The Fourth Estate in South Asia: Media’s Role in Inter-State Crises
Last month, the world paused to remember the tenth anniversary of 26/11 — the 2008 attack launched by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, in a series of carefully planned and orchestrated attacks. Official Pakistani connections to LeT added an inter-state dynamic to the attack, triggering a major India-Pakistan crisis — one of several in a long history of subcontinental crises that have sometimes resulted in military mobilization and outright conflict. 26/11 spanned three days and was transmitted in real time on our television screens. In its aftermath, the Indian news media was censured for flouting journalistic ethics on the ground and in newsrooms by revealing operational details and resorting to invective and jingoistic language to frame events. Ten years on, however, media behavior, determined to a large extent by the nature of its interaction with policymakers and the public, remains an understudied dynamic in inter-state crises in and beyond South Asia.
During crises, media communicates and amplifies certain narratives, catalyzes national security decision-making processes, and frames public discourse. The importance of news media as a stakeholder is tied to the role of domestic audience pressure. Recent analysis suggests that domestic audience pressure may be an underappreciated or alternately overstated factor in foreign policy and national security decision-making. It is unclear whether or not it constrains government decisions to escalate to war in an inter-state crisis. Understanding the evolving role of media in framing inter-state crises can shed light on the broader role of domestic audience pressures decision-makers face at home, as well as the extent to which governments use news media to convey compellent and deterrent messages to adversary states. Historically, scholarship has considered this question in the contexts of U.S. electoral politics and audience costs but devoted limited attention to the same problem set in Asian inter-state crises.
This article was originally published in The Diplomat by Hannah Haegeland and Ruhee Neog.