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Old Wednesday, November 08, 2017
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Default Pakistan through the eyes of a foreign correspondent

Foreign correspondents reporting on Pakistan fall into two categories. Some are infuriated by the doublespeak that so often emanates from Pakistan officialdom. “How dare you,” the Foreign Office used to ask in outraged tones, “even suggest we are building a nuclear bomb?” And there were those vehement denials of involvement in Kargil. “We are not there!” the Army insisted, even when the world knew they were. And today? “The Haqqani Network? Nothing to do with us.”

While that sort of thing drives some correspondents to the airport, others at least appreciate the charm with which these diplomatic untruths are delivered. And from a journalistic point of view, there are mitigating circumstances. Pakistan produces so much news. With violent jihadis, nuclear bombs, the drugs trade, insurgencies and endless amounts of vivid colour stories, it is impossible to be short of things to write about. And there’s something else. Put a microphone in front of a Pakistani and the mildest mannered individual will, at a moment’s notice, turn into an impassioned political activist proclaiming the virtues of his or her political hero whilst despairing about the venal corruption of everyone else’s. It’s all great copy. Cynics might say that the politics of Pakistan have the quality of a soap opera in which the lead characters – and their offspring – vie for power in a largely pointless competition between self interested, grossly wealthy, elitist egos. Maybe. But it’s fun to watch.

And the press itself has had a tumultuous history filled with large characters, great courage, high principles and low venality. In the early days it was all about Ayub Khan’s battles with the Pakistan Times. It was also an era when people all over the country turned to BBC Urdu as a source of impartial news. As for television, PTV, for its first quarter of a century, enjoyed a monopoly that remained intact until two international channels, the BBC and the CNN, came onto the scene offering an alternative to the official view.

As the BBC Pakistan correspondent on the night of October 12, 1999, I experienced the somewhat terrifying responsibility that came with working for what, at the time, was probably the most trusted news source in the country. PTV, always weakened by the need to reflect the views of the government, was further disabled by being caught between two authorities – the government and the Army. CNN did not have anyone one on the ground. That left the BBC.

It began with a call from a contact in PTV saying that something was going on. The BBC cameraman and I rushed down to the station’s headquarters just in time to film soldiers climbing over the gates. In the old days feeding such pictures to London would have been impossible without the cooperation of PTV which, in the circumstances, would not have been forthcoming. But using a primitive form of internet transfer software we managed to get the pictures sent. However, that was just the start of my problems. Within a few minutes I was live on the BBC being asked: “Is it a coup?”

Rumours of an Army takeover were spreading all over the country. People were tuning to the BBC to get an authoritative version of what was happening. If I called it wrong, the BBC would never live it down. When I arrived in 1998 people were still complaining about what they believed was a false BBC report about the Indian advance on Lahore in 1965. Could it, I wondered, be something less than a coup? An action to arrest the head of PTV perhaps or seize some film? A holding operation of some kind? How to be sure?

Troops climbing into the Islamabad headquarters of Pakistan Television on October 12, 1999, the day when General Pervez Musharraf took over power while his plane was still airborne. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives
Troops climbing into the Islamabad headquarters of Pakistan Television on October 12, 1999, the day when General Pervez Musharraf took over power while his plane was still airborne. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives
“Soldiers have climbed into PTV,” I hedged. “I can’t say it is a coup but it certainly looks like one.” And then some anxious minutes to see if even that rather mealy-mouthed version of events stood the test of time. That was only 20 years ago but already those days seem like ancient history. General Pervez Musharraf’s decision to enable the establishment of private channels transformed Pakistan’s media scene. It is often said that the military only agreed to the reform because India outdid them when it came to whipping up a war fever during the Kargil conflict. India’s private-sector channels had a clear, melodramatic edge over the rather stolid efforts of PTV. Whatever the Army’s true motives, the outcome has been remarkable, with a babble of news channels both radio and TV now churning out news in many languages 24/7.

The impression of media diversity, however, is illusory. The channels may compete for viewers but they air strikingly similar opinions. It’s free speech of a kind – but everyone knows the limits.

It was ever thus. Many of Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders have bribed friendly journalists and imprisoned hostile ones. Some have even, to put it generously, failed to stop journalists being murdered. For the politicians it’s normally a case of trying to prevent negative coverage. The soldiers see it slightly differently. The press, they believe, is a weapon to be deployed on the information frontline, serving the Army’s version of the national interest. But both the politicians and the military top brass do agree about one thing: journalists are, by and large, upstarts who should know their station and do as they are told.

The journalists – or at least an impressive proportion of them – have had different ideas. Even when General Ziaul Haq was describing the Karachi Press Club as “enemy territory”, many journalists responded by resisting authority. It was a difficult time. But the contest isn’t over yet. Whether its Geo’s 2015 allegations about the ISI or this year’s [Dawn story by Cyril Almeida], the state continues to draw red lines and the press continues to bump up against them.

So where does Dawn sit in this new media age? The last decade has seen a number of Masters and PhD students conduct content analysis of Pakistan’s newspapers. Having read half-a-dozen of these rather heavy going theses, I can summarise their conclusions: ‘The English language press is less sensational than the Urdu language press’. It may sound like a recipe for low circulation but dawn dot com’s growing international readership suggests otherwise. Some Pakistanis may find Dawn a shade liberal but many readers abroad looking for an independent, reliable voice, see it rather differently.
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