By Aryn Baker Thursday, May. 21, 2009
Illustration for TIME by Edel Rodriguez
A few weeks ago a group of Pakistani journalists and foreign correspondents based in Pakistan gathered to meet visiting representatives of the Washington-based think tank Center for American Progress. Its members were "on a listening tour," they said, and wanted to hear the journalists’ perspectives on the U.S. and Pakistan. The response was caustic. Correspondents and editors belonging to Pakistan’s top local print and TV outlets let loose with accusations and complaints, particularly about American concerns that Pakistan was failing as a state.
"There is no Taliban threat," said one Pakistani journalist. "Do you really think a bunch of hillbillies from the tribal areas can take on our military?" sneered another. "It’s all propaganda," said a third, designed "to weaken us, so the U.S. can fulfill its agenda to break Pakistan into pieces."
In the course of my reporting on Pakistan, I hear conspiracy theories all the time: that the Pakistani Taliban fighting in Swat are funded by Indian intelligence; that the Americans are assisting the Taliban in Afghanistan to justify and secure a Central Asian foothold against China; and the old chestnut that Israel’s Mossad and the CIA were behind the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. While no press in any country is without flaw or bias, I count on fellow journalists everywhere to be more enlightened and sensible than average folk. But in Pakistan’s case, sections of the media are reinforcing the nation’s paranoia at a critical time when it faces a threat to its very existence.
Rumor reported as fact is an epidemic in Pakistan. Very recently the English-language daily the News ran the front-page headline PLANS READY TO TAKE OUT PAK NUCLEAR ARSENAL. The unbylined story, about a secret U.S. commando force tasked with infiltrating Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, was based on a Fox News online report describing a worst-case-scenario contingency plan should Pakistan be taken over by extremists.
There were no named sources in the News story, and much of the reporting depended on e-mailed comments to the website. Nevertheless, it fueled hysterical discussions on TV chat shows and cemented a national conviction that the Americans want to eliminate Pakistan’s "Islamic bomb." Another furor erupted over a three-year-old American academic study that posited a greater Middle East divided along ethnic lines — proof, railed the Pakistani press, that the Americans were pursuing a policy of balkanization in the country. On May 18, the Nation published a story that said: "Former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on the orders of the special death squad formed by former US vice-president Dick Cheney … The squad was headed by General Stanley McChrystal, the newly-appointed commander of US army in Afghanistan."
The story was sourced to an interview by an unnamed Arab TV channel with American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Hersh immediately denounced the report as "complete madness" to another Pakistani paper, the Daily Times, saying, "Vice President Cheney does not have a death squad … I have never suggested that [McChrystal] was involved in political assassinations or death squads." Yet at a press briefing the same day, Pakistan’s Information Minister Qamar Zaman didn’t rule out the possibility.
In 2002, the then President, General Pervez Musharraf, permitted private TV stations to broadcast news instead of just the state-owned Pakistan Television Corp. At the time, Musharraf’s deregulation was hailed as a significant step for the nascent free-press movement; indeed, today there are more than 30 nongovernment TV stations in the country. As TV stations proliferated, I argued that increased competition would force the emergence of a strong, ethical and responsible media corps. But there simply aren’t enough well-trained and -informed local journalists to supply the dramatically greater number of media outlets.
I also assumed that consumers would gravitate toward truth. Instead the bulk of readers and viewers seem comfortable with sensationalism and xenophobia — as reflected by an April poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan revealing that 76% of Pakistanis "believe Pakistani media [are] unbiased to a great or somewhat extent." In other words, Pakistanis like their media the way they are.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to the region, is working on a media plan for Pakistan. It aims to develop the government’s ability to disseminate information via new technologies such as cell phones. The idea is not to promote propaganda but to facilitate public-service messages, like emergency information or registration for refugees.
The plan also allows for training government officials to become more open press officers, and to fund independent radio stations to counter those run by extremists. All this is good, but it’s not enough. Pakistan’s press needs to take a hard look at itself and its level of professionalism. Only then will it live up to its potential, and only then will Pakistan get the media it deserves.