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Capacity Building in Pakistan’s Media

Monday’s presentation by Dawn reporter and Woodrow Wilson Institute Scholar Huma Yusuf examined the state of Pakistan’s media and offered excellent insights into the at-times-controversial institution and provided suggestions for addressing issues confronting Pakistani journalists and media consumers.

Beginning the event, “Who Watches the Watchdog? The Pakistani Media’s Impact on Politics and Society,” Huma recounted a story from July 2007. It was during this month that a standoff between religious militants and government security forces occured at the Lal Masjid in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

As militants were holed up in the mosque, Pakistani journalist Kamran Khan called and urged the militants to surrender. The cleric leading the group agreed to a surrender if they were assured free passage. Kamran Khan then called the government and, for all intents and purposes, began acting as a negotiator between the two sides. This was a pivotal moment, recounts Ms. Yusuf, when Pakistani media transcended its role as an informational institution and began to leverage its considerable power to shape public opinion to become a political actor.

Looking back on this event, another perspective is key to understanding the path that Pakistan’s media has taken over the past few years. Kamran Khan’s coverage of Lal Masjid was a clumsy but sincere attempt at objectivity. But with little training and experience in covering this type of event as a free and independent media, the journalist stepped outside his role as informer and observer and became part of the story.

During the discussion session following Ms. Yusuf’s presentation, a member of the audience raised the question of whether objectivity is an illusory goal. But, as Ms. Yusuf pointed out, while pure objectivity may be impossible to obtain, that is not a justification for a failure to fact check reports or to use the media as a tool to promote a particular ideology. Journalists should, she suggested, be up front about their methodologies and contacts so that any bias that may be present in their reporting is at least transparent, leaving media consumers to judge reports on their merits.

When its media was nominally freed by President Musharraf, Pakistan experienced an explosion of media outlets. The nation now boasts hundreds of privately owned newspapers and TV channels, all competing for market share. In this hyper-competitive media environment, it is often faster and cheaper to make things up than to perform in-depth investigations. Add to this the fact that the demand for reporters is far greater than the supply of trained, experienced journalists. The average age of journalists has dropped to 23. Combine this with a lack of formal ombudsmen and weak internal or external regulatory bodies and the result is something of a perfect storm in which mistakes are bound to be made.

Unfortunately, the Lal Masjid episode resulted in another, less innocent outcome. Media executives quickly realized that militants, frankly, get better ratings. In a ratings-driven industry, that means that extremist views translate into dollars. Just as Americans complain that competition for ratings reduces the quality of television in the US, Pakistan has seen a proliferation of fringe voices on popular programming.

The question was raised as to whether some of these voices – particularly those that express frustration and anger with US policy towards Pakistan – are reflective of popular views. And, of course, some of them are. But that does not escape the fact that by dominating discussion, these voices not only reflect but shape public opinion.
The question of anti-American perspectives dominating the content of Pakistani media raised another important question: Why has the US done such a poor job of engaging this vibrant and persuasive part of Pakistani culture. As was pointed out during the discussion, American perspectives are rarely part of the daily debates in no small part because of a lack of Urdu-fluent Americans available to producers. With no Americans available to take part in the nightly debates, discussions of policy will continue to lack an American perspective.

As the US looks for ways to help build Pakistan’s democracy, one sector that should take priority is Pakistan’s media. The US should in now way attempt to exert an undue influence on the substance of reporting, but should look for ways to facilitate journalist exchange and professional development programs that can assist capacity building efforts that will improve the quality of reporting in Pakistan. The US has a long history as a democracy operating with a free and vibrant media. This experience can provide important lessons to our friends and colleagues in Pakistan. By developing a program to provide technical assistance to Pakistan’s media professionals, the US can help ensure that the Pakistani people enjoy the same diversity of views and accuracy of reporting that has been a defender of democracy and justice in the US.

Source: Americans for Democracy and Justice in Pakistan

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Junaid Qaiser


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  • This unchecked public service has made it too easy to manipulate the illiterate masses. Today, prominent news channels have rather dangerously attained the ability to sway public opinion (with their sometimes heavily opinionated broadcasting). From airing uncensored violence, showing political ‘cat fights’ to calling government functionaries the ‘Zardari mafia’, media ethics have often been kept at bay with the excuse of freedom of expression. While media freedom is still much celebrated in Pakistan and acts as the self-proclaimed savior of the Pakistani people, a combination of unprofessional news channels, political debates-cum-public-bashing-of-politicians and public brainwashing through airing loaded caricatures that call for moral righteousness, all point to the fact that the media industry in Pakistan is still very juvenile. Perhaps eight years is not long enough to attain maturity and professionalism. The media in Pakistan is fast turning into a self-serving (rather than public-serving) industry an industry that glorifies itself, is self-righteous and, most discomforting of all, and has a huge persecution complex.

