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PAKISTAN THROUGH FOREIGN LENS

The shifting landscape has made Pakistan a hot favourite for the international media and the number of foreign correspondents here has doubled in a decade only.

According to the Press Information Department, the number of residing journalists has risen from 130 in 2001 to 250 in 2012 while the visiting journalists are also nearly 400. In addition, a number of foreign media outlets hire local reporters to report for them.

Stories related to Pakistan also began to occupy a significant space in most international publications. For example, a search on The Guardian’s website for stories from/about Pakistan shows an increase from 1,191 stories in 2000 to 2,369 stories in 2012.

A closer look at these stories reveals that most of them appeared in the ‘World News’ section, featuring news events like terrorist attacks, political developments and international relations while the smallest number of stories appeared in the ‘Law’ section of various international newspapers. The ‘Travel’, ‘Lifestyle’ and other sections featuring soft-stories also contained fewer stories.

While the coverage of sensitive issues by the foreign media has been applauded for being thorough, credible and accurate, the range of stories has often been criticised for being too narrow and showing a skewed picture.

‘The foreign media writes about is sues that people want to read. Some of us might not like what they write, but what they write about the country is fairly realistic and accurate,’ says journalist Najam Sethi.

 Pakistan went through a complete image makeover following the 9/11 attacks. It transformed from a relatively unknown country, with its biggest claim to fame being India’s neighbour, to an important player in the global community. The post 9/11 Pakistan is of immense importance’ it’s a country that possesses nukes and is an ally in a war, fighting against extremists that are gaining momentum in its own backyard.
 Cyril Almeida, Assistant Editor Dawn feels that there is not much difference between stories from Pakistan that make headlines in the local media versus those in the international media. However, in the case of international publications, not only are stories met with constraints of space and time, but are also competing with stories from across the world.

‘We should be more concerned about the product [Pakistan], rather than its image. We should fix the product rather than obsess about its image,’ he said.
Almeida stated that a country like India gets comparatively much more coverage by virtue of its size, economic strength and tourist attractions, whereas there aren’t many feel-good stories to write about in Pakistan these days.

However, for foreign reporters, looking for a ‘bigger and broader picture of the country’, and the tedious process of reporting required by such a ‘big picture’, can be particularly challenging due to language barriers, security concerns and complex political and social realities of the country.

While being on the ground is important for journalists, most of them rely on stringers, fixers and interpreters for access to stories in areas like FATA. Additionally, stringers can also play an important role in gaining access to sources and help acquire a more accurate understanding of the country’s customs, language and history.

According to Richard Leiby, bureau chief for The Washington Post, the qualities intrinsic to a good stringer are being good-natured, flexible and well-connected.

Language Barriers

Lack of knowledge of Urdu and other local languages can often create difficulties in communicating with sources. Stringers and translators can be particularly helpful in such situations. According to Inskeep, ‘While some people seemed suspicious and did not say all they knew, others were delighted to share their stories. No matter where you are in the world, if you are willing to listen, you hear the most amazing things’.

Press Trust of India correspondent Rezaul Hassan recalls how people initially assumed his Urdu/Hindi skills to be perfect, since he belonged to India. This was far from the truth back then. But now, he claims that he can speak these languages as well as the locals.

He describes his term in Pakistan as one of the most ‘fertile periods’ of his professional life but the journey has not been equally satisfying in personal terms. Restrictions on travel frustrate him the most.

Being one of the only two Indian journalists working in Pakistan currently, he has often encountered great trouble while getting visa extensions.

‘There are times when I have been without a visa for up to six months,’ he said, adding that it was unfortunate that such hindrances existed on both sides of the border.

‘We try and look for stories that are different from ‘the story’ that everyone else is writing about,’ says Michele Leiby, a correspondent for The Washington Post.
But that is not always easy given the restrictions on foreign correspondents when it comes to travelling freely outside Islamabad and Punjab. Huge amount of paperwork is required for such travels, which consumes a lot of time, often at the cost of dropping a story.

 Spend two weeks in Pakistan: you are confused. Spend one year in Pakistan: you are more confused.’ Leiby, Pakistan Correspondent, The Washington Post
 While talking to the average Pakistani, or getting really close to a story, might be challenging for foreign reporters due to security reasons and language barriers, access to important government, military and bureaucratic officials is often easier.

‘Pakistani political leaders and officials are sensitive, I think, about the image their country presents to the world, so they tend not to totally ignore calls,’ says Leiby.

Reporting for a foreign publication also allows for a certain level of freedom and fearlessness in stories ‘a rare luxury for local reporters. While local journalists might have better access, the deteriorating security situation for journalists in the country prevents them from actually covering those stories, elaborates Rob Crilly, the Pakistan correspondent for The Telegraph. He cites stories on Balochistan, blasphemy, religion and the workings of ISI as some of the dark corners upon which foreign reporters can tread relatively freely.

