The Media’s Distorted Perception of Pakistani Politics
By Samier Saeed
With the declaration of the Autumn Emergency and its accompanying media curbs, Pakistan and its journalists were elevated in importance throughout the international news community. This could have been a positive development, but it was marred by inadequate knowledge of Pakistan on the part of not just the news anchors, but the analysts brought in to discuss the situation in Pakistan. The increased frequency of major events in Pakistan and the dire straits the country is in also highlights, to this writer at least, the problems with Pakistan’s media and journalist group.
It is quite unfortunate that the West, aside from a small group of academics, remains largely uninformed regarding a country which it describes accurately and consistently as among the most important in the modern world. Journalists who are supposedly experts on South Asian/Pakistani affairs demonstrate poor understanding of the subtleties of Pakistani politics, tending to oversimplify what is in fact a very complex situation.
For example, much analysis of Benazir’s assassination placed the blame upon Al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban (even before the Pakistani government’s statement), in the process making several mistakes, all of which are simple for a relatively savvy person to point out. Firstly, it is incorrect to suggest that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban constantly act in unison; there is a significant difference between a grouping of Pashto tribal chiefs who are influenced by a particular ideology and who used to rule Afghanistan and the Arab group known as Al-Qaeda, whose current situation is uncertain and which influences groups around the world. Secondly, this summation betