By Saba Imtiaz
The Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) isn’t just a space for readers to connect with their favourite authors or discuss poetry. It has, over the years, become an arena to debate issues of politics and human rights. At the fourth annual festival, the stars of the show, so to speak, weren’t just writers, but people such as Asma Jahangir and Abdul Sattar Edhi and even academics like Dr Akbar Zaidi and Ali Cheema. Perhaps Pakistanis are desperately seeking clarity on issues that impact them personally, or the ones they have never been provided a proper context for. Attendees peppered Arif Hasan with questions on how Karachi’s problems could be resolved, applauded when Laurent Gayer said there was an “ordered disorder” in the city’s political violence and complained about how “23-year olds” were running political parties in a session on dynastic politics.
Throughout the festival, discussions on the media were among the best-attended. Attendees and panellists followed around journalist and talk show host Najam Sethi, criticised Pakistani news organisations for ignoring the enforced disappearances in Balochistan and talked about how reportage has inspired fiction. And when face to face with foreign correspondents, those attending the KLF were up in arms about how Pakistan is portrayed in the media abroad.
Are Pakistanis “obsessed with the foreign view” or just upset about how the country is portrayed by foreign news organisations? These are questions that were asked for the second year in a row at the KLF at the session titled ‘Pakistan through Foreign Eyes’, but people appeared to be as polarised as ever.
As evident from the questions posed by the moderator, Dawn newspaper columnist Cyril Almeida, and the audience, people are convinced that the foreign press works on an agenda. Terror sells, culture doesn’t, and Pakistanis are never portrayed as victims, they claimed. This year’s panellists — The New York Times’ Declan Walsh, Der Spiegel’s Hasnain Kazim and Die Zeit’s Yassin Musharbash — were fairly defensive of their work and critical of those who believe that they have some sort of obligation to report on Pakistan’s ‘softer side’.
For Kazim, being of Pakistani heritage has been an asset in that he has had fewer difficulties in gaining access when reporting. But the suggestion that he has to be patriotic and portray a ‘soft image’ has had him foaming at the mouth for years, he said. “It is not my job. For me, it seems very weird when people say ‘Pakistanis are resilient’. You can also say ‘Pakistanis are complacent.’” He recounted phone calls from government and military officials asking why he was not reporting on the “soft side of Pakistan”. “A high-ranking diplomat once said to me, ‘Why don’t you write about the fact that Pakistan is the fourth largest milk producing nation?’ What am I supposed to do, should I interview a cow?”
Kazim also questioned why he shouldn’t write about how Pakistan was becoming more radicalised. He also couldn’t understand how the literature festival could continue when another massacre of Hazara Shias in Quetta had just taken place a day earlier. Any other country facing such a death toll would have shut down, he said. While Kazim’s argument was understandable, it would be unfair to assume that this has gone unnoticed by most Pakistanis. It has long been a debate in Pakistan where there are nearly daily terrorist attacks and fashion weeks or literature festivals ongoing at the same time. As Walsh pointed out, “There is no one Pakistan. Many Pakistans exist side by side.” Walsh feels his job is to present all of these in his reportage.
Kazim also criticised the notion that terror sells, which is why most foreign correspondents in Pakistan write about it. “It doesn’t sell,” he said, referencing web traffic numbers.
Musharbash, who reports on terrorism and inevitably, Pakistan, said that doing so without being based in or visiting the country has been a challenge (this was his first visit to Pakistan). “I try to portray a balanced image,” he said. “Pakistan is a big riddle for most Germans.”
Questions from the audience were largely focused on what they felt were shortcomings in foreign press reportage. “Have you ever covered victims of drone strikes?” one woman asked. Another wanted to know about the coverage of Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist serving a jail sentence in the US. One girl ranted about how Pakistanis were never seen as victims. “Your main problem is not the coverage in the West,” Musharbash responded. “It is that these things happen in Pakistan.” Perhaps regardless of whether Pakistan is called the most dangerous nation in the world or the bravest, it is the sense of frustration that people really need answers to.
The writer works as a freelance journalist and reports for a number of Pakistani and foreign news organisations.