The Story Makers: foreign journalists in Pakistan

BY Themrise Khan| IN Media Practice | 19/04/2009
Foreign news bureaus in the country are multiplying, but is the foreign media portraying a skewed image of Pakistan or are they simply reporting the reality?


                          Reprinted from the Herald in Pakistan



It is an inescapable truth that where there is news, the cameras will follow. And Pakistan has definitely been in the news these past few years. Since 9/11, the country has increasingly been the focus of the world’s attention. By this year, it is now the primary focus of the international community’s attention. It’s a situation everyone wants to be a part of — including the international media. Not ones to be left behind, they are here to stay.


According to figures quoted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, there are currently about 80 foreign journalists in Pakistan, representing most of the major global television networks and newspapers. About half of these represent North American and European media, while the rest primarily belong to the Arab and South-East Asian media. Major newspapers such as the New York Times, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, all have full-time correspondents here, as do publications from South Asian countries, including India.


Historically, India has been the regional hub for the international media in South Asia and hosted the bureaus of the majority of the networks. "Parachute Journalists" as they are called, would then be flown into Pakistan at the onset of a developing story to be flown out again once it ended. However, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, when almost 2000 journalists descended onto Pakistan, this began to change. Several of the major global networks such as CNN and Fox News gradually established Pakistan/Afghanistan bureaus in Islamabad, managed by full-time foreign correspondents. The October 2005 earthquake, which brought in the second wave of foreign media, only affirmed this trend.


This influx, however, has not changed the way the country is covered. Unfortunately, the country’s image internationally continues to be associated with terrorism and militancy. Foreign journalists admit that this is the real pull of Pakistan for their viewers. "News here has been so intense that we have had difficulty doing anything else," admits BBC correspondent Barbara Plett. "I was in Palestine for four years during the second Intefada and that was the (BBC’s) top agenda. I feel like that here now," she says, describing the pressure to report on the political and security situation in the country. "Reinforcements keep coming in from London to cover big stories. At the time of Benazir Bhutto’s death, there were 12 BBC correspondents here, minus the crew", she recalls.


Journalists from other networks echo similar thoughts. "We have been keen in recent years to increase our coverage from Pakistan for two reasons — the demand from our audience as well as the large number of internationally significant news stories here", explains Chiade O’Shea, the Pakistan Producer for Sky News.


This relatively large influx of foreign news channels into the country comprises a varied range of players. While BBC and CNN top the list as the most influential in terms of size and outreach, other domestic American television channels such as Fox News, CBS, ABC and NBC have also established their permanent presence in Pakistan in the last four to five years. CNN for instance, covered Pakistan from its regional bureau in New Delhi, though 2002 onwards it started to maintain some sort of a presence in the country. In early 2008, it eventually opened its own bureau in Islamabad with about three full-time staff members and a number of local stringers and fixers. Being perhaps the most watched American news channel in Pakistan, "CNN can argue for an entire newsroom in Islamabad," remarks Reza Sayah, the channel’s Chief Correspondent for Pakistan/Afghanistan.


Similarly, ABC and CBS, both domestic American channels, have over the last few years, established bureaus in Islamabad. Although these are not 24/7 news channels, they nevertheless cover Pakistani news for television, internet and print. In 2008, Fox News established its permanent presence here, after several years of rotating crews. The Islamabad bureau, which also covers Afghanistan, is the network’s largest presence in the South Asian region. UK’s

Sky News also has a limited, but full-time presence in the country, since the opening of its South Asia Bureau in New Delhi in 2004. Many international networks have also set up bureaus or installed permanent correspondents in Kabul, many of whom depend on their counterparts in Islamabad for technical and logistical support.


The BBC is the exception. Having covered Pakistan since the mid 1960s (the organization established a bureau presence here in the 1970s), it is perhaps the most recognised and respected foreign news service in the country. "BBC probably has the best relationship of any international electronic network with local journalists through our Urdu service," claims Barbara Plett, who arrived here during the 2005 earthquake.


Several news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press also have their bureaus in Islamabad. Both Reuters and Associated Press have had an established presence in Pakistan for well over three decades. Both have also evolved from just print to electronic and online news mediums and have some of the biggest news bureaus in the region. "Channels such as BBC and CNN are not set up to collect and disseminate news the way we do. We have to be the first to get the news out," claims Christopher Brummitt, Bureau Chief for AP in Islamabad. "Before 9/11, there were only one or two foreign AP correspondents in the region. Now there are three in Afghanistan and four here in Pakistan", he says. But despite having greater resources and mandates to cover all forms of news, in Pakistan’s case, the focus for the international media remains the same – the war on terror.


