The Dark Side of Journalism: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan
By Syed Irfan Ashraf
In chapter seven of The Dark Side of Journalism, which explores the context of impunity familiar to Pakistani journalists from living precariously — and killed casually — in the line of duty since September 11, 2001, there is a quote from a tribal journalist in the former FATA: “Instead of me visiting the field, the field visits me.”
It’s a haunting evocation of a journalist’s vulnerability to violence in a country that, at the peak of the ‘War on Terror’, was labelled the “most dangerous country for journalists in the world.” Concerns about the safety of journalists abide as their killings and disappearances continue.
Our journalist, like many tribal correspondents, has found safety in staying away from the hostile field of the erstwhile Fata (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). And even though the “field” he speaks of is a metaphor for “sources [local to the field]” that he reaches out to, and who in turn come to him with information he can no longer access first hand, the threat the field poses is always real and present.
For journalists reporting on the border regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — and indeed Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan — this metaphor of the “field”, despite its clear undertones of death and displacement, is also curiously seductive. And that’s just the nature of the beast: journalism rewards risk and competition, both personally and professionally.
A book by a former journalist takes the long view about the precarious position of journalists in Pakistan’s volatile border areas, and their exploitation at the hands of global corporate media
But the “field” one reports on is also a “minefield” of inimical forces shaping a journalist’s role and place within the culture and political economy of national and global mainstream media, intertwined as it is to the collusion of power, capital and attendant conflict in our times.
The Dark Side of Journalism is concerned with the birth, identity and function of the “fixer” in the tribal region of the former Fata. In its local avatar, the term has its genesis in the ‘War on Terror’, where his labour is needed to help “parachute journalists” report on the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The book explores how the challenges and contradictions of his role turn the fixer into an aberration within the media landscape in a zone of conflict. That identity, and that region, establishes him as a consequence of war, and war as a determinant of his role, thereby making and breaking journalists and journalism in a region with no local economy or opportunity but the one that war offers.
Going by the warlike history of the region, journalism and the fixer within it become “short term slavery” in the service of relentless imperialist forces that have long kept the region unstable. Within the intent, and consequence, of these forces, and the social, political and economic dynamics they perpetuate, the local journalist is seen as a fixer, an object both necessary and expendable.
From his marginalised, disadvantaged position, he — there is no she in the tribal border context — serves to strengthen the very forces that create and exploit his labour, indeed his life, by determining its use and exchange value in furtherance of their interests.
The fixer, according to the author Irfan Ashraf, is both “a victim and an agent”, precariously negotiating “faceless forces” in a “field” effected and affected by their designs — the “sovereign nodes” answerable to no one. Hence, the impunity these forces enjoy, despite the devastation they wreak in a region where life remains indefinitely on hold.
From the colonial British administration to the neo-colonial Pakistani state, the US-led ‘Cold War’, ‘Afghan Jihad’ and the ‘War on Terror’, the Talibanisation and militarisation of the region, the ever-present militancy and military operations, and how it all keeps the region in a state of constant turmoil and “backwardness”, “the field” is the political economy in extreme within which the fixer’s life and labour plays out.
Above all, the local context is the contemporary militaristic, neoliberal agenda that doesn’t shy away from the use of violence for its expansion. As framed in the topical, 24/7, commercial, global news cycle, it is often reductionist, decontextualising the historical to “fit into consumption patterns of [the] free market economy.” However this context, argues Ashraf, is not a break from the past, but one of “regional history in continuity.”
Reporting on this “field”, the news fixer is “the eyes and ears” on ground for the national and global media. But his marginalised place and position leaves him no choice but to submit precariously to the hierarchical corporate media system that assesses his labour on its own exploitative terms.
Paid much less than a regular (international) staffer, the fixer is expected not to claim credit for his news-work, no matter his valuable cultural knowledge and local connections, no matter the risks inherent to “the field” that come with his responsibility to protect international journalists, and worse, even manipulate or contrive events on the ground to strengthen the global news agenda and narratives. Given the scarcity of opportunity in a realm warped by war, he accepts the terms as a willing “agent”, even when he knows he is a “victim”.
For some it is employment, but for most other journalists whom Ashraf interviewed for his research, it is also a labour of love. “Emotional labour”, undertaken in the service of the land, its people and the family; to be the voice of the people, who like them, come from the same brutal “field”.
The fixer, a product of the war-economy, is on a shaky ground anywhere to begin with, but the book spotlights the one with the Pakhtun identity, with its genesis and nativity in the contemporary, and historical, instability of the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
To lay bare this “bareness”, of a fixer’s life and labour, Ashraf takes the “radical political economy” approach that recognises capital as the root cause of injustice and oppression. It is an appropriate lens, when one considers the dynamics of the fixer’s role, and the region he is based in.
If capital is sustained by the use of violence, if it instils in people a pro-capitalist ideology through creating labour, then the fixer is the “proletariat” created, his labour open to exploitation. If the ever-present threat of unemployment and poverty undermines the ability of workers to bargain for fair wages, and if globalisation creates (international) divisions of labour while fostering inequality, then the role of a fixer illustrates this painfully and abundantly.
If accumulation drives economic change and fosters regular crises including wars, and if local/ household production constitutes an important component of total production but is criminally undervalued, then the fixer and his “field” embody in themselves exactly that.
Ashraf, a faculty member at the journalism school at Peshawar with experience in journalism, also does this from the vantage of his personal experience as a fixer. In 2009, he helped New York Times break the Malala Yousafzai story from the brutally Talibanised Swat. The experience was a “point of departure” for Ashraf who, in his own “marginalised and precarious” position, saw the predicament of others like him.
Even in that very circumscribed role, Ashraf felt that he contributed to narratives feeding the state’s and the West’s “saviour complex”, for audiences at home or abroad, the excuse for their many wars and occupations. And he feels news that is saviour complex-centric would always ignore, undermine and jeopardise local narratives and resistance.
This state of perpetual conflict forged “a jihadi form of war reporting [focusing on militancy, since ‘Afghan Jihad’ to the ‘War on Terror’, and a ‘framing’ that exonerates the Pakistani state’s and the West’s militarised agenda], … a function of the 24/7 news cycles, glorifying militants and extremists as heroes at the cost of the region’s peace and global security.
“Who gets to tell these stories, therefore, becomes a tug of war between parties vying for discursive as well as physical control over events”, as life in the border regions hobbles on, with everyone “potential targets of the unaccountable, unannounced US drone strikes that are only targeting the bordering tribal areas of Pakistan.” Or leads to violence from the military and the militants, be they the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State — all sovereign nodes “united in spilling blood on local streets.”
Given this context, Ashraf explains, “Every [Pakhtun] is a potential fixer, in the sense that the threat of violence and militaristic designs keep a local, independent media and voices from taking roots, and elevating the station of local journalists and journalism by highlighting perspectives representative of local truths and realities.”
As in the historical past, says Ashraf, they will continue working “under colonial laws, which bar them from their rights, such as claiming ownership of their experience and knowledge skills in contributing to the global news market.”
The reviewer is a journalist based in Peshawar. X: aayzee
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 24th, 2023