The Doha-based Al Jazeera media network has been banned in India for five days starting today. Their error seems to be repeated telecasts of what India says are incorrect maps of India’s borders with Pakistan, specifically the area of Kashmir, the absence of Lakshdweep and Andaman in another programme and a repetition of some images.
This rap on the knuckle by the Indian government raises one critical issue. What is an international news network to do when countries do not accept internationally delineated borders according to the United Nations (UN)? Worse, what is a network to do when even the border drawn by the UN is questioned by the countries as is the case with India and the line of control in Kashmir or China and Arunachal Padesh?
In November 2014, the British Broadcating Corporation (BBC) profiled Kashmir calling the disputed areas as Pakistan-controlled and India controlled.
In 2011, the State Department of the United States of America (USA) removed what it said was inaccurate maps showing India and Pakistan.
Closer home, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was pulled up in March 2014 for showing Kashmir as belonging to Pakistan and a United Nation's (UN) official in New Delhi made a similar mistake when a map of India with its territory bordering on India and China was wrongly noted. This was during a meeting on hygiene and efforts to solve India's open defecation problem.
On a non-serious note, people regularly get lost following Google maps and in some cases drive into neighbouring countries without realising they have crossed several borders. The Schengen space in Europe is one example.
The short point is that there is no way to be right on this. Recently, Russia turned red when Wikipedia showed Crimea as not belonging to the Russian Federation and the “error” was swiftly corrected. However maps of both Ukraine and the Russian federation show Crimea belonging to them and the UN is limited to advising countries to respect internationally defined territories. But the UN is only an advisory body that can bang heads together and get countries to sit around a table and talk. Beyond that much depends on the goodwill of the countries themselves.
Borders between Israel and Palestine, Turkey and Cyprus, China and Taiwan (and earlier Hong Kong and Macau) have all been wrongly displayed. The UN and its multilateral agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) take great care to ensure that disputed areas in countries are displayed as such, but they remain on tenterhooks often at the mercy of national cartographers.
In the run up to the ban, Al Jazeera reportedly told New Delhi that all maps the network displays are generated by internationally-known software used by Global News Providers. For its part, the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry’s order, following consultations with the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) where officers of the External Affairs Ministry were present, is firm – Al Jazeera violated the laws on more than one occasion.
Attributing motives is not seen in the fine print of the Indian ban. Neither is it possible to detect ignorance of the workings of newsrooms, especially televisions networks, where time is at a huge premium, competition is stiff and search for TRPs is merciless. This ban must not raise the shackles on all sides or be used by vested interests keen to exploit the issue. Action has been taken against what India considers to be a constant source of irritation and this will be a contentious issue.
There will never be a water-tight way to get this right. It will not be possible to get clearance by local authorities before airing every visual. What must never be lost is goodwill from countries to international broadcasters – on that score the I&B ministry seems to have gone by its rules.