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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Challenging misrepresentation of Pakistan in global media narratives

The idea of Pakistan, in the global narrative contest, is the picture of chaos, intellectual vacancy, and political immaturity with neither end nor prospect in sight. In this reductive discourse, Pakistani citizens neither know their rights nor have the acumen to separate fact from fiction.

Pakistan is a hard country. Where have you heard this before? Beyond Anatol Lieven, likely everywhere, including Pakistanis sitting in the comfortable drawing rooms of Western democracies. But Pakistan is also culturally diverse, linguistically complex, geographically strategic, politically thrilling, in cricket innovative, historically unignorable, and the single biggest champion of a fair solution to one of Asia’s biggest flashpoints (Kashmir).

And yet, the commentary that select Pakistanis (and a handful of non-Pakistanis) produce for leading global media agencies chooses to straitjacket the discourse. The idea of Pakistan, in this narrative contest, is the picture of chaos, intellectual vacancy, and political immaturity with neither end nor prospect in sight. In this reductive discourse, Pakistani citizens neither know their rights nor have the acumen to separate fact from fiction. Somebody else (not the Constitution) will have to govern decisions for the people of Pakistan. In the meantime, journalists please feel free to present unrepresentative inferences about Pakistanis’ hearts, minds, aspirations, or – above all – their politics.

Read more: Pakistan Politics: Race to the bottom

There are three problems here. One, the reporting/analysis we are witnessing emanates from within an echo chamber of a segment of Pakistani society relying on English language skills and foreign credentials to comment on people’s democratic rights. Two, the echo in the chamber is about the purportedly establishment-backed rise of the country’s most popular leader, Imran Khan, without due attention to Pakistan’s transforming demographics. Most importantly – and this one is deliberately saved for last – the current media narrative about Pakistan repeatedly betrays the fundamental ethic of good journalism: loyalty to citizens.

As the American Press Institute notes:

The publisher of journalism (whether a media corporation answering to advertisers and shareholders) must show an ultimate allegiance to citizens…strive to put the public interest – and the truth – above their own… assumptions.

The vast majority of citizens in Pakistan – if one assumes these published pieces are a gold standard on the matter – are emotional, prone to a Pied Piper politics steeped in vague religious rhetoric, unable to see through, as Sadanand Dhume for the Wall Street Journal implies, the ‘recklessness, impractical ideas and poor administrative skills’ of their most preferred political leader, Imran Khan. By juxtaposing the result of a recent Gallup Pakistan survey (in which Khan polls at 61% popularity) with his (the author’s) personal assessment of the former PM, Dhume rubbishes – instead of analyses – the preferences of nearly 2/3rds of Pakistan’s electorate.

Read more: Pakistan’s politics: A game or serious business?

The cherry on top is the lack of evidence presented to support his point; was the assumption here that nobody would disagree with Dhume’s position hence no facts would be required to back up a dismissive comment about one of the world’s largest (admittedly young) democracies? Or is this an editorial norm now regarding Pakistan’s democracy, evidenced by Reuters publishing Asif Shahzad’s article, which labels the Supreme Court order to follow the Constitution a ‘win for ex-PM Khan’, not the people (who rely on a Constitution to protect themselves from the excesses of a government).

Sophia Saifi piece for CNN is similarly casual. It classifies a constitutionally overdue general election to the Punjab Assembly (371 members) as a by-election, but this is perhaps the least of its sins. Saifi wants to empathise with the people (‘weary nation’; psyche of the nation’s people), but cannot bring herself to analyse elections as the tool of political settlement in a democratic republic. She also (without evidence and randomly) links school closures with current ‘brinkmanship’ – that stale catchall term for Pakistan’s current socio-political struggle for rule of law, which only communicates a lack of intellectual curiosity. The term ‘shaoor’ (consciousness) might serve a better purpose here and is certainly more embedded in contemporary Pakistani everyday political discourse.

Charlie Campbell also does a number on Pakistan’s citizens and electorate, linking (by scale) corruption with rape and then relegating Pakhtunkhwa’s historic recovery under the mandate its residents gave to the 2013-2018 PTI government to ‘political wilderness’. He cements his insistence on leaving the Pakistani people out of Imran Khan’s political journey in his TIME cover story by ending with ‘the people flounder’, not having cited a single Pakistani voter or fairly evaluated the street, polling station, media, Vigo, tear gas or bullet that citizens have endured just to exercise their democratic rights.

Read more: Politics of thugs in Pakistan

His preferred quote? One from Michael Kugelman, who sums up the narrative the world’s top media agencies actually seem to be saying to the people of Pakistan: ‘there are no heroes here’.

So much for loyalty to citizens.

The author is a social science researcher in Pakistan. She holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, where she was Pakistan’s 2010 Rhodes Scholar. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.