This is something the foreign journalists are aware of. Simon Cameron-Moore, Bureau Chief for Reuters News in Pakistan, says he would like to write about other, more positive sides of Pakistan, but the news priorities remain security and political risk while time and manpower is limited. "The space to cover other sides of Pakistan is narrow," he explains. "It is the nature of news in this country. There is an endless stream of events that is exhausting and fascinating."


Granted that Pakistan is at the centre of a global tussle but the continuous surge of disturbing news is wont to have some impact on its viewers internationally. "There is an understandable anxiety that Pakistan is viewed very negatively abroad, but I think most people here would be pleasantly surprised to learn that British people are more positive, open-minded and interested in the real Pakistan than they might think" says O’Shea. "We have covered issues such as health, women, justice and the arts here, but during more turbulent times it is our responsibility to report on terrorism first and foremost simply because it affects so many people in Pakistan and around the globe."


But senior Pakistani journalists feel that the country’s representation in the foreign media cannot be viewed in positive or negative terms. "I don’t think any one of us would be interested in a story on Iraq which did not have anything to do with the security situation," explains Zaffar Abbas, Resident Editor of Dawn, whose career also includes 16 years with the BBC. "The domestic coverage is more or less the same. The story remains the same, but the thrust will be different," he goes on to comment. "It is not fair to blame the western media for bias. Who is stopping us from going to Afghanistan and covering stories there?"


Senior journalist Zahid Hussain agrees. "It is not correct that their depiction of Pakistan is negative. Foreign channels cover news as it happens," he says. "Over the last two or three years everything including domestic politics has become important for them. We have become even more important than Afghanistan."


But adding to the growing importance of Pakistan as a news-worthy nation, Cameron-Moore notes that there is a struggle here between the reactionaries and the liberals and some news that might seem positive from a Pakistani liberal or Western perspective, very often provokes an angry reaction from conservatives. As for concerns about how the Western media depicts the levels of insecurity in the country and the militancy and human rights issues, Cameron-Moore feels that Pakistani people shouldn’t be sidetracked by the fact that outsiders are drawing attention to issues because the former are also worried about these things. "The issue is not how the Western media portrays it," he says. "It is how it is."


Nonetheless, a number of them cite instances in which they have reported on unusual topics. "It is eventually up to the correspondent to look for stories and sell them to a newsroom that may not know about them," maintains Sayah of CNN. "We have done several stories here—one was about debunking a piece by an American filmmaker about two American boys attending a madrasah in Karachi. Our story on this ran for eight and a half minutes in a half hour news slot," he elaborates. "We have told the story of American missile strikes from the point of view of one of the local victims, and we have also run a story on the annual festival of the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad."


Up until a few weeks ago, CNN did not have a "documentary show" its correspondents could contribute to. But recently, CNNs "Untold Story" was launched which gives bureaus the opportunity to do 30 minute documentaries. "Backstory" a behind-the-scenes look at reporting, also gives bureaus the opportunity for more in-depth pieces. Over the last year, the Islamabad bureau has already contributed to the latter and has ideas in planning for the former.


Others too have made similar efforts. "It’s not hard to stay away from the war on terror", claims Nicholas Schifrin, the foreign correspondent for ABC. "In the last few weeks, I have covered stories on acid victims, the economy and art festivals here." Similarly, CBS has run at least one feature-length story on Pakistan for its prestigious "60 Minutes" series over the last year or two. Many foreign journalists point to the October 2005 earthquake as the most memorable story they have covered. "We served a purpose by keeping interest abroad in the story for a longer time," says Cameron-Moore.


Limited time-slots and human resources aside, access, say the foreign journalists, also plays a large part in deciding what they cover. "In general, you get a lot of access as a foreigner here" explains Schifrin. "We often can get an interview with a senior government official on short notice", he says. But such unlimited access is only possible in the three major cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. "We are less likely to send foreign crews into Peshawar because security concerns tend to limit what we can cover and where we can go," says Maria Usman, the local producer for CBS. "Therefore we usually rely on local crews who can operate more freely." The situation is the same for the tribal areas, where foreign correspondents have to rely on local stringers to provide them information.


The Middle Eastern media, however, says it is a totally different story. "The Western media does not capture Pakistani culture and society," says Dr. Ahmad Zaidan, Bureau Chief of Al-Jazeera in Islamabad. Al-Jazeera started to cover Pakistan in 1996 but it now has one of the largest foreign media outfits here, employing a staff of almost 30 people, including four Arab correspondents and local stringers in Karachi, Quetta and AJK. Saying that his channel covers Pakistan on an almost daily basis, Dr. Zaidan feels that "we (in Arab countries) can reflect the Pakistani mindset better than anyone else".


