Asia Program

Wilson Center Hosts Pakistani Journalists in Week-Long Conference

Sep 18, 2008

On September 14 – 18, 2008, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a conference for Pakistani print and television journalists. Conference participants engaged in an extensive series of meetings and exchanges with their counterparts in the U.S. media, representatives from private media-focused organizations, Washington-based Pakistani journalists, U.S. officials, and others. They also shared their perspectives on the role of the media in Pakistan today at a Wilson Center public event.

The following topics illustrate the broad range of issues explored during the week: reporting on the war on terrorism; the challenge to traditional journalism of the "new media"; ethics and journalism; the requirements of investigative reporting; maintaining reportorial independence; reporting on covert military operations; media capacity-building; the use and misuse of sources; media self-regulation; the uneasy relationship between the media and the government; U.S. public diplomacy in the Islamic world; and the future of U.S. – Pakistan relations.

Few people contest the proposition that a free and unfettered press has a vital role to play in Pakistan at this pivotal moment in the country's history. Some have claimed that the press is one of the few functioning institutions in the country. Nearly all acknowledge that the media played a leading role in the struggle last year to keep President Pervez Musharraf from further restricting Pakistani political rights and freedoms. Musharraf's attacks on the press, especially the restrictions he imposed following the November 3, 2007, declaration of emergency -- and the manner in which the press both reported on and resisted those attacks -- helped erode Musharraf's remaining support, both at home and overseas.

Pakistan's media today is in a state of flux. In part, the upheaval in the country's media environment reflects a broader crisis in journalism around the world. While the challenges facing Pakistan's media must be viewed in this wider global context, Pakistani journalists also confront difficulties that reflect Pakistan's unique circumstances. The growth of Pakistani television in recent years has been explosive. The first privately owned television channel in Pakistan began operations only in 2002; today there are upwards of 40 privately owned TV channels in the country. Musharraf at first liberalized the media environment in Pakistan (essentially by permitting the establishment of private television channels) and then, in 2007, attempted to impose draconian restrictions upon it. Finally, the physical dangers of kidnapping, detention, murder, and disappearances are of great concern today. A number of Pakistani journalists have died in recent years as the result of violence. Some were the accidental victims of armed conflict, but state agencies and extremist groups both have been implicated in the targeting of journalists.

As a consequence, while Pakistani journalism today enjoys unprecedented prestige and respect, it simultaneously labors under severe burdens and challenges.

Over the course of four days of vigorous conversation, a number of themes kept resurfacing in the exchanges our Pakistani visitors had with one another and with their U.S.-based interlocutors. Some of those themes are spelled out below. Their inclusion here is not meant to imply that any of the Pakistani participants endorses or agrees with a specific viewpoint. Instead, these recurring themes are listed merely to suggest the richness of the conference discussion.

Regarding the Pakistani Media

The Pakistan media should take seriously its responsibility to hold government officials accountable. This is one of the most important roles of a free press.

The 24-hour news cycle threatens to create a new and dangerous premium on speed over accuracy. The fear of being scooped by a competitor leads on occasion to sloppy reporting, and undermines public faith in the reliability and professionalism of the media.

One of the most important responsibilities of the Pakistan media, like that of all countries, is to ensure fairness in its news coverage. Every media organization in the country needs to examine how it might establish internal mechanisms so as to achieve maximum fairness.

The Pakistani media faces a substantial crisis in capacity-building. This crisis is especially acute for electronic journalists, many of whom have not received even rudimentary training, but is also a serious concern for print journalists. Editors and producers, senior as well as junior, would benefit from enhanced training opportunities as well as reporters. Pakistan's journalism schools have not adequately met the needs of a rapidly changing and rapidly expanding media.

Capacity-building needs range from the most rudimentary to the most advanced skills and techniques. Both speaking and writing skills need to be emphasized. Even basic techniques, such as how to deal with visuals or how to balance a story, require far more attention than they currently receive.

Specialization for journalists in specific subject areas – diplomatic, for instance, or military – would produce more sophisticated reporting and should be encouraged.

Media management has an obligation to provide adequate training and insurance to journalists before sending them into potentially dangerous conflict zones.

