Last February, a suicide bombing on an Indian security force convoy on the Jammu-Srinagar highway—considered the deadliest attack ever carried out in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K)—killed 44 Central Reserve Police Force personnel and triggered a crisis between India and Pakistan. As the crisis unfolded, the mainstream media of both countries worked overtime to cover the events and shape the narrative. At first, the traditional news media in both countries acted as an escalatory agent by backing their governments in echoing nationalist rhetoric. However, their parroting of the state’s narrative later became a factor in the de-escalation of the crisis—by allowing the governments to project victory to their domestic audiences, the media helped obviate the need to escalate in order to save face.
Deconstructing the Crisis Through the Lens of the Media
Following the Pulwama terror attack on February 14, media coverage in both India and Pakistan promoted pro-government, nationalist perspectives.
Since the terror attack was claimed by Pakistan-based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and came in the backdrop of already tense India-Pakistan relations and the upcoming general elections where the nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was running to come to power again, Indian calls for retribution against Pakistan were immediate. With the surgical strikes post the Uri attack in September 2016 serving as precedent, there was also pressure on the Modi government to respond.
…by allowing the governments to project victory to their domestic audiences, the media helped obviate the need to escalate in order to save face.
By prime time on February 14, both social media and television studios in India, flooded with the usual mix of defense and political analysts, became echo chambers calling for revenge. Instead of conducting independent reporting on the possibility of intelligence failures that may have led to the attack or generating nuanced debates on response options, the media for the most part was largely involved in creating a nationwide consensus on the need to retaliate militarily. Calls for an aggressive response stemming from media houses close to the BJP establishment hint that there was a degree of consonance between the intent of the government and the media. Overall, Indian news coverage acted as a facilitator for escalation and mainstream TV journalists prepared the nation for the impending intensification of the crisis.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the initial reaction to the Pulwama attack was the rejection of any Pakistani links to it and redirecting focus to the deteriorating situation in Kashmir. Online, the suicide bombers were hailed as “freedom fighters,” and the news covered officials stating that Pakistan was “taking actions” against JeM. This narrative changed soon after Pakistani officials denied any involvement by JeM. Although the reporting was not as aggressive as in India in the first cycle of the crisis, the narrative of Pakistani news channels and print media more or less followed the line of the government. The majority tended to disassociate Pakistan from the attack and even blamed India for using the suicide bombing as a pretext to attack Pakistan and spread “false propaganda.”
Two weeks after the Pulwama attack, India responded with air strikes across the Line of Control on JeM bases in Balakot, Pakistan. While the official position was that the attacks were a “non-military pre-emptive action” to deter further terrorist attacks, Indian media was blunt in celebrating victory and exacting retribution. There was little debate about the veracity of the government’s claims about the number of casualties as a result of the strike, with information from unnamed government sources reported as fact.
Unlike their counterparts in India, which projected the air strike as a victory, Pakistani journalists denied the number of casualties claimed by India and painted it as a failed attempt with no killings. Many even claimed that JeM did not operate in the area where the aerial strikes took place. Similar to India, there was a paucity of critical analysis and informed reporting. Instead, the Pakistani media repeatedly highlighted their government’s official stand that it would respond “at the time and place of its choosing,” thereby supporting the prospect of escalation.
A day after the Indian air strikes, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) retaliated by sending planes to attack military installations in India. In the midst of an intense dogfight, an Indian plane was shot down and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistan. This became the turning point of the crisis.
Following the release of the Indian pilot captured by Pakistan, the tone and tenor of Indian media coverage changed from a call for revenge after the initial attack to a focus on victory and stability unless provoked by the other side. After the pilot’s release, the coverage shifted to statements from Indian military officials on “maintaining peace and stability in the region” and indications of “no further armed action unless ‘provocation’ came from Pakistan.” In India, the media also played to the galleries by focusing on what was achieved in the Balakot airstrike. Further, the offensive air power in enemy territory was hailed as demonstrating the strong resolve of the government. Modi’s image received a fillip, which the ruling party utilized in its election campaign substantially.
