Indian, Pakistani Papers Fan Flames of Crisis in Kashmir

`FREEDOM fighters kill 14 Indian soldiers,'' declares the headline of the Pakistani newspaper. ``Two terrorists among five killed in Kashmir,'' reports an Indian counterpart.

An aggressive press in India and Pakistan stokes the risky verbal duel over Kashmir.

In Pakistan, newspapers, and state-run radio and television trumpet reports of India's bare-knuckled crackdown on the Muslim uprising that exploded in disputed Kashmir earlier this year. Denunciations from Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and other leaders are daily fare.

In India, print and broadcast media justify repression by security forces to quash the Muslim uprising that many feel threatens India's secular creed and fragile unity. Objections of human rights activists and critics are lost in a flurry of war threats from Prime Minister V.P. Singh and other government leaders.

The media's often provocative role reflects the deep passions stirred by Kashmir, the crucible of more than four decades of troubled relations, analysts say.

Predominantly Hindu India accuses Islamic Pakistan of aiding Kashmiri separatists, while Pakistan says India should allow a plebiscite on Kashmir's future.

``This is the most difficult and complex challenge that India has faced,'' says Dilip Padgaonkar, editor of the respected Times of India. ``What is on trial in Kashmir is Indian democracy itself.''

``Pakistan's press has shown greater restraint and maturity than the Indian press. We have played a very positive role and have lead on this issue,'' says Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani political columnist. ``Our pressure on Kashmir is important and necessary.''

Although television and radio are still state-run, both countries enjoy a lively array of generally independent newspapers and magazines. India has long had one of the freest presses in the third world. When Ms. Bhutto came to power a year and a half ago, she freed Pakistan's newspapers from censorship rooted in years of martial law.

However, when it comes to Kashmir, the media in both countries sees red. Weak, and struggling to stay in power, both governments have used the press to inflame public opinion on Kashmir and deter opposition at home, analysts say.

Under fire for seeking better ties with India, Bhutto stormed that Pakistan would fight ``a 1,000 year war'' over Kashmir. Facing bitter criticism when his government failed to win the release of three hostages, Mr. Singh told Indians to be ``psychologically prepared'' for war. The press reported both statements approvingly.

When Bhutto established a fund to aid Kashmiris fleeing Indian oppression, the Indian Express, a large English daily with close ties to Hindu conservatives supporting a tough line on Kashmir, set up its own fund for those fleeing militant violence.

Such prominently reported bluster has dangerously raised regional tensions, diplomats say. Western analysts worry that a fourth war between India and Pakistan could become a nuclear confrontation. But, amid all the press bravado, the nuclear threat gets scant attention.

In recent weeks, India and Pakistan, under pressure from the United States, have toned down the propaganda war as a step in defusing tensions. Talks between senior officials are due to be held next month.

``At least we don't have V.P. Singh and Benazir handing down a warning a day. That's a step in the right direction,'' says a Western diplomat in Islamabad.

Most controversial has been Indian coverage of the uprising in the Kashmir Valley. The press has been hampered by government restrictions and pressures as well as its own prejudices, observers say.

Many journalists unquestioningly back the security forces actions. Publications, including the respected India Today news magazine, widely criticized Indian human rights activists who reported on the brutality of the government crackdown.

In news coverage and editorial comment, human rights concerns have been overshadowed by deep feelings that India must pay any cost to keep Kashmir, editors and journalists say.

``Indians feel the Kashmiri is being totally ungrateful for what India has done for him,'' says a journalist. ``How would the United States react if New York or California announced it wanted independence?''

Still, there are many journalists who remain committed to their job despite official muscling and pressures from publishers and editors, observers say. Some newspapers have sent special writers into Kashmir to get a more independent viewpoint.

With the capital Srinagar under de facto martial law, newspapers seen as sympathetic to the Kashmiri separatists, have been shut down.

For months, foreign journalists were banned from the valley, and local journalists have been caught between threats by the militants and the Indian security forces.

Critics say government coercion of the press has deepened the alienation of Kashmiris, especially the professional and middle class, from the rest of India.

``There is a total media vacuum and loss of credibility which will take a long time to counter in the minds of the Kashmiris,'' says B.G. Verghese, a former newspaper editor and now an analyst at the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank.

``By not having a strong reliable presence, we've lost that media impact. When emotions clash and facts are weak, you have all the makings for misunderstanding,'' he says.

Despite pressures to rally around the flag, editors and journalists contend that parts of the press have tried to maintain a balanced independent stance.

``In a situation where there are terrorists and militants, there is tremendous pressure to succumb,'' says Mr. Padgaonkar, the Times of India editor. ``There have been a number of voices against jingoism echoing through the newspapers.''

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