After More Balanced Coverage, What Next?
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
by Mosharraf Zaidi
As the world’s attention turns increasingly to Pakistan and its role in tackling the threat of globalised terrorism, the country’s perception abroad is evolving. More than seven years after 9/11, a more nuanced approach to understanding the country is beginning to emerge among western analysts and journalists who cover Pakistan.
The New York Times is perhaps the best in a long line of examples that indicate that 61 years of misapprehensions and ignorance about Pakistan in America may be eroding. On Sunday, Jane Perlez, who is being touted by many (most recently by Steve Coll, in a blog entry for The New Yorker magazine) as a Pulitzer candidate for her coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrote an article titled, “Ringed by foes, Pakistanis fear the US, too.” In it she explores the very real apprehensions and fears Pakistanis feel about the world’s intentions for their country. She mentions the laundry list of Pakistani conspiracy theories, from American plans to redraw Pakistan’s map (based on the popular email that details an American neoconservative group’s fantasy for what the region should look like), to the notion that Osama bin Laden is a fabrication, created to enable US forces’ presence in the region. These are not new notions. Many journalists have reported such conspiracy theories from around the Muslim world since 2001. But what is different about Perlez’s story, and increasingly several others, is that they are told without the mocking or rubbishing of the sentiments that drive Pakistani fear. Instead of sticking to the habits of older, lazier and less nuanced reporting form the country, many western journalists are increasingly able to identify the roots of why Pakistanis so often seem to loathe how their country is treated by the press and governments in the Western world.
Perlez is not alone at The New York Times. Nicholas Kristof, the op-ed columnist, has had a long and abiding interest in Pakistan, from specific cases, like advocating justice for Mukhtaran Mai, to the general fascination with Pakistan’s relationship with democracy. Kristof’s column on Sunday (the same day as Perlez’s article appeared), titled “The Pakistan Test,” is far from perfect (recommending as it does, a slowing down of aid to Pakistan, instead of a speeding up). But it does contain a scathing rebuke of the decision to appoint Messrs Zehri and Bijarani as ministers in the current cabinet. For years now many Pakistanis have been left dumbfounded by western journalists and the fascination they’ve had for feudal politicians whose values do not reflect even a tiny sliver of the principals that define western civilisation. One article will not repair decades of western journalists’ being easily charmed by feudal swank and rustic bling, but it portends a deeper current of change.
Robert Novak’s generation of commentators were tone deaf, and Internet-less, which would explain their irrational exuberance for feudals. Kristof represents a fundamentally different generation of columnists, a more plugged-in generation that can easily tap beyond the small network of Pakistanis that have always dominated access to such journalists. With thousands of blogs, a new entrepreneurial class emerging out of the opportunities afforded by technology and the slow but steady globalisation of Pakistani activism, there is no excuse for Americans not to know about the kinds of characters that inhabit Pakistan’s cabinet. Kristof is wrong when he advocates a slowing down of aid to Pakistan, but he’s spot on when he exposes a major cabinet misstep that has created a surge of discontent in Pakistani cities and across Pakistani cyberspace, to which the PPP government has been predictably deaf. With The New York Times now joining the chorus, it might start to listen. Perhaps one day, the PPP’s slim cadre of enlightened moderates may even introspect as to why they allow their party to even be associated with men who hate little girls, to say nothing of elevating such men to the level of ministers representing the whole nation.
Right before the February election, in perhaps one of the seminal nods to Pakistan’s growing middle class, The Wall Street Journal, published a fascinating and prescient account of the old Pakistani politics. This is a newspaper, we should remember, lost one of its best reporters, Danny Pearl, to the insane bloodlust of terrorists. Following in Pearl’s brave footsteps, Yaroslav Trofimov wrote an article titled, “Dynasties, not democracies, may decide Pakistan’s vote,” No western journalist had yet painted such an accurate picture of the contempt that feudal politicians have for Pakistan’s emergent urban middle class. (Although it was ironic that this contempt was crystallised in Syeda Abida Hussain’s wrathful invective against Gen Musharraf–hardly a posterchild for the middle class!)
Even in the more rarefied air of the lengthier and serious think-tank pieces, Pakistan is being understood in a much more sophisticated way than in years past. Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin’s widely read piece, “From Great Game to Grand Bargain” in the most recent edition of the Council on Foreign Relations’ bimonthly journal Foreign Affairs is a great example. In a journal that is much more prone to hit-pieces on Pakistan by Cold War analysts like Sumit Ganguly, Rashid and Rubin, despite some flaws, deliver a powerful and compelling set of diagnoses and prescriptions for the region’s deep-rooted troubles.
Not surprisingly, the common thread across the range of what we might call the post-Musharraf era of Pakistan-analysis is a genuine recognition of Pakistan’s territorial and existential concerns. These don’t legitimise any global vigilantism, or cross-border adventurism, as Pakistani hawks would like them to. They do however represent a long-sought-after turning of the page on the false idea that Pakistan as a state, and Pakistanis as a people, have unsubstantiated existential fears.
Perlez points out the legitimacy of grievances over Kashmir, where even indigenous, non-violent protests, such as those that took place this summer, can’t seem to get any real play in Washington DC, or coverage on Fox or MSNBC. Kristof gets the most important of his recommendations right, when he states clearly that “we should push much harder for a peace deal in Kashmir — including far more pressure on India.” Rashid and Rubin place a more mature India, right at the very heart of a more stable Pakistan.
All of this matters greatly for younger Pakistanis and their understanding of the country they’ve inherited from Messrs Ayub, Zia and Musharraf. It is not really going to be (or at least it should not be) journalists and analysts that determine the course of domestic or foreign policy in Pakistan. Nor will articles and essays persuade India to behave more like the civilisational superpower that it is, rather than the petty regional bully that it pretends to be. Yet the rules of the game are changing as we speak. For six decades, Pakistani foreign and domestic policy has been shaped by fear and insecurity. Unlike the misguided (and ridiculous) plans to “promote Pakistan’s soft image” (sic), a genuinely more balanced coverage of the country by the western press may help Pakistanis finally begin to dump some of the country’s backbreaking historical and emotional baggage.