Similarly, the discourse in Pakistan mainly centered around how Pakistan immediately responded to India’s air violation, thereby levelling the score. The failure of the Pakistani air raid was mentioned in passing and the focus remained on Pakistan’s downing of an Indian plane. The PAF were labelled as saviors of Pakistan. Pakistani media analysts criticized Indian assertions of calling Pakistan’s conventional deterrence and nuclear bluff, as the Indian air strike did not go unanswered. The broader theme of Pakistani media and the government was the efficacy of Pakistan’s response in the face of India’s “aggression.” In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan was showcased as the “mature statesman” and his image shot up exponentially.
Thus, instead of undertaking independent analysis or investigations, the mainstream media in both countries relied heavily on cues from the government.
Explaining Media Behavior: Risks of Operating Under Nationalist Governments
Due to the historical baggage in the India-Pakistan relationship, a crisis generally tends to give rise to nationalist sentiments, which are then duly utilized by the media to frame the crisis. However, the Indian and Pakistani media’s nationalist tone has become sharper and more prominent since the Modi and Khan governments came to power. This may partly be because the Modi and Khan governments have created an environment that enables media suppression and have targeted journalists that adopt an anti-establishment tone.
While Pakistan has a history of media censorship and intimidation of journalists especially on subjects related to the military, religion or judiciary, under Khan, there has seen greater harassment of new media houses and journalists by the Pakistani military establishment and the civilian government alike. The most brazen cases include the temporary discontinuation of Dawn newspaper and the blocking of Geo TV in many parts of the country. Similarly, since Modi came to power in India in 2014, press freedom has been stifled with increased cases of violence against journalists, bullying of editors, and propping up of news channels willing to toe the government’s line.
This fear of consequences or lack of access seems to have compelled journalists to either self-censor or blunt their criticism of government action. This may explain why the mainstream media and television news in particular (with some minor exceptions) cheered their government’s actions in the Pulwama/Balakot crisis, propped up their political leaders, and undermined the credibility of the other side.
Media Role in Crisis Outcomes and Implications for the Future
Reflecting on the implications of this for future crises, it may put added pressure on South Asian leaders to initially choose the path of escalation in order to satiate the expectations of their domestic audiences who are attuned to such a pattern, and may consider a non-escalatory step as a failure of their country.
The preceding analysis suggests that media narratives in India and Pakistan developed based on the changing needs of the respective state over the course of the crisis. At the initial stage, when the Indian leadership was preparing for a retaliatory strike in response to the Pulwama attack, the Indian media helped shape public opinion in support of such action, laying the groundwork for escalation. In Pakistan, the media reinforced the government’s narrative dismissing any Pakistani role in the attack and justified escalation in self-defense.
After India claimed to have reestablished deterrence through the air strike at Balakot and Pakistan asserted that it had responded in kind, indications were that both sides were choosing to fall back from the brink and perhaps fight another day. Thus, the media in both countries helped their leaders project this as victory to their domestic constituencies and reinforced the idea of no further engagement. The media did not rally for any further escalation or push for all-out conflict, instead played their part in de-escalation by supporting the resolution of the crisis through the return of the captured pilot to India.
Reflecting on the implications of this for future crises, it may put added pressure on South Asian leaders to initially choose the path of escalation in order to satiate the expectations of their domestic audiences who are attuned to such a pattern, and may consider a non-escalatory step as a failure of their country. Additionally, in view of the ever-increasing governmental control over news media coverage in India and Pakistan, the media is likely to follow the cues of their governments to act as an escalatory or de-escalatory force. Through the crisis, the media played a dominant role in shaping the public opinion, instilling a stronger sense of nationalism, and convincing the public of their side’s victory. As these narratives get entrenched in the minds of the citizenry, they are likely to call for escalation in order to seek revenge or settle scores in a future crisis. In the same vein, as the leaders of both countries gained politically due to the crisis, they may prefer to escalate in a future crisis, especially if it emerges close to an election cycle.
This piece was also published on Stimson’s South Asian Voices.