By Khalid Hasan
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Long after the five journalists leave Washington, some of what they said will be remembered. In that sense, they have done a service to their country
A group of journalists from Pakistan has been in Washington for the last few days at the invitation of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, which has given many here the opportunity to hear how the United States and its policies are viewed in Pakistan and under what constraints the media have operated through good times and bad, mostly bad.
The visitors too might have learnt a few things, no doubt. For example, they might have learnt — contrary to what most Pakistanis believe — that American elections are not held every four years to determine how to deal with Pakistan; or that when President Bush gets out of bed in the morning and is looking for his slippers, Pakistan is not the first thought that crosses his mind.
The world looks much smaller and Pakistan-centric when viewed from Pakistan. But looked at from the American capital, it falls in place, in accordance with its size and importance. Travel does truly open out the mind. The average Pakistani’s worldview has tended to resemble more that of the proverbial frog who swims around his little well and believes it to be the ocean.
The group brought over by Woodrow Wilson was made up of Zaffar Abbas of Dawn, Mazhar Abbas, secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and host of an ARY talk show, Asma Shirazi, whom some call the “Christian Amanpour of Pakistan”, Massoud Ansari of the monthly Herald and our own Ejaz Haider from Daily Times and The Friday Times.
Woodrow Wilson’s Robert Hathaway, who put the entire project together, including the raising of finances, organised a seminar on September 16 at which the visiting journalists from Pakistan were asked to talk about their work and the state of the profession in Pakistan, with special reference to “the new media”, which is how the flowering of private television channels, whose number at last count was 45, is described.
Zaffar Abbas told the seminar that Pakistan is a great story and unlike some neighbouring countries, Pakistan is accessible to journalists from abroad. To say that it is also the most dangerous place in the world would not be entirely wrong either, he cautioned. He said Pakistan is one country out of which journalists can and do report.
“How many stories come out of Saudi Arabia or Singapore?” he asked. Pakistan, he stressed, has a vibrant media. “We cherish the challenge of being journalists, no matter what the government of the day is. We have to contend with the security establishment, which would like to control the flow of information but has now come to realise that it can’t. Times have changed. While newspapers continue to retain their influence, TV viewership has exploded, the estimated number of those who watch TV being between 50 and 60 million.”
He said Gen Pervez Musharraf must be given credit for permitting private channels, although he also tried to suppress them when the tide of public opinion turned against him. He said now that Pakistan has an elected political government, its tolerance for criticism will need to be tested when the chips are down. Politicians were the biggest supporters of media freedom. It remains to be seen if they will remain that way now that they have acquired power. The time had also come for the media to accept self-assessment. The media will also have to decide if it should put out what is right or what it thinks is right. Should extremists be given exposure? How should self-regulation be brought about?
Ejaz Haider spoke about media-military relations and how they had evolved over time. Turning to the situation in the turbulent, strife-torn tribal regions, he said, what the militants claim and what the military asserts, you have to look for middle ground because the truth lies somewhere there. Verification of information doled out remains difficult, he pointed out.
However, he conceded, it was easier to deal with government than with non-state actors, of whom there were many in the field now. He also discussed ideological bias within the media, and the divide between the English and the vernacular press. There was also the difficulty of determining where exactly the national interest, which government after government invoked to justify its actions, lay. The Pakistani media, he said, was evolving and it was sometimes “brash and abrasive”, but it only reflected the disconnect between state and society. However, the media will settle down in the end, he assured his audience.
Mazhar Abbas called Pakistani journalists the most courageous in the world. They had stood up for freedom of expression regardless of what government happened to be in power, he stated. They had been flogged and jailed and they had suffered persecution and even loss of livelihood, but they had not given up, unlike their Indian counterparts who had caved in after Mrs Gandhi’s assumed emergency powers, suspending the constitution. He said as many as 45 Pakistani journalists had died in the line of duty. They had been abducted and they had been tortured. Even members of their families had been targeted and killed.
“We have faced pressures from the state and threats from non-state actors, such as jihadi groups. We have faced pressures from Pakistan’s feudal lords and from its religious zealots and yet we have persevered and refused to lapse into silence,” he told the large assembled audience. He said journalists working as stringers for the foreign media had no insurance, no security and no protection when they went on dangerous missions. And yet they continued doing what they considered an honoured professional duty.
Asma Shirazi spoke about the threats that journalists faced both from militants and security agencies. Pakistan, she said, is a case study in freedom of expression. Because of the eruption of private TV channels, the Pakistani citizen is no longer dependent for his news and information on a single official source, as in the past. She said so popular has the new electronic media become that when she covered the 27-hour-long procession of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from Islamabad to Lahore, at many places, the crowds raised slogans in praise of television news anchors. She admitted though that some channels and some TV celebrities had their own agendas. What should never be lost sight of, she added, is truth and fairness.
Long after the five journalists leave Washington, some of what they said will be remembered. In that sense, they have done a service to their country, as has the Woodrow Wilson Centre that made the visit possible.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is email@example.com
Source: Daily Times, Pakistan