we all fall into when we have only ourselves to talk to. We see the chain of events and thoughts and interpretations that explain why we believe what we do our opinions just make so much sense! everything points to them! but have no clue to the chain of events and thoughts and interpretations that have formed and shaped the other person, and so the other person just seems wrong. It's no wonder that most Indian editorialists think, on a whole range of Indo-Pak issues, that India is basically right. Most Pakistanis think Pakistan is basically right. Arguments with only one side are always right.

As our "travelling seminar" began to move taking us to public meetings in Islamabad and Karachi, Mumbai and New Delhi we learned some very interesting things about the two publics as well. On both sides of the border, the overwhelming majority of the local reporters and ex-officials, retired generals and students, actors and scholars who turned out to ask us questions were die-hard pragmatists. They willingly accepted their own country's responsibility for worsening Indo-Pak relations. They thought greater efforts at understanding could bring about peace. They wanted peace. They were pragmatic on the details, not wedded to any particular position on Siachen and Kashmir and a whole range of other issues. Especially not the government position. They felt politicians had used the Indo-Pak issue to further their own careers; they felt those in power were far less flexible or even interested in a solution than the general public would be. They were appalled at the money wasted on the arms race. They would leap at the chance to bypass the government and come to terms with one another directly. But they didn't know how to do this, and they ran up against that same wall of ignorance that we'd been talking about in Lahore. They always asked the question, in one form or another, Are people on the other side of the border as willing to settle this as we are? And why do they believe the strange things they do?

When we wound up our private sessions in Mumbai, the Indian and Pakistani journalists, by now a pretty collegial group, laid out a program for helping the people in their countries start a constructive conversation. First, they planned to petition the foreign ministers in Islamabad and New Delhi to allow more media people to cross the border and report on "what the ordinary person really feels on ties with the neighbor." To this they would add more exposure to what was already being written in one another's press. Several editors offered to print articles from the other country alongside articles from their own whenever a controversial issue was being discussed, as a kind of virtual face-to-face dialogue. Jawaid Iqbal suggested creating a quarterly "peace page" a compilation of writings, from both India and Pakistan, aimed at increasing mutual understanding and creating a truly subcontinental dialogue on shared problems; every three months, editors from Calcutta and Lahore, Bangalore and Karachi, and a half dozen other cities in South Asia would send him material, and he'd transmit the finished, edited page to each of them so it could be published across the subcontinent all at the same time. The faith was that if space was reserved for a truly South Asian perspective, editors would begin to look for truly South Asian rather than parochial Indian or Pakistani material to fill it.

But everyone realized the problem was more than just exchanging articles: It was the jingoism itself, the tone of the writing, the complacency of the reporting. Suman Chattopadhyay, executive editor of Calcutta's Ananda Bazar Patrika, said, "We have only one responsibility as journalists: to tell the truth, to be objective. And our problems are coming because we're failing to do that."

Newspapers printed the inflammatory statements of prominent jingoists, described the demonstrations of their followers, but the more tolerant and measured opinions of the majority the opinions we had seen revealed, again and again, in our public meetings were invisible. We trotted out the same tired, shopworn "positions" on Siachen and Kashmir and the Prithvi missile, and the same histories and myths supporting those positions, but ignored the dissenting thinkers who had fresher and possibly more fruitful things to say. To go even farther, why were we printing Indian and Pakistani "positions" at all? Was that the whole story? We never bothered to ask our sources instead to offer potentially viable solutions that might be acceptable to all parties involved. The press wasn't taking a snapshot of the whole community, as it claims to; more often it was reporting the the loudest, the tiredest, the most strident and least deliberative side of the community, and no wonder that men and women who depended on the press to understand the world couldn't make peace out of the pieces they were being given.

One thing that had struck me particularly about the men and women we met at our public meetings was that they did in fact want to make peace, rather than wait on the "elites" to do it for them. When we opened the floor for questions, always, in both countries, at least three or four people would stand up to describe the peace initiatives they themselves were immersed in: peace colleges, study programs and exchanges, any number of things, ranging from the sober to the quixotic, that they hoped would have an impact on South Asian solidarity. One of the most dynamic journalists on our team, Teesta Setalvad, the young Mumbai co-editor of Communalism Combat for whom journalism is only one aspect of a much more ambitious career in activism, informed us that she knew of human-rights groups, women's groups, environmental groups groups that often faced identical problems on both sides of the Indo-Pak border that would love to learn from one another and work together toward common goals, if only someone could put them in contact and the larger world be made aware of their work. Some wonderful human-rights work was being done in Pakistan, she let us know a fact most Indians would probably find surprising. Teesta herself, in her role as a schoolteacher, had started a pen-pal network among Indian and Pakistani children, which was later written up in the Sunday Times of India.

Of course, none of this could end the arms race or redraw the border through Kashmir; those were things only generals and elected officials could do. But they could erode the foundation of separation and mistrust and non-cooperation upon which the official tensions were resting; and at some point, those tensions might then collapse under their own weight. They were in any case, to many Indians and Pakistanis impatient for peace, a better alternative than just consuming the news passively, waiting for the next election and hoping for a change.

This was all very familiar to me. My whole reason for being invited to South Asia was that I'd written a book, Doing Public Journalism, describing a movement now rolling through the news community in the United States. Since the beginning of the decade, newspaper and broadcast journalists in the U.S. have been trying to make sense of the growing alienation Americans feel from both government and the press. The alienation from government is famous: People think it eats up money without solving any problems, and have been electing conservative public officials for more than a decade to try to undo this. The alienation from the press is newer and perhaps even deeper. In a 1994 national poll more than two thirds of respondents said the press gets in the way of solving public problems, rather than making it easier, and the reason turned out to be that the press fails to help ordinary people take an active hand in solving those problems themselves. A new breed of "public journalists" started, as an experiment, to offer their readers and listeners practical chances to get more involved, and the public leapt to take them.

In Akron, Ohio, for example, the Beacon Journal printed a coupon on which readers could make a New Year's Day pledge to improve racial relations in the coming year; 22,000 readers filled out the coupon. This generated such enthusiasm that the paper went on to make a further offer: If an organization of black Americans anywhere in the city wanted to do a specific, practical project in partnership with an organization of white Americans, a co-ordinator hired by the newspaper would match them up. Within months, black and white churches, school groups, theatre societies, charities - -10,000 to 15,000 people in all - - were actually working together, holding discussions and doing civic projects. A few hundred miles away, in Dayton, the Daily News invited citizens to hold public roundtable discussions, three times over the course of a year, to figure out how to reduce violence and crime among teenagers; 2,000 men and women took part in each set of forums, while tens of thousands more monitored the talks and the very intensive reporting on the roots of crime in the paper, and both city officials and private groups started acting on the decisions the citizens made. In Huntington, West Virginia, ordinary people formed task forces to revive the economy; in Portland, Maine, they met in freezing winter weather to come up with improvements in education; in Charlotte, North Carolina, they fed reporters from the Observer questions to ask candidates in national elections.

All because a newspaper made it easy for people made it imaginable, made the opportunities visible to take a hand in solving their problems, rather than, like the lady professor on that morning flight to Lahore, having to watch those problems grow worse and wait years for someone else to do something about it.