This past Tuesday the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars invited seven of Pakistan’s leading Journalists and News Anchors to speak on the progression of the information flow in Pakistan. Before the discussion even began, the audience already had a brief understanding of the limitations facing Pakistani journalists, as two of the seven journalists where not able to obtain visas in time for the week-long summit.
This first journalist to speak was Zaffar Abbas, a resident editor in Islamabad for the Dawn newspaper. Zaffar focused on the strong pull of Pakistani news, and that journalists from surrounding countries always migrate to Pakistan because “that’s where the news is”. Zaffar mentions the dangers of journalism in Pakistan, but attributes that as one of the effects or having the freedom to publish controversial news articles, a freedom that Pakistani journalists have fought for, for years. The newly found press freedom has changed much of the political profile in Pakistan, which is why there are still debates, and politicians against many news agencies.
The second speaker, Massoud Ansari, is a political correspondent with the Herald. Having previously worked out of England, Massoud focused on the rush behind investigative journalism, and what drives many Pakistani journalists to risk their lives, as well as their families, in order to produce the controversial ground breaking news. Massoud stressed that in addition to the competitiveness between news agencies and constant pressure, there is a temptation to become famous, and to have the power to distribute the information to the mass public. For him, the biggest part of the job is assessing the consequences for ones-self and whether the story is worth your life. Massoud had once interviewed a man regarding his research on suicide bombing, and the following day the interviewee was shot dead, leaving him with the thought: at what point do you risk it?
Mazhar Abbas, the third speaker, deputy news director of Ary One World Television and 2007 recipient of International Press Freedom Award, elaborated on Zaffar’s mention of previous oppression of Freedom of Press, and told the audience his personal story revolving around the Press revolution. In his eyes, the Pakistani journalists are some of the most courageous, as many have been jailed and flogged, and had families killed in their efforts to liberate the press. Mazhar is part of a union that protested the day that the government banned Electronic Media. The Intelligence Office personally warned Mazhar that his life was in danger due to his publications and affiliations with the group. However, the personal charges against him were later dropped. Nevertheless, the Union protested (irregardless of the government’s zero tolerance), and the Pakistani court currently has a case against 200 journalists in the Union, Mazhar included. Mazhar concluded his personal account with the sobering fact that 45 journalists have been killed within the last 8 years, some just for the title of their articles, and others are still missing.
Ejaz Haider, the fourth speaker, and op-ed editor for the Daily Times and political talk show host for Dawn news, discussed his experience as a more main stream, non-radical journalist. While he opened his discussion by offering much praise for Mazhar Abbas’ work, and accrediting him for much of the freedom of Pakistani press, he himself chose the path of government cooperation simply because he was not willing to risk his life or be jailed. Ejaz focused on the difficulties of getting the true political story, or even facts, when working along side of the government. In his experience, there are only three ways to get the facts about the government/military activities. One is to be embedded with the military, where they can select what information to tell you, and edit what they want you to publish. The second is to go under the protection of the Taliban, where you get the insurgent opinion, however due to the sub divisions and cleavages within the Taliban your protection only goes so far as the guarantor’s control; the third being to be free-lance and risk being killed by the military and the Taliban as neither is protecting you. In any case, your news is going to been slanted, which is why it is such a novelty to get the facts in Pakistan.
The fifth and final speaker, Asma Shirazi, is the host of ARY One World’s “Second Opinion” talk show, and offers a unique perspective as Pakistan’s first female war correspondent and leading female journalist. While she did focus on the challenges provided by the military’s desire for secrecy, she also stressed the issues she faced as a woman, including various levels of harassment from colleagues, and the obstacles she occasionally faced while traveling. In her assessment of the current state of journalism in Pakistan, Asma stressed that with the greater freedom comes greater responsibility. That the journalists are at a point where they need to take full responsibility regarding how to report and convince people about certain political news, rather than just repeating a story.
All five journalists echoed Asma’s point, emphasizing that now that the journalists have achieved the next step in freedom, it will be interesting to see where they go with it, and how the next administration supports or denounces their field.
Sponsor: Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars
Date: September 16, 2008
Representative: Daria Willis