‘We work here as if we were working in the United States. We are not under risk of being abducted, jailed or censored. The worst that can happen to us for doing these stories is that we will get kicked out,’ says Leiby.

Covering Pakistan: the Experience

‘Spend two weeks in Pakistan: you are confused. Spend one year in Pakistan: you are more confused.’ Leiby, Pakistan Correspondent, The Washington Post

‘Spend two weeks in Pakistan: you are confused. Spend one year in Pakistan: you are more confused,’ says Leiby, who has been in the country for the past one year along with his wife.

He added that the cultural adjustments would ‘blow your mind away’, if one did not have any previous experience of working in the Muslim world. For Leiby however, the adjustment was not so drastic due to his previous assignments in Gaza, Iraq and Egypt.

There were exceptions like the time he stepped out to the nearby petrol station to get a few quotes for a story where someone inquired what branch of the Central Intelligence Agency he belonged to. When he responded, ‘No sir, I work for the Washington Post,’ the man retorted: ‘Isn’t that the same thing?’ Leiby recalls with a laugh. ‘Such incidents, however, are an exception rather than the norm’, he added.

But the suspicion towards British reporters is lesser, which makes the job relatively easier for them, as compared to an American reporter or one from any other European country, says Crilly. ‘You can say a lot of bad things about the British Empire but one of the things it has done is to give us a common language, a mutual love for cricket and a cup of tea. That has opened doors for me in many ways,’ he said.

For an Indian journalist, covering Pakistan is ‘a dream job’, says Hassan who has been doing so for the past five years. For him the choice of working here was extremely straightforward as the country figures prominently in Indian politics and diplomacy and people back home love reading about it. However, there was much warning from fellow countrymen for these journalists before they came to Pakistan about the unstable security conditions and people from agencies following him around.

A Hospitable People

The warmth and generosity of the Pakistani people struck a chord with all foreign correspondents. ‘Wherever you go, there is a cup of tea, often accompanied by an invitation to lunch. The hospitality still overwhelms me,’ says Crilly.

Michele Leiby also feels that she has learnt the true meaning of warmth and hospitality through the people in Pakistan. She fondly recalls a family in the refugee camps in Jalozai, who opened their hearts and homes to them despite having nothing aside from their tent, a cot and a few pigeons.

Despite the warnings and potential bumps and dead ends, the ride for a foreign journalist reporting in Pakistan is an exhilarating one. ‘You come to Pakistan; it feels like you are driving at 80 miles/hr every day. When you go back home, you go back to driving at 20 miles/hr. It is such an incredible rush being here’, says Hassan.

Strange Tales from Pakistan

The article “Pakistan Loving Fatburger as Fast Food Boom Ignores Drones” that was published in January 2013 by Bloomberg, traces the growth of American franchises and increase in consumer spending in Pakistan over the past few years. However, the headline and the parallels drawn between enjoying food at American chains and terrorism drew a large amount of criticism, especially over social media

‘Bin Laden City Abbottabad to build amusement park’ Published in AFP on February 2013, the story is about the government plans to build an amusement park in the city of Abbottabad. However, the reference to Abbottabad as ‘Bin Laden City’ has been criticised for limiting the city’s history and identity to the final refuge of a terrorist.

‘In Pakistan, underground parties push the boundaries’ Published in August 2012 by Reuters, this report juxtaposes the culture of partying, drinking and dancing by young people against a backdrop of rising extremism and Talibanization in Pakistan. It received a lot of criticism for misquoting sources and drawing parallels between two exaggerated extremes in the country.

Stories Covered Exceptionally Well by Foreign Media

1. Osama bin Laden’s death: How it happened:  The level of detail, precision and openness in the reporting on the bin-Laden operation by the foreign publications remains unmatched by local newspapers. The shortcomings of the ISI and the Pakistani army have also been addressed openly, a subject that remains sensitive for local papers.

2.’Karachi: Pakistan’s bleeding heart: A detailed story on the violence in Karachi, incorporating perspectives from the various stakeholders and mapping out the various sectarian and political clashes in the city.

3. ‘Pakistan’s secret dirty war: The piece sheds light on the conflict in Balochistan, the issues of missing persons and the insurgency in the area. The reporting in the story was extremely detailed and highlighted an important issue in the country, mainly ignored by mainstream media at the time.

4. Cheating spouses keep Pakistani private detectives busy: An unusual and different story detailing the woes of women in Pakistan, who hire detectives to keep track of their spouse’s whereabouts and activities. The story breaks free of the usual pattern of terrorism and bombs and chronicles, the dilemmas of an average Pakistani.

5. ‘In Pakistan’s Taliban territory, education is a casualty of conflict: A profile of a school in Waziristan which continues to function despite all odds, the story offers a unique perspective into the area, unlike the usual tales of bombs and destruction that emanate from the region.

Courtesy Express Tribune

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