  • HRCP general meeting Asma blames media for growing intolerance

    LAHORE, April 17: Intolerance cannot be checked without providing justice to all segments of society.
    This was consensus among speakers at a seminar `Growth of intolerance in Pakistan’ by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on the occasion of its annual general meeting.

    Supreme Court Bar Association President Asma Jehangir said the media had played a negative role in fanning intolerance as it had misinterpreted the concerns of governor Salmaan Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti over a woman victim of the blasphemy law.

    All peace-loving forces should join hands and persuade media owners and anchor persons that “enough is enough” and “the glorification of the assassin by the media helped increase the level of intolerance”, she said.

    Ironically, not even a single statement in favour of Salman or Shahbaz was witnessed on behalf of the government in the media, she said.

    Former federal minister Dr Mubashar Hasan said that intolerance had its roots in nationalism that had been on the rise after 1940s. The United Nations had some 40 members when it was established but now the figure crossed 200. Intolerance would continue to increase if provision of justice, security of life and property and equitable distribution of wealth were not ensured to all people in the country.

    Earlier, outgoing chairperson Dr Mehdi Hasan said intolerance had religious, political, social and economic dimensions. “A helpless person is prone to intolerance. The culture of intolerance started gaining roots in Pakistan in 1948 when Majlis-i-Ahrar revived itself and launched a vicious campaign against the Quaid, Liaqat Sahib and other movement leaders.” Columnist Khalid Ahmad called for separation of religion and state. “Our condition is like the ethnocentric tribes of 1870s,” he said.

    Psychologist Dr Haroon Ahmad said that intolerance had no genetic basis. “It is a behaviour we learn from culture and society and can be undone through the same culture and society,” he said.

    Poet Fehmida Riaz spoke on religious intolerance while Saba Gul Khattak threw light on the impacts of intolerance on the social sector with reference to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

    Provincial coordinators Saleema Hashmi presented reports on state of human rights in Punjab and Ghazi Salahuddin on Sindh. Outgoing treasurer Zafar A Chaudhry presented the financial statement.

    HRCP REPORT: Presenting the annual report, HRCP Secretary-General IA Rehman said the 18th Amendment marked a big leap towards a genuine federal polity. He said Pakistan had become a party to six key UN human rights instruments.

    “Much, by way of framing of domestic laws and development of a culture of sensitivity to human rights, remains to be done,” he said.

    “But at least the human rights activists will be considerably facilitated. Needless to add that the responsibility of the upholders of human rights to carry the process forward has greatly increased.

    “Unfortunately, the gains for human rights were less concrete than the losses. The people had little time to ponder the positive implications of the 18th Amendment due to a protracted debate in the Supreme Court on the new procedure for judges’ appointment. Even otherwise little was done to address the provinces’ lack of capacity to discharge their enlarged responsibilities or the impact of the transfer of subjects on matters of national concerns, much as edu cation and labour. These matters are of obvious concern to human rights activist.

    “Otherwise too, the past 12 months have offered a little comfort to human rights defenders. The war against terrorism created myriad problems for them. These matters included the loss of innocent lives in military operations and in drone attacks, the heavy loss of life in suicide attacks and resort to terrorist of acts in sectarian conflicts,” said Rehman.

    The situation in Balochistan, he said, remained highly explosive as cases of involuntary disappearance, a spate of target killings and the appearance of bodies of people killed after torture, and many of them bodies of missing people, continued to fuel discontent and deepen the people’s alienation from the state.

    Other matters of concern were extralegal killings, allegations of targeted and revenge killings in the conflict zones, and detention without trial of a considerable number of people in the tribal belt. At the same time in 2010, the plight of the minority communities became worse, with the killing of Ahmedis setting new records.

    Also, suicides increased along with a shaper rise in the number of people existing below the poverty line. The other problems which haunted the people included shortage of energy, unemployment diseases, and violence against women.

    The HRCP was granted special consultative status by the United Nations ECOSOC. This will enable the commission to raise issues at the UN forums.

    The last year, HRCP core group coordinator Naeem Sabir of Khuzdar was shot dead and another coordinator, Eidoo, joined the ranks of involuntarily.