Covering The Iraq
War in India
By TBS Contributing Editor
"Just because the microphone
in front of you amplifies your voice around the world, is no reason to think we
have any more wisdom than we had when our voices could reach only from one end
of the bar to the other."
Edward R. Murrow
primarily recognized as a producer of films, has jumped into TV with the same
passion for the entertainment of the masses, offering constant commentary from
"talking heads" on new TV channels and increasing satellite transmission till
it has permeated the country. There may not be running water in some villages,
but cable TV appears an essential commodity. Often, TV personalities have achieved
the same level of deification as movie stars. The town hall discussion format
has taken a grip on channels. In this context, the war is bringing out a diversity
of opinion, and, in a country of an estimated one billion people, television,
rather than the print media, is the bridge to understanding the war.
Bringing the war into
Indian homes presents its own unique dilemma. India is in an ambivalent position
in its Iraq war coverage, perhaps due to regional interests and past experience.
Parts of India, such as the south and especially Kerala, a huge part of whose
labor force lives in the Gulf region including Iraq, are much affected by what
happens in the Middle East. During Desert Storm, India took the unpopular position
of supporting Saddam Hussein, invoking Kuwait's ire and resulting in the expulsion
of the many Indian citizens living there while India retained Iraq's friendship
and continuous working relationship. Ensuing years have brought closer ties with
the USA and Israel and thus some shift in vision. More than in other countries,
therefore, the announcement of the contracting of American companies to rebuild
Iraq inflamed Indian commentators, since this was one of the carrots dangled in
front of India by the US in return for its support. The huge Indian work force
assumed they would be involved in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq due to its
proximity and experience.
Overall, India has taken
a position of nebulous support for Western efforts while denouncing the war and
this has affected the way the conflict is portrayed, especially on Indian government-run
Prasar Bharti channel Doordarshan (DD). CNN became a fully integrated part of
the Indian home during India's early satellite telecasts of Iraq's invasion of
Kuwait in 1991. This influenced Indian news to modernize its facilities and CNN
has in fact lent its expertise to train DD's News arm, including its international
satellite news channel. As in most countries, however, viewers prefer privately-run
channels like Star, Aaj Tak, and Zee for their news reports because of the greater
freedom and reduced censorship.
India has a special relationship
with the BBC, dating back to the time of British rule, when BBC radio news provided
a window to the world for most Indians. Indeed, in India good English was called
"BBC English." Yet this time around, the BBC in India does not seem as "plucky"
in its coverage as in past wars, a difference that may be attributed to Britain's
role as an integral partner in the war and the consequent constraints. BBC Asia
takes the region into consideration but the Indians seem to prefer to watch war
coverage from an Indian point of view.
As satellite television
increasingly telecasts transnationally to India, the Iraq conflict is bringing
into Indian homes the continuous live coverage of international channels such
as CNN, BBC, WNBC, Dubai TV, German, Italian, and French TV, and Fox News (seen
partly through Star News in India) as part of the cable network. Yet a preponderance
of viewers prefer the comfort of regional channels in local languages like Hindi
(in the north), Telegu (Andhra Pradesh), Malyalam (Kerala), and Tamil (Tamil Nadu),
which also telecast to the Gulf region, where a majority of the labor force from
these states works.
Indian satellite television
news coverage cannot compete with more established channels covering the war that
have correspondents embedded with military units in the field. What they can do
is to offer their own perspective and more local coverage of local reactions,
including that of the large Muslim population. An executive of one Indian TV company
said to a reporter from Indiantelevision.com, "War is a serious issue, but it
has its novelty value for TV channels and audiences too, what with the latest
gizmos and weaponry on display and being utilized."
Since the onset of the
war coincided with the Cricket World Cup, in which India was a finalist, the early
fighting could not lure viewers away from the game, which is a national passion.
Satellite television vied for these same audiences, especially with advertisements
committing themselves to an Indian war coverage. The TV reality show of war quickly
became a fix on the news but did not displace American channels, with Bollywood
film channels offering the anecdote for war watching in India.
Doordarshan as a terrestrial
TV still counts for an estimated 70 percent of viewers in India that do not have
satellite television and with government funding, has assigned the war coverage
to a private company, Saeed Naqvi's Third Eye. This well-regarded journalist has
always paid attention to the Muslim and Hindu perspectives in his work and is
known for resourceful investigative reporting. DD Director General S.Y. Quraishi
said that the channel opted for a private company rather than expensive insurance
for their correspondents to cover the war.
Third Eye produces a daily
half-hour show for DD, with one of the teams in Kuwait, with additional feeds
sent through satellite that can be used for its various news bulletins and translated
for its DD regional channel. Some of the reporting has been faulted, with DD and
Third Eye sometimes not "seeing eye to eye." One reported discrepancy, according
to IndianTelevision.com, occurred when Sasi Kumar for Third Eye reported Indians
in Kuwait deciding to stay in Kuwait along with their Kuwaiti friends, while a
DD news team broadcast images immediately afterwards of Indians returning by the
planeload from the Gulf.
Some viewers in India
have always preferred the more feisty news channel, Aaj Tak (translated as "Today
There") of TV Today Network, which has sometimes reported controversial stories.
Reportedly, the channel has linked an exclusive deal with another hard-hitting
channel, Al Jazeera, for footage of the Gulf War. Aaj Tak has sent three teams
to countries around Iraq including anchor Deepak Chaurasia in Kuwait, as well
as tying up with local TV stations there and international agencies like APTN
and Reuters for footage. Interspersed with war coverage are discussion panels
and groups, a technique of which Indian viewers are fond.
around the world is at cross-roads but the integrity of the profession has never
been in more danger than we find it," said CNN president Chris Cramer in a video-linked
speech on 15 March at the FICCI FRAMES 2003 conference in Mumbai.
Indian war coverage also
seems to be at a transnational cross-road of maturity in terms of bringing its
own identity and professionalism into broadcasting to one of the world's largest