Media, war and conflict: Will the media in South Asia give peace a chance? That not-very-promising title was applied to a panel discussion recently at the fourth national meet of the Network of Women in Media, India, hosted by Bengal Network, it's chapter in West Bengal, from February 3-5, in Kolkota. The NWMI is an informal organisation of women journalists and others working in or on the media; the organisation was born in January 2002, following a workshop for Indian women in journalism in Delhi. The group's chief objectives are to consolidate, support and strengthen women in the media, to promote media awareness/critique, and to promote professionalism, ethics and social responsibility in journalism. The NWMI has also, in the process of pursuing these objectives, become a counduit for information and resources for its members.

The panel discussion on the questions around the title theme was chaired by Kalpana Sharma, Deputy Editor of The Hindu in Mumbai. She stressed the need to focus not just on the conflict between countries but also on the conflict within countries at local, state and national levels. She raised two critical questions: (a) does the media contribute to exacerbating conflict, in an environment preoccupied with news that sells rather than with news that gives you the truth?, and (b) does the media contribute to building up and perpetuating peace with the larger picture in view?

Fellow-panelist Rehana Khanoum, Editor of Pakistan's Newsline, noted that the answers to those questions are strongly linked to the environment that governments provide for the media. She regretted that both India and Pakistan officially permitted only two correspondents from either country to be based in the other country, whereas glamorous personalities from the Indian film world are given free access to move in and out of Pakistan. Serious Indian publications are not available at Pakistani newsstands, whereas film glossies are freely available everywhere.

Serious Indian publications are not available at Pakistani newsstands, whereas film glossies are freely available everywhere.

 •  Raw deal for women journalists

One shouldn't also over-state the power of the media, she cautioned. "The blame for the failure of the Agra Summit was laid at the doorstep of General Musharraf's breakfast meeting with Indian editors. I have often wondered about the veracity of that statement. Does the media actually have so much clout that a press briefing could scuttle the peace process?" she asked. "The media can generate debate, discussion, create awareness, change the mindset and create pressure groups. But at the end of the day, peace will come only when the state players realize the futility of war," she summed up.

Sharmini Boyle, producer-director, YA TV Srilanka, noted that the media in Sri Lanka has been linked to the ethnic conflict in the country ever since it began 20 years ago. The media has been blamed for accelerating the conflict. "The mainstream media in the country is centred in Colombo while the Tamil media is concentrated in Jaffna and other areas controlled by the LTTE. Both the print and the electronic media are divided along ethnic lines. The State media that has dominated for 30 years is neither utility-oriented not news oriented but is only propagandist in nature. Newspapers cater to sets of people speaking respective languages – Tamil and Sinhalese."

Thus, while the media played a significant role in its informative mode, at the same time, bias, prejudice and a nationalist mindset have also led certain sections of the media in playing a non-constructive role in the peace process. It is quite common for the Sinhala media to label Tamils as terrorists, simply because they are Tamils, she said.

The panel also turned to discussing how the media itself has been the target of violent attacks in areas of conflict. In December 2005, another Sri Lankan journalist was murdered, bringing the total to four within the year. The state too, said Boyle, uses its machinery to harass and threaten the media.

Sumi Khan, Senior Reporter with Daily Samakal, based in Bangladesh, noted the continuing effects of that country' bloody history on the media today. Khan, who recently won the International Award for Courage in Journalism for Women, said the media in Bangladesh in general and Chittagong in particular, the base she works from, has absolutely no freedom. "There is very little freedom of speech and expression either in print or on television. She said that around 13 journalists have been killed over the past five years and only a handful among 200-and-odd publications is honest even within a difficult obstacle race. The seven private television channels are bound by and to the government.

But even within this restrictive environment, some editors and journalists are trying to file in good and authentic stories without sensationalisation of any sort. "People seem to have become immune to news of violence, conflict, blood and gore. There is some pressure for positive news but negative things are happening all around especially in border areas thick with trafficking of arms, women and children. Yet, journalists are unable to bring out the truth due to State pressure on the one hand and the threat from militants on the other," said Khan. Journalists lack a common forum and there is no networking among them. "Readers are our only support," she said.

Urvashi Butalia, Publisher-Editor of Zubaan Books in Delhi, spoke as someone less connected with daily reporting, and even referred to herself as an outsider to a network consisting of journalists. But her claim to justifiable presence at the meet, she said, came from her long association with the women's movement on the one hand, and the books she has authored on the other. She commented on the sensationalisation of news, and the exacerbation by the media of ill-treatment of minorities. Ethics, she said, is a key factor women journalists should be concerned about despite the competition they face from men all the time. "What we write, when we write and how we write are choices we must make when we try to bring about peace in an environment of conflict. As an author, I recognize that the act of rape used as a weapon of war was first brought to notice by a woman journalist of Bosnia. Does 'truth' demand publishing the name of the rape victim? Does such media attention lead to more violence, or does it mitigate violence?" she asked.