While a handful of high-visibility journalists are paid handsomely, the typical journalist in Pakistan is badly underpaid. Journalists are severely handicapped in the performance of their responsibilities if they have to hold second jobs, are subject to financial inducements, or are distracted by financial pressures.

The substantial disparity in the salaries paid the electronic media versus those received by print journalists, if left unattended, will over time make it difficult for the print media to attract the nation's most talented journalists.

Despite the existence of high-visibility female journalists in Pakistan, gender barriers and gender-based discrimination in the Pakistan media persist. Every media organization ought to have – and faithfully implement – a clearly articulated code of conduct proscribing gender-based discrimination.

Much of the print media has not given sufficient attention to the need to redefine itself and its role in the face of the challenges from the 24-hour news cycle and the new forms of electronic media. Unless it adapts to new realities, print journalism is in danger of becoming irrelevant to large portions of the Pakistani public.

The need of most reporters to file multiple stories a day severely constrains their ability to conduct the sort of serious investigation that is often required to uncover official or private malfeasance. Media management must be willing to provide the resources for a story that might take days or weeks to develop.

There is a serious need for an effective mechanism created and operated by journalists that can investigate complaints by journalists of harassment or improper pressure by government officials.

The Pakistan private sector can be just as ruthless as the most hard-nosed government in placing pressure on the media in order to control content or message.

Maintaining freedom of the press is an on-going process, not a struggle that at some point is achieved and can be concluded. Toward that end, the media must engage in continual self-examination and self-regulation.

Regarding the Government of Pakistan

Merely because the present government was freely elected does not eliminate the danger of governmental efforts to manipulate or coerce the press. Indeed, some journalists report that they have been subjected to low-level attempts of this sort in recent months.

Government officials must understand that a free and feisty press is essential for effective and honest governance. Officials must resist the temptation to pressure or punish the media.

For all his shortcomings, Musharraf, until the final year of his rule, tolerated a free and energetic press that did not hesitate to castigate him in the vilest terms. The Pakistan media will hold democratically elected governments to the same high standards of press freedom it demanded of Musharraf.

The Pakistan media will develop a mature sense of responsibility only through its own efforts, not by having responsibility imposed by government fiat. A free society has no need for laws specifically regulating or controlling what the media may and may not report on.

Pakistan currently has on the books a number of laws that directly impinge upon freedom of the press, including an official secrets act, the army act, and the Maintenance of Public Order ordinance. Such laws are unnecessary and, moreover, are destructive of the freedoms that Pakistani citizens and the Pakistan media need in order to hold their government accountable.

Government officials must understand that the media has a responsibility to a free society to report on extremist groups without being accused of "glorifying" or "being used by" such groups.

Previous democratically elected governments did not operate under the glare of television and the non-stop news cycle. The government and the media have entered a new era. The test of this government's respect for freedom of the press has yet to come – but it will come. It must not fail that test.

Regarding the U.S. Media

American journalists (and U.S. officials) will never understand Pakistan so long as they restrict themselves to English-language sources, including English-language Pakistan media. To ignore the vernacular and regional press risks – indeed, guarantees -- missing much of the story in Pakistan.

The American media is too often uncritical in its acceptance of sources for stories related to Pakistan, particularly sources that place Pakistan in an unfavorable light. The U.S. media exhibits a strong bias toward reporting that attributes the worse possible motives to Pakistan. This is especially unfortunate given America's role as the global pacesetter in journalistic standards and dissemination of information.

Merely because verifying information from a war zone is difficult does not remove the obligation on journalists to undertake that verification. American journalists have not always exercised due caution in evaluating the quality of sources in the tribal areas and other theaters of conflict.

The American press has been slow to acknowledge the substantial contributions by Pakistan in the fight against extremism, or the costs those contributions have inflicted. Pakistanis – civilian and military -- have suffered far more casualties in the battle against extremism than American and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

* * * * *

Conference organizers and participants believe it would be useful to consider the possibility of a follow-up conference next year, perhaps held in Pakistan and involving a larger group of Pakistani journalists. Such a follow-up conference would allow Pakistani journalists to continue the discussions held at the Wilson Center, to bring these and related issues to the attention of a broader collection of Pakistani media professionals and government officials, and to note where progress is and is not being made.


Robert M. Hathaway
Asia Program Director

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