Undoubtedly, Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera English have both broadcast several documentaries on Pakistan, including the popular "Dining with Terrorists" series and a documentary on the Bhutto family aired on the first anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death. Another advantage for Pakistan is that Arab channels like Al-Jazeera, are not allowed to operate in India. Thus the events that they cover in the region, are almost exclusively shown from a Pakistani point of view.


However, the fact is that regardless of their presence, coverage and viewpoint, many Arab channels such as Al-Arabia, BBC Arabic and Iranian channels such as Al-Alam, Press TV and Iran Press are not broadcast in Pakistan.


This to a certain extent is also true of the western media, which is aired in Pakistan, but has only limited viewership here. According to Gallup Pakistan, the average viewership of English language foreign news channels in Pakistan, is almost negligible in the national statistics at even less than 5 per cent. So the actual recipients of stories filed by foreign correspondents are quite obviously, their home audiences. "The BBC has several domestic television outlets, all of which are mostly interested in the war on terror. But sometimes other stories also catch on. For example, Britain has a population of almost 800,000 Pakistanis, many of whom have roots in Kashmir. So when the 2005 earthquake happened, the BBC domestic channels treated it almost as a local story," explains Plett. "We have a lot of viewers of South Asian origin in Britain, so we try to bear in mind their interest in Pakistan and their knowledge of the region as we report here," adds O’Shea.


Despite the fact that a much smaller demographic is able to understand the English language, channels such as BBC, CNN, Fox News and Al-Jazeera are household names among certain sections of the Pakistani television audiences. Nonetheless, they are not seen as objective. An informal survey of urban, educated professionals reveals that the majority of those surveyed preferred to watch Pakistani news channels as opposed to foreign news channels. Most of the respondents felt that foreign channels were not accurate in their reporting on Pakistan. They felt that foreign news channels were biased against the country and presented blinkered positions. Respondents also wanted to see more stories on the positive side of Pakistan because, "the only culture in Pakistan is not what the Taliban are doing!" claimed one respondent. Indeed, this lack of in-depth analysis of issues is one of the reasons Pakistani viewers are critical of the foreign media.


These are all debates that are not going to be resolved soon. And neither will the international focus on Pakistan, despite the fact that the vast international media network is eventually bound to shrink, due to the economic recession. If the political and economic uncertainty of the country continues to move in the direction it is, then both the focus of news on Pakistan and the demand for the sort of news from Pakistan, will remain the same. While the onus of presenting objective and all-encompassing news remains on the shoulders of the correspondents’ representing their networks, it cannot be denied that what shakes a nation, is what makes headlines.






Official Ignorance


Though the journalists themselves are not willing to comment too much on this, the government feels it is ignored by the foreign media.


The key department responsible for the facilitation of foreign journalists and providing press briefings and access to government sources is the Department of External Publicity housed in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. "We do not get much attention from the foreign media representatives here," says a source in the Information Ministry. "It is not that they are biased, it is just that they are not interested in anything other than a few favourite themes. There is also reluctance to talk to us. They would rather quote an independent analyst". Ideally all foreign journalists should go through the External Publicity Wing to get interviews with senior government officials. "But this does not happen very often, and if at all, they contact sources which they have cultivated on their own," it adds.


However, this is a view that Pakistanis outside the government do not share. "It is unfortunately the failure of our own government. Positive stories don’t come automatically. You have to sell your story to them", insists Zaffar Abbas. But Ministry sources feel otherwise. In addition to special briefings arranged by the External Publicity Wing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides weekly briefings to foreign journalists. But many Ministries have limited resources and cannot provide regular briefings. "Mostly they come to us when they want their visas renewed", quotes an Information Ministry source.


The Western media, on the other hand, is tight lipped on the issue of government cooperation. While some feel that governments both past and present are media-friendly, others are quite critical of how the state has reacted to the foreign press.


There have been cases of foreign journalists being sent home by the authorities when the going gets too close. In early 2008, an American journalist was deported from the country for "unspecified reasons," while reports of others either being denied a visa or being threatened have been surfacing now and again. Some more violent incidents have also been reported, for instance of a female New York Times reporter being beaten up in 2006.


Although incidents such as these are part of the territory for international journalists, they often become news themselves, especially when the competition is tough. Like in any similar situation, there is one piece of breaking news and several networks, local and foreign, scrambling to get to it first.

T. K.












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