“It's such an exciting time to be in Pakistan.” This is a line one hears time and again from every new arrival of foreigners that lands at Islamabad airport. From the US Secretary of State, to the new foreign service employees at an international embassy, to the newest international media correspondent, Pakistan seems to be the new land of opportunity. Except that this opportunity doesn’t really work for us too much, considering we were declared the most dangerous country in the world last year and now, because of natural disasters, are at our absolute lowest point. Sadly, Pakistan is being mined by the rest of the world as an example of how good it can get when it gets really bad.
Unlike most other developing nations that have abject poverty, corrupt economies and poor leadership, Pakistan has still managed to hold onto some semblance of normalcy in its daily suffrage. There is still a sense of survival (just barely), social decadence and just plain old resilience amidst the madness of militant terror and disastrous flooding. Supposedly this is what makes Pakistan ‘exciting’ for outsiders.
In the age of global communication, there is nothing that doesn’t get out. Not even top-secret documents on America’s war in Afghanistan. But some things don’t get out by agenda. One of these is how the global media wants its audience to view countries like Pakistan. Portrayals include a state that colludes with Islamic militants to encourage global extremism; a country rife with civil and ethnic angst that abuses its justice system; a country constantly plagued with preventable and mismanaged natural disasters. And oh yes, a confused nation of elite party-goers all juxtaposed against the women in black (burqas). Pakistan’s stereotype has come a long way. While most of these claims are admittedly true, is that all there is to us?
Over a year ago, I did a story on the sudden rise in the almost permanent presence of foreign media networks in Pakistan since the Afghanistan invasion in 2001.The bottom line was that the war on terror was the only news that was worthy of the presence of almost 100 foreign journalists in Islamabad. Nothing else figured on the agenda. No economics, no culture, no society, no people, except for those affected by the suicide bombings and drone attacks, or those displaced by army action in the tribal areas and lately, by natural disasters.
To give benefit of the doubt, dirt sells and news is business after all. Even our local television feeds the international media with its tales of graphic horror. We don’t give much airtime to anything else either. But one would expect more from the international media networks, since it is one of the very few ways people abroad have to form an impression about countries like Pakistan. All the more reason the stories going out should show more than just one face of the nation.
But the reality is, that there is extremely limited interaction of the foreign media with the 'real' Pakistan, with global headquarters dictating what should and shouldn’t be news.
In a country of 170 million, only a handful of 'key' persons are introduced to a journalist’s brief international posting. Most of those belong to the elite English-speaking and civil and state bureaucracy. Its not newsworthy enough to venture into other more mundane areas like the informal economy, agriculture, performing arts or local initiatives. Frankly, if its not related to terrorism, its not a story. So what ends up is a life primarily ensconced in Islamabad, mixing with the movers and shakers. There is not even a meager attempt to visit the nether regions of the country to show the world how we really live, both good and bad. Last I checked, journalism was about breaking boundaries, leaving your comfort zone and opening minds to different ideas and opinions. I guess I haven’t checked the latest in a long time.
Even with the coverage of the current flooding, the focus remains on how inept our leaders are (which they are) and how aid is waiting to be mismanaged (which it is). But what about what many are trying to do single-handedly? Ever since the earthquake, if there is one thing Pakistanis (barring the feudal and political elite), have been known for, its plunging into the middle of a natural disaster to do all they can. Doesn’t the world deserve to see that side of us for a change? And then they say we suffer from an international 'image deficit.'
The perception is further fuelled by the presence of the international diplomatic community, supposedly to ‘foster meaningful relations’ and ‘help end poverty.’ The goodwill doesn’t reach further than the diplomatic enclave as its so much easier to spend money sitting in a cubicle surrounded by barbed wire and your very own panic room. After all, that’s how they do it in Afghanistan and Iraq and see how much good its doing there.
So despite best intentions, the perspective remains skewed, to the networks (and its representatives) benefit, but to our own detriment. The slap in the face is a foreign correspondents ‘observation’ of (a very politicised) Pakistan, in hardback edition. Three years in a city, and they know the country better than we do apparently.
Journalism unfortunately, is now a well-paid job that can get you around the world, complete with furnished homes, domestic staff and your very own ‘king of the hill’ attitude.
But the mediocrity and one-dimensionality of live international broadcasts from residential rooftops in Islamabad, does eventually show through. Case in point - a message sent out to all invitees last year by one foreign correspondent after a high-profile suicide bombing in Islamabad, in response to a scheduled party hosted by another foreign journalist in the same area that night: “if we cancel the party, the terrorists have won.” Senseless loss of life right outside your doorstep, but the party must go on. Now that’s what I call true dedication to the cause of journalism.
I guess they don’t make them like Robert Fisk anymore.
Themrise Khan is a freelance social development consultant based in Karachi who occasionally dares to venture into the Pakistani media.
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