Tearing down the Velvet Curtain

Tearing down the Velvet Curtain

A recent SAFMA (South Asian Free Media Association) conference in Karachi saw a meeting of practitioners from the print and electronic media of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s keynote address is reproduced below.

The talk began with a small excerpt fromWar and Peace, Anand’s anti-nuclear documentary made 4 years ago which was finally cleared for public screening in India after a lengthy court battle.

CLIP [6 mins]
(Lahore Grammar School Sequence) – After a school debate in which several girls make strong pro-nuke, anti-India statements, in a more informal discussion that follows, the girls admit that they spoke not from real conviction but primarily to “win” the debate)

Anand: We are still fighting to get this film aired on our national TV network but last year a private TV channel in Pakistan found the courage to screen it as a 4 part serial, each part preceded by a panel debate. The panel was balanced between hawks and doves but I’ll play an excerpt that illustrates the kind of mistrust that refuses to die in certain circles.

CLIP [2 mins] (Shireen Mazari, a Pakistani Defense analyst describes War and Peace as a piece of pro-India propaganda and claims that the girls who spoke in the sequence above were manipulated)

Anand: Two years ago I was invited, accidentally I suspect, to Washington DC to give a keynote on the media at a symposium co-sponsored by the World Bank and being in the belly of the beast, I took the opportunity to present “Messengers of Bad News” a critique of global censorship of the war on Iraq.

There was at the time what appeared to be a crack of light in the door. Bush and Blair had not yet been re-elected. Abu Gharib images had begun to leak into the media. Michael Moore’s “Farenheit 9/11” was a box office hit, a brilliant documentary “Control Room” on the attempts to muzzle Al Jazeera was about to be released in the USA. Peace marchers and their passive supporters in the USA and across the globe had begun to entertain hopes that the Bush government would fall and somehow the nightmare end.

Less than a week before elections, opinion polls showed Bush trailing by a solid 5%.

That is when Bin Laden suddenly appeared on TV screens across America, at least in photo form with an audio cassette, and made an impassioned election speech on behalf of Senator John Kerry.

Remember that by this time the crusades had been reinvented. Darth Vadar was no longer a Communist. He was a Muslim terrorist waving the wand of the anti-Christ. Imagine this figure of hate speaking in Arabic, that language of the devil, warning America of the dire consequence of voting for Bush.

Voters reacted. If the devil wants Kerry, whom do we want? The 5% deficit was wiped out and Bush squeaked in again amidst the usual muted allegations of fraud.

Did media barons then dance and drink champagne at the Pentagon? Are we the victims of a conscious global conspiracy? Or is this what happens when those who are entrusted with the job of reportage accept without complaint their assigned roles amongst the embedded and the spoon-fed?

I know some will feel that I am digressing about America when my brief is to speak of the media in the conflicted region of South Asia.

But I’m convinced that our attitude towards the global control exercised by the Anglo-American combine is a key to understanding and improving relations between the regions of the South. It is the key even to improving relations between the various peoples that vie for survival and self-expression within the bounds of our own respective nations.

If we accept the American paradigm of lies and more lies, all without apology, we set ourselves the worst possible example. Did they ever apologize for being the only country to have dropped atomic weapons on human beings; for inducting known Nazi mass murderers into their intelligence department after World War II and then looking the other way when the emerging State of Israel began its own round of atrocities on Palestinians whose land they had occupied; for arming Saddam Hussein to the teeth; for training, arming and importing Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan; for telling the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; for causing the brutal deaths of over 250,000 civilians in Iraq? The list of American or America induced crimes against humanity is a long one. If we accept their version of these crimes, if we get embedded with them and spoon-fed by them, then we become a party to all these crimes without apology.

Today if you are a journalist in the print or electronic media anywhere in the world, whether in the North or the South, it is difficult to escape embedding. Corporate and government interests exercise near total control. The media is too powerful a weapon to be left in the hands of those who seek the truth.

If we understand this we can move forward and search for the cracks and crevices through which to push our stories, but if we fall prey to the usual rhetoric of the “Free World” and start believing that censorship is something only exercised by countries like China or by explicitly military regimes, then we are in trouble. In many ways the censorship that is practiced in democracies today is much more insidious because the public is blissfully unaware of it. They are sucked in by the “choice” of a 100 channels that serve up the same fare, sell the same soap and cola, provide virtually the same infotainment and the same Page 3 news 24 x 7. They are so conditioned by this fare that they do not mind or even realize the total absence of the vital stories of our times.

Let us look at just a few of the missing stories that directly affect our region.

In 1970-71 West Pakistanis were kept completely in the dark both about the extent of popular support for Bengali nationalism in the East and about atrocities perpetrated there by the military. From the 80’s on, the Indian people have been kept in the dark about similar aspirations and similar atrocities in Kashmir and the North East.

Both in Pakistan and in India, fundamentalism, religious bigotry and violence grew exponentially in the 80’s. Was this an accident ? Who armed the madrassas in Pakistan and preached jihad against communism? One day the Taliban was a friend, the next, it became the enemy. In India, which had aligned itself with the Soviet Union and a semi-socialist economy, suddenly Sikhs demanded a separate state, Kashmiris demanded Independence and militant Hinduism became popular enough to demolish the Babri Mosque and ride to power amidst communal carnage.

