The recent events in Afghanistan have once again brought home the sad fact that Pakistanis have to rely on foreign sources, particularly the Western media, for news about their own region. Without questioning the work of many foreign correspondents, many of whom are respected for their professionalism and integrity, at the end of the day one does wonder about the greater agenda of some of these media entities. We do not have to go too far. We have before us a recent example of how many major international news organisations reported the events in Palestine and continue to cover the plight of the Palestinian people. So biased was the reporting of these giants of journalism that in comparison, an Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, seems to have done a much better job of reporting what was happening on ground.
All media entities will report using their own lens. This may not necessarily be entirely accurate. Over the past few weeks, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan there were barely any Pakistani journalists covering the events from the ring side. This is all the more shocking given that we all know that developments in Afghanistan eventually affect us in one way or another. Instead of on-ground reporting, much of what was broadcast on local TV channels was recycled information from other news outlets (mostly Western) and snippets and information (much of which was unverified) that was taken from social media.
If we don’t believe major Western news channels when it comes to coverage of events in Palestine, why should we believe what they are reporting in Afghanistan? Apart from the level of ignorance that prevails, there is also the issue of bias and agenda. One recalls an incident from the time when the Taliban were in power last time round. In 1997, a European Union commissioner and 18 other people, including a famous international TV correspondent, were arrested by the Taliban for filming women while touring a hospital. All were released unharmed after about three hours in custody. There was a huge outcry at the time and the Taliban were condemned soundly. But the fact of the matter was that the Taliban had already set the rules for the media and this correspondent and her team had broken them after agreeing to abide by them. Granted the rules were harsh and quite restrictive — former Time correspondent Hannah Bloch recently shared a copy on Twitter of these rules which were handed out to visiting media. But right or wrong, how can one break local rules and then expect no resulting action? Try that in Israel and see what happens.
We also know that some of the best reporting on Afghanistan has been done by Pakistani journalists in the past. One name that stands out is that of Rahimullah Yusufzai, BBC correspondent and Peshawar Editor of a local national daily. In a talk he gave earlier this year at the Razia Bhatti Memorial Lecture held by the Centre for Excellence in Journalism, Yusufzai said that much of his reporting and access in Afghanistan came from the fact that both the government and people knew he would not misrepresent them.
Granted Yusufzai’s name and credentials gave him access and that in comparison other Pakistani journalists were hounded out by officials of the infamous NDS, the situation has changed now. It is time for Pakistani media houses to send more reporters to Kabul. Not only Kabul but to all regional capitals where Pakistanis need to hear more about Tehran, Colombo, Kathmandu and Dhaka, to name a few. Possibly as part of the restructuring of the media network in Pakistan, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) can take the lead and station correspondents in all SAARC and some ECO capitals. As we speak, our media entities — both state-run and private — seem to have kept their focus on Washington DC and London only.
The Pakistani public deserves to hear the news from their perspective. This should not translate into the perspective of the government but more about the long-term interests of our country. At present we are blissfully unaware of what is happening in our region and rely on some good and some bad news organisations as well as on unverified information we pick off social media. Knowledge is power and our approach to knowledge is through correct and unbiased information. We cannot afford such ignorance.