Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

A historical perspective

Shabbir Ahmad is a news and current affairs producer at Geo News, the most watched TV news channel in Pakistan. He has traveled extensively in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) border region of Pakistan and in Afghanistan for his current program, Jirga, which focuses on the War on Terror and its effects. He is currently completing his Ph.D. thesis on the influence of electronic media on the political awareness of Pakistan’s urban population.

Global Journalist: How would you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan?

Shabbir Ahmad: Actually, Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. remains at a very strange trajectory. Sometimes Pakistan and the U.S. have very friendly relations, and sometimes relations are very low. Whenever the United States needs Pakistan it becomes friendly, and whenever it thinks it doesn’t need Pakistan it becomes unfriendly.

In the '80s, the United States needed Pakistan due to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and so (the U.S. and Pakistan) allied and fought the Soviet Union. But after that (the U.S.) left, and Pakistan and Afghanistan were left wondering what they were going to do after so much war and destruction and their economy at the lowest level.

But after 9/11, the United States again attacked Afghanistan, and it again needed Pakistan. So they became very good friends. The U.S. gave Pakistan a huge amount of aid, $19 billion in military and civil aid. Then Pakistan started giving the United States very good support in the War on Terror. Pakistan gave the U.S. their business; they gave them infrastructure; they gave them transportation to transport the goods, food and arms to more than a hundred thousand soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

So they had very good relations until last year, when Pakistan and the United States had back-to-back incidents which brought these relationships to their lowest level. First, there was the incident with Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who was working undercover in Pakistan as a diplomat. He killed two Pakistanis in a market, but they were innocent, so he was arrested. But then the U.S. pressured the government to release him, but the Pakistani public pressured the government not to release him.

And after that, on the 2nd of May, 2011, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. Then the blame game started: the U.S. saying that Pakistan was aware of his presence in Pakistan and Pakistan saying the U.S. has violated our sovereignty.

GJ: Does the conflict in Pakistan with militants predate the War on Terror?

Ahmad: It’s a clear product of the War on Terror. The military is fighting with militants and terrorists in the area called FATA, which is the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The War on Terror started in 2002, but before 2005 this area — while it was not the best area as far as law and order was concerned — was not as bad as it is today.

The people there became militants because they (Taliban fighters driven from Afghanistan by the U.S.) instigated and brainwashed the minds of locals against their own country by saying, “Pakistan is giving arms support to the United States, and they are killing us. We are your Muslim brothers, so why don’t you kill those people who are giving support to the United States, especially the government and army.” And so they started attacking these institutions.

*GJ: How has the media grown in Pakistan?*

Ahmad: Pakistan has had a newspaper industry since the beginning. But as for electronic media, Pakistan had only one channel that was created in 1964: Pakistan Television, which was owned by the state. But President Musharraf in 2002 started giving licenses to private channels, and Pakistani electronic media came into real existence. After that it flourished.

Right now in 10 years, Pakistan has more than 50 news channels. The Pakistani nation has become a news addict, and believe you me, in Pakistan news anchors are bigger celebrities than singers or film actors. These anchors and programs have a lot more influence on the public, shaping their opinions on politics, social issues and economics. People have become dependent on media and what they are saying.

But one drawback — most of this media is cable- or satellite-based media. Their reach is primarily in urban areas. In rural areas there is still no electricity or no cable. So the state TV is all that’s available. But new media is expanding day by day.

GJ: Has there been any reaction from more traditional power groups to journalism’s increased influence?

Ahmad: Media is now becoming a rather powerful institution. So now all the existing power institutions are feeling afraid of it, feeling a bit of interference in their power structure. So they, especially the military, are giving the media a tough time.

Now the military is not trying to suppress media, rather they want to have a good relationship with journalists. But whenever they feel something threatening, they do threaten journalists. But not directly, indirectly. Sometimes they kill journalists, but it is very rare. But they are using other tactics like facilitating a relationship with journalists and trying to influence coverage through the relationship.

Government always tries to influence the media. Media survives on advertisements, and government is a major source of advertisement. And government may stop advertising in media that are exposing them. And that channel’s revenue may drop 50 to 60 percent, and then it becomes an issue of survival. So they surrender.

GJ: So how are journalists coping with all this pressure?

A: They are doing some very good things as well. In Pakistani society in the last decade, there was no concept of punishing or giving the law to landlords, to industrialists, to rich people. Now due to the media, journalists expose their activities, and they get punished. A recent example, a very big landlord fought with a teacher and broke his legs. And what happened? Media exposed him and now he is behind bars. This was not possible in Pakistan before.

By Jon McClure. 

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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