CLIP [7 mins]
 In the Name of God (Sequence in which Hindu militants speak to camera prior to launching an attack on the Babri Mosque) 

Anand: The Babri Masjid was still standing when we completed our film at the end of 1991. The film was meant to be a warning to the nation of the dangerous rise of communal forces but the government run Doordarshan TV refused to telecast it. We finally won a court case to have it shown on DD in 1996. By this time the Masjid had long been demolished with terrible consequences for the entire sub-continent.

Both India and Pakistan are likely beneficiaries of economic and cultural ties with Iran. So where are the stories about Iran other than the usual propaganda dished out by Condoleeza Rice and company? For that we have to turn off our TV sets and go out in search of the odd International Film festival that shows some of the many beautiful Iranian films that challenge the stereotype of a fundamentalist world where women peep out sadly from behind their burkhas.

Both India and Pakistan did nuclear tests in 1998 and celebrated in the streets. Yet how much do we know about the price we continue to pay for our nuclear nationalism, both in financial and health terms? How many investigative reports have appeared on our TV sets or newspapers about the hazards faced by villagers living near the uranium mines of Jadugoda in India or those living near the Chashma nuclear reactor in Pakistan, located on a seismically sensitive site despite warnings by many Pakistani scientists and activists.

Where in the mainstream media of either country do you find people who question the continuous spiraling of our defense budgets? If anything the media is complicit in hiding the real costs of the military. A few months ago an Indian Navy missile ship costing Rs 200 crores sank off the coast of Goa after an inexplicable collision with another ship. It barely made the news and was quickly forgotten. Just a small matter of 200 crores.

Speaking of Defense spending, the official annual budget of the US military is over 600 billion dollars. 600 billion a year. If you cannot imagine how much that is, it is because we are not used to coming to grips with figures like that, which in turn is because the right to commit this kind of global resource has never been seriously questioned.

None of these stories have been adequately investigated and analysed in the mainstream. All serious attempts to talk about these issues have been sought to be suppressed. Enron Corporation’s blatant rape of India ended not because somebody listened to what the whistle blowers here had to say but only after Enron collapsed in America. The price our nations are paying for mammoth dams on the Narmada and Kalabagh is equally well hidden despite the heroic efforts of activists and dam oustees.

The reasons are not hard to seek. 80% of the mainstream media in India and Pakistan is either controlled by the state or by 6 to 7 large family empires. Almost the entire media of the USA is under similar monopoly control. And in the South at least in the most influential English language media, most of the reporters are also recruited from amongst the tiny class of beneficiaries. Perhaps this explains the unqualified media support for upper class/caste agitations against reservations in India and the very concept of positive discrimination. So much for the checks and balances of the 4th estate.

If not just the governments but also the elites of our region aspire to get closer and closer to America, this is largely the fault of the omissions and commissions of the media. Pakistan has for long been seen as a client state of the USA with only Islamic fundamentalists, themselves largely a creation of US Cold War politics, offering occasional resistance in recent years. India, which played the non-alignment card from Independence on through the mid 80’s, has recently laid claims to be America’s newest bride. We are thrilled to be seen on the arms of George Bush Jr. It’s what we call an arms deal. Meanwhile we have not noticed that the FBI has opened office in several Indian cities. We have not noticed that Halliburton has begun serious business operations in the region – the Halliburton that brought us the war on Iraq.

Even as our governments and our elites whip our people into nationalistic frenzy by pointing to the threat of each other, they are actually busy quietly selling our sovereignty. Even as our middlemen go on shopping sprees to the USA and to other arms exporters in search of the latest weapons to murder each other with, or to jeopardize our common lands with the radiation that will last a million years, they are surrendering not just our future, they are also surrendering our present. For the quick, illegal money that this elite makes from the selling of sovereignty is not easy to spend. It must go down the nose. And so they watch their children moving rapidly from the culture of Cola to the culture of cocaine. This generation cannot care what happens to the majority, for the simple reason that it has lost the ability to care even for itself, beyond its desire for the next fix.

And yet resistance is not only possible, it is happening, it has always happened. In the last century we saw resistance to the violence of the State, to the very idea of violence itself and to consumer culture and consumer nationalism. The story of one giant resister, Mahatma Gandhi, did break through corporate and State controls to register on the conscience of the world. The story of another giant remains largely suppressed from the mainstream. That is the story of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a story that needs to be told and retold, the story of a man who spent virtually his entire adult life in the prisons of British India and then in the prisons of Independent Pakistan armed only with the courage of non-violence, a story so heartbreaking and heroic that it retains its power to transform.

And there are the resistance stories of today. One has to search for them and join hands with all those who have embarked on the project of tearing down the velvet curtain.


CLIP [4 mins] “Images you didn’t see” (Images gleaned from the internet, the one place where reports and images of the horrors of the wars on Iraq and Palestine escape censorship)

Anand Patwardhan June 2006