Friday, December 26, 2008

The Media Rumor Mill Grinds Out More India-Pakistan Tension

Multiple international newspapers report today that the Pakistani government has moved troops away from the borderlands of Waziristan and refused them permission to go on annual leave. A look at the stories with emphasis on the attributions, and my own comments afterwards.

The New York Times' Richard Oppel Jr. writes a story headlined: "Pakistan Moves Forces as Tensions with India Rise." The story's first paragraph reports information about the Pakistani troop movements. Oppel attributes the information to "senior Pakistani officials," but the story makes clear that in fact there are only two senior Pakistani officials, both of whom spoke anonymously. Oppel also writes, "A senior military official said in an interview that the decision to sharply restrict leave for soldiers was taken 'in view of the prevailing environment,' namely the deteriorating relations with India since the Mumbai terrorist attacks last month. "

All journalists paraphrase sources, but it's interesting that Oppel's source said only "in view of the prevailing environment." That prevailing environment includes a suspected US airstrike in Waziristan that killed eight people, as well as a Christmas Eve terrorist strike in the Pakistani city of Lahore. But Richard Oppel chooses to interpret the "prevailing environment" as "deteriorating relations with India."

Oppel goes on to write, "The redeployment came as Indian authorities warned their citizens not to travel to Pakistan given the heightened tensions between the two nations, news agencies reported." He cites only other "news agencies" as his source.

Then he writes, "The senior official also refused to say where the troops would be redeployed, although The Associated Press quoted two Pakistani intelligence officials as saying that the Pakistani Army’s 14th division was being sent to Kasur and Sialkot, near the Indian border." The source: another news agency.

Finally, he writes, "In India, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, summoned the leaders of his country’s armed forces to discuss the security situation, Indian media reported on Friday." The source: Indian media.

According to Nirupama Subramanian's story in the Hindu, "Pakistan’s armed forces are on a “high alert” and all leave of absence has been cancelled for troops on account of the tensions with India, military officials here told journalists on Friday." At first it seems as if the government officials held an authorized news conference. No such thing. Subramanian goes on to write, "Also, there were unconfirmed reports, quoting unnamed intelligence officials, that the Pakistan military had pulled out some soldiers from the border with Afghanistan and redeployed them in the east."

So now the soldiers have been redeployed to the East? Interestingly, the Hindu story also notes, "The reports are bound to cause alarm in Washington, which is seeking to prevent any adverse fallout of the India-Pakistan crisis on its “war on terror’ in Afghanistan." This interpretation barely appears in the New York Times story.

Sebastian Abbot goes even further in his story for the Associated Press, practically editorializing when he writes, "The move represents a sharp escalation in the standoff between the nuclear-armed neighbors."

Of his sources: "The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation." Abbot also credits another anonymous source at the end.

A story by Sajjad Malik in Pakistan's Daily Times says, "Reports in Indian media said Pakistan moved its 10th Brigade to Lahore and ordered the 3rd Armoured Brigade to march towards Jhelum, following a heavy concentration of Indian troops on the borders. " Malik goes on to write a story taken entirely from Indian media sources, which in turn seem to have been lifted from the Associated Press story.

Zahid Hussain, in a story for England's Times Online, doesn't bother to attribute any of his statements about Pakistan's troop movements.

In conclusion: multiple international news stories about an escalation in tension between two nuclear neighbors all came from three Pakistani military officials who spoke to journalists on background.

It seems as if this story proves the "echo chamber" theory of mass media: after a little while, international stories all turn into a ring of news outlets randomly citing each other. More importantly, these journalists would never be able to write these type of stories if they weren't relying on an established assumption: India and Pakistan dislike each other and are once more on their way to war.

But how has this assumption been established? Largely by the media.

(India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past fifty years, so real tension exists. But that doesn't mean reporters should automatically be able to assume a fourth war is in the works.)

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