Iftikhar Ahmad’s column in today’s Daily Times really got me thinking about the media and how it shapes the way Pakistan is perceived in the rest of the world. With the nuclear security summit in Washington, DC coming to a close, it is also a good time to examine this issue.
Mr. Ahmad observes correctly that much of what we know is actually adopted from what we see/hear/read in the media.
Most of our taken-for-granted knowledge, opinions and attitudes are based not on personal experience, but on evidence and knowledge provided by newspapers and television. Indeed if the media did not report an event, the only people likely to know about it would be those who were actually involved.
But this goes for people in other countries as well. Certainly, the American public is just as influenced by their own media as we are by ours. And just as we can thank The Nation for a lot of crazy conspiracy theories and fear marketing, also the Americans have Fox News that does the same.
On nuclear issues, this has been a problem for some time. Ever since Seymour Hersh wrote his infamous article about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the reaction has been one of suspicion of American intentions. Right-wing media like The Nation published (and continue to do so) a string of editorials calling for an end to any friendship with the Americans and taking a threatening stance of isolationism.
The Nation‘s approach is counterproductive. Rather, we would be wise to take the advice of Iftikhar Amhad:
An adequate response to the moral panic created by the foreign media, for example, about Pakistan’s nuclear assets has to come from our own media to help restore people’s self-confidence and their trust in the ability of the nation to protect its strategic assets and sovereignty. Our own media has to contribute to the important task of public relationing to build a positive image, to protect and promote Pakistan’s national interest and reject the world’s nuclear fears. Statements from high civil and military officials of Pakistan have, from time to time, rejected the world’s nuclear fears. The government agencies have dismissed such concerns as unrealistic and based on lack of understanding of Pakistan’s command and control mechanism.
How many Americans have actually been to Pakistan? Probably not very many. So where do they get their information? From the media. With the increased access to the Internet, people from across the world can easily search on Google for Pakistan and Nuclear and find all sorts of wild misinformation being peddled right here at home. And the Americans don’t need to know any Urdu – we present them with these crazy conspiracy theories and hypernationalist slogans in English.
What do you expect some American reporter at his desk in New York City to think when he logs onto the Internet and reads some columns by Shireen Mazari? Obviously he will think that she is speaking for Pakistanis, even though she definitely does not, and that misconception will colour his reporting and, therefore, the opinions of his dear readers.
Iftikhar is correct about his conclusion also.
In the ultimate analysis, the mass media has to promote Pakistan’s national interest, ideology and culture. The media must stand upright and speak the truth for the sake of establishing a just society and a democratic way of life. Only a balanced approach could help achieve the desired objectives and transform the media into a meaningful social institution. Hopefully, all those connected with the mass media in some capacity do realise that wrong assumptions lead to incorrect, illogical conclusions and oversimplification of views when it comes to analysing issues, solving problems, and resolving crises. Free media ultimately means a responsible and responsive institution. If a biased, misleading and imaginary story on Pakistan appears in the New York Times, Pakistan’s ambassador has the right to reject and protest. Moral panic must be rejected. The purpose of creating moral panic is to pressurise Pakistan through exaggerated and imaginary threat to society stirred up by sensationalised, biased and engineered reporting in the mass media.
There is more responsibility for even ourselves. We should be speaking up when we see some misleading, conspiracy, or hypernationalist media types that are making us look like crazy people. Already there are some people who are doing this quite well. Nadeem Paracha, of course, is invaluable. The blog Pakistan Media Watch is also providing an excellent resource.
But we should all be speaking out and defining ourselves, not letting someone else define us instead. When The Nation or Ahmed Quraishi or Zaid Hamid or some other right-wing ideologue gives a long-winded speech about how much they hate America, what do we expect the Americans to think of us? Then the American journalists write something about how Pakistan is a threat and The Nation writes a column about how America is not an ally. It is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’ And it needs to stop.
We need to hold our media accountable for irresponsible and misleading reporting – especially conspiracy theories. The media is free, as it should be, but it still has a responsibility to tell the truth. And the responsibility to correct the foreign media does not have to fall to our Ambassadors only. We can easily go to the websites of New York Times, or Guardian or any other news service and post comments and send Letters to the Editor correcting misinformation.
We must define who we are. Because if we don’t, believe me brother that someone else will.