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"SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has disappeared. The entire region has disappeared. India has lost interest in the region," said Imran Aslam, president of Pakistan's GEO TV channel in an opening speech at the Conference of Editors from SAARC countries in New Delhi.
Aslam was giving a realistic if depressing view on the Indian and Pakistan's media today.
He was pointing out to the fact that the Indian media is writing less and less about regional issues. He asked, "Who gives damn about Hamas and Hizbullah when Ash and Abhi (Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan) are more referred to. Where is the news? Stories have disappeared and news has disappeared."
Aslam give his bleak views on a gloomy day in New Delhi. He believes that the media discusses frothy issues more than the real issues.
Talking about the SAARC movement, India's Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, who inaugurated the conference, said that even though SAARC has been in existence for 20 years, "it is a rather sad commentary that this is the first time that we have a meeting of editors at this level in SAARC. There is a general air of pessimism."
The two-day conference is being jointly organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Media Development Foundation, Chennai.
It will conclude with an address by the External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Saturday.
The conference has attracted the best of brains from SAARC countries including Mathews Verghese of Malayala Manorama, Najam Sethi of the Daily Times, Pakistan, Rehana Hakeem of Newsline, Pakistan and Kanak Mani Dixit of Himal South Asian, Nepal and some brilliant editors from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The purpose of the conference was to have a free and open discussion on the identified themes and key issues in the South Asian region.
Mahfuz Anam of Dailt Star, Bangladesh expressed anguish that the Indian media is most times "enforcing the views of the Indian intelligence agency."
Barkha Dutt of NDTV who was chairing the session was taken aback. She asked Shashi Kumar of Media Development Foundation to intervene. Shashi Kumar treaded the middle path and sspoke of how lately even on issues like Kashmir the Indian media now airs an independent voice.
It's an old allegation that Indian media rarely confronts the government on foreign policy matters is largely patriotic than independent. Najam Sethi recalled an incident when a head of a media delegation once confessed in Pakistan that "yes, the Indian media is patriotic."
However, Sethi put the issue of alleged, pro-establishment writing on foreign policy matters like Kashmir into perspective.
Sethi, a prolific writer and a fearless editor said that in a country like India where there is democracy, there is a kind of national consensus on foreign policy issues and the consensus is mirrored in the government policy. The media in a democratic country tends to follow the government's views based on national consensus. While in Pakistan, in absence of democracy the media confronts the government.
He said sarcastically, "Unfortunately in my country there will be more democracy and we too, like Indian media will become patriotic."
The issue of media and the government's foreign policy was raised by Menon too. He said, "I notice from your agenda that you are also speaking about the media and foreign policy. Now this in itself is a huge topic, I think it is also a very complicated topic. I am very glad that you are discussing foreign policy reporting because it is an aspect where I think there has been too much intimidation and too little direct reporting."
Menon, while putting the SAARC editor's job in perspective, talked about why this is, "the moment of opportunity to try and enable SAARC to achieve its potential, to try and realise its shared destiny."
Talking about India's hopes from the SAARC movement, he said, "We realise the extent of our inter-dependence, the extent to which we need each other, all of us. This has nothing to do with asymmetries of power, shape, size and whatever -- we all need each other. India needs a peaceful periphery if we are to achieve our goals. It is in our self-interest to work with the rest of South Asia. I think the same is true of all of us."
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