By Saeed Naqvi
Even the skeptics now agree that India shall be a power in the Asian century. To insure this rise to the top, India must maximize all its assets. One asset for which it has a reputation is a lively media, a function of a relatively stable democratic order since independence.
If information is power, it must follow that we start taking steps towards some minimal control over the sources of information. The liveliness of our media, bordering on license, exhausts itself primarily on issues of a local nature. The BJP, Congress, Dalits, minorities, rape, riots, corruption, inflation and so on.
Major powers have to be seen regionally and globally too. This does not mean that we change our style of diplomacy, have readymade statements on ISIS, the battle for Kobane, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Beijing, Ukraine, SAARC, the sharp right turn in European elections, the dream and reality of shale gas.
New Delhi must not make pronouncements each day but the country must appear to be engaged in these developments. The impression that these are games only for the Imperial, big league, stultifies us under the colonial canopy.
It is interesting that countries without a tradition for a free press – Russia, China, Iran – are making efforts to put across their points of view on international affairs. Iran’s Press TV, China’s CCTV and Russia’s RTV and a host of others are building up a reputation as credible sources of information. They tend to break the monopoly of the global electronic media. Fortunately for these new networks, this precisely is the time when the world is looking for alternative sources of news.
This quest is because of a straightforward reason: diminishing credibility of the Western media barring exceptions. Ironically, their credibility was higher during the Cold War.
When war breaks out, the first casualty is always the truth. Since the West has been perpetually involved in conflicts beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the media has had to do so much of drum beating that it has lost credit in the information market place.
The Emir of Qatar has always been contrary to Saudi interests. During Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October-November 2001 and the occupation of Iraq in April 2003, Qatari-owned Al Jazeera was bombed in Kabul and Baghdad for speaking the truth inimical to the House of Saud. Al Jazeera’s viewership grew exponentially.
Neither the West nor the Saudis had a media with sufficient credibility to mobilize the region during the Libyan operation. “The Arab Spring will blow away all the monarchies in the region unless we hang together,” screamed Saudi King Abdullah. Qatar fell in line. But Al Jazeera had to tell so many lies during the Syrian civil war that al Jazeera’s stock also sank.
This is the state of affairs in the global media when the world is riveted on ISIS, Ukraine, Boko Haram, Afghanistan and Ebola. These issues appear more incomprehensible by the day. The field is wide open for alternative channels.
Last week I received a puzzling call from Baghdad. The caller, whom I had met during my visit to Iraq two years ago, wanted my insights on the ISIS. He had read my syndicated column which had the sort of information the Iraqi media did not have.
Neither the government sources in Baghdad nor the resourceful clerics in Karbala and Najaf had any idea of what was happening in the ISIS controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. The local media was the government’s doormat. CNN and BBC could not be trusted.
In this state of affairs, independent news is a priceless commodity.
Western and Arab sources suffer from lack of credibility on any West Asian story. The West has vested interests protecting its version on Ukraine and Hong Kong. These versions are challenged by Russian and Chinese sources which, in their turn, are not free from angularities either.
It quite beats me that New Delhi has never recognized the enormous respect in which it is held globally. This is not because of its economic or military clout. It is because of its democratic institutions like the Election Commission. Its early commitment to non-alignment may have gone down badly with John Foster Dulles, but among the world’s intelligentsia, its image has been of neutrality. In my interaction with the world’s media, I have always found a ready acceptability for an Indian point of view.
Doordarshan had for a few months organised a comprehensive coverage of the occupation of Iraq in April 2003. Its credibility had won record TRP ratings. The external affairs ministry had received word that Secretary of State Colin Powell had expressed a desire to appear on the programme.
In his first six months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown considerable interest in foreign affairs. A multimedia outfit with a strong foreign affairs team would raise Indian prestige enormously. And this, surely is the right time to start.