Where Journalism Undermines Democracy
May 1, 2014
Event: Reporting in Pakistan
Ms. Kati Marton, Author and Journalist, New America Foundation
Mr. Raza Rumi, Analyst, Express News
Mr. Joel Simon, Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists
For decades now, Pakistan has been an unstable state, teeming with religious militants, poorly educated youths, overpowered military officials, and an erratic and conspiratorial political class. However, since the U.S. began establishing a democracy in Afghanistan and embraced the Af-Pak outlook, efforts to stabilize, demilitarize, and fully democratize Pakistan have become a top U.S. priority. Among the top concerns is Pakistan’s paradoxical media statistics; although the country boasts a large independent media sector – with over 600 different newspapers in circulation – the country is also renowned for the high number of assassination attempts that are carried out against journalists. The recent attack on Hamid Mir, a popular political commentator, and the subsequent inter-media squabbling that has followed the attack, only further underscores the problems facing the country. Not only do these attempts to silence the press contribute to Pakistan’s negative image around the world, but they also help fuel a cycle of violence and intolerance within Pakistani society.
That said, there is hope for the future, as some of Pakistan’s top leaders have voiced their support for a less biased and more tolerant news sector. Having recently visited Pakistan, and met with PM Nawaz Sharif, both Ms. Marton and Mr. Simon are optimistic that journalists will soon enjoy better treatment and protection. According to them, PM Sharif was very aware and open to the problems currently plaguing the country’s journalists; he did not dispute the number of journalists assassinated, and was apparently frank when discussing Pakistan’s reputation around the world. In order to remedy this problem he has begun assembling a new council of government, media, and judicial personnel, charged specifically with covering and investigating attacks and threats to media outlets and journalists. Further, should negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban ever take place, PM Sharif has agreed to make “journalist rights” an official part of the agenda.
However, again, in such a complex country it is hard to tell whether positive attitudes and rhetoric will actually translate to results. Mr. Rumi pointed out that a large part of PM Sharif’s supporters are based in Punjab province, which is known for its extremist elements. Like with other cases around Pakistan, although PM Sharif may be earnest in his desire for nonsectarian and amicable news reporting, he may lack the political will to denounce and condemn the partisan reporting that is prominent among his own base. Further, even if the PM is sincere in his desires, it will be hard to actually prosecute aggressors given the shadowy ties that exist between militant groups and officials within the military, and also the ISI’s own suspected involvement in media related attacks – as has been suggested in the case of Hamid Mir.
It was the general consensus amongst the speakers, that the best hope for Pakistan’s journalists was that they protect one another, relentlessly investigating and covering assassination attempts and intimidation, while also raising public awareness. This involves doing the exact opposite of what has transpired following the attack on Hamid Mir, in which rival media stations have been slurring GEO TV, questioning the authenticity of the attack, and accusing both GEO TV and Mr. Mir of being agents of India, the West, and other conspiratorial claims, all in what Mr. Rumi describes as a battle for higher ratings. In such a situation as this, there is not much that the international community can do to alleviate tensions. For freedom of speech and the press to truly be honored in Pakistan, it will require introspection, self-condemnation, and a degree of political and civil leadership that has not yet been seen within the country. Whether that is even possible, the world will have to wait and see.