India-Pakistan Citizen Diplomacy and the Media

This is my article published in The News International, Islamabad

August 7, 2013


Freedom of opinion/expression, positive change, scope for progressive voices, youth engagement, fresh perspectives, real time sharing forums, crystal clear means of communication these are some of the terms that Indians and Pakistanis used when asked how they view the media championing the cause of citizen diplomacy for peace between the two countries.

Given the difficulties of obtaining a visa to visit Pakistan for face-to-face interaction, I had resigned myself to remaining restricted to the social media and obtained these comments online. This is part of my ongoing research on the media and its role in helping foster peace between India and Pakistan.

However, I have not given up on the idea of promoting people-to-people interaction, or hope that lies in citizen diplomacy as it has been called since 1981 when a US State Department employee named Joseph Montville emphasized the significance of informal and unofficial citizen interactions for conflict resolution.

Citizen diplomacy has gained credence for its capacity to allow personal experience, direct contact and grassroots reach among populace in adversary nations. The emergence of multi-track diplomacy popularized the concept of citizen diplomacy, enabling citizens to become ambassadors of national cultures.

Many examples of citizen diplomacy between India and Pakistan offer a wide canvas for interaction, like WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace, India-Pakistan Friendship Society (1987), South Asian Dialogue (1990s), Pakistan-India People s Forum for Peace and Democracy (1994) and Pakistan Peace Coalition. However, these initiatives have not managed to harness the power of the media to amplify their voices and ascertain the involvement of ordinary citizens from both sides.

The media can play a key role in this process by functioning as a classroom to promote global understanding, where citizens become students and augment their cultural knowledge, cultural sensitivity and acceptance of the other . Especially with the new media that can transcend barriers of time and space, the other does not seem alien anymore.

Media representatives have the power to build positive images of the other country, and counter the traditional views of the enemy . However, rather than availing of this opportunity, South Asian journalists tend to remain entrapped in the web of jingoist and exclusive nationalism. As such, the media s role in citizen diplomacy has largely remained traditional and limited to institutionalized exchanges among Indian and Pakistani journalists.

An exciting development is the recent emergence of peace media in the sub-continent. Although still marginal, it has revamped the way the media operate. From a very traditional role, guided by a top-down information flow in which media elites and media gate-keepers decide what audiences consume, some in the media have now assumed an interactive role that humanizes the other or the enemy .

The flow of information in this interactive role is cyclical and multi-dimensional, informal and interactive, people-driven and inclusive. This is necessary to neutralize the India-Pakistan discord that is so heavily dominated by enemy images , stereotypes and popular perceptions all of which are hurdles to citizen interaction and sustainable peace.

This interactive role has made it to the mainstream media through the popular Aman ki Asha campaign and a Facebook page called Romancing the Border (RTB). These popular initiatives and their reach to young people in India and Pakistan ensure the continuation of citizen diplomacy despite barriers on physical meetings in the form of visa restrictions and travel impediments.

What the media do for citizen diplomacy is unique they help bring forth alternative perceptions, something that is not easily found in mainstream media discourse. The media can democratise citizen diplomacy to overcome state-created barriers, facilitate virtual exchanges, common dialogue, media sharing and present the idea of peace as marketable and profitable .

Such initiatives are evidence enough that media can indeed come out of their shell of nationalism and elitism, to promote and facilitate peace in the region. They show how the media can work as a novel medium for citizen diplomacy when not bogged down by constraints of news routines and practices.

In the information deficit that plagues India-Pakistan relations and creates hatred and misperceptions of the other , media-aided citizen diplomacy can help engage in a constructive and transformative dialogue process with a focus on issues of concern to citizens on both sides.

What Aman ki Asha and Romancing the Border do is to promote sector-wise cooperation and engagement on both sides and provide a human touch to serious matters of war and conflict. The Aman ki Asha campaign has organised several events bringing Indians and Pakistanis to a common forum, going beyond the commitment to use print space for encouraging positive views of each other.

RTB, the brainchild of an Indian and a Pakistani student, has partnered with AKA to promote its colourful and attractive Facebook page that uses new media technology to stimulate popular interaction. It uses video greetings, peace booth campaigns, sharing peace smiles, testimonials and peace messages to give like-minded Pakistanis and Indians the opportunity to interact.

There is no dearth of forums of citizen diplomacy in the case of India-Pakistan. So what difference does the media s intervention make? How do we explain the media s role during events of national security where the media inevitably become hostage to antagonistic inter-state relations? Are we compromising journalistic objectivity by envisioning a role for the media in citizen diplomacy? Should peace media campaigns trickle down and be taken to the grassroots where opinions matter the most? Does media aided citizen diplomacy also run the risk of turning elitist?

Withstanding all the limitations that these questions raise, the media s role in promoting citizen diplomacy can become a tool for positive and popular opinion building with support from government, bureaucracy and civil society. It can act as a complement to official public diplomacy while working on the periphery and contribute to improving relations. Better media access and a firm institutionalization of the media s role in citizen diplomacy will make the much needed difference in altering public perceptions about the rivalry.

India-Pakistan is more about people, about the tragedy of not being able to meet and talk to your next-door neighbour, about emotions that need an outflow, about good memories that can be created together. We need the media to do to all this and more for the countless people who still view our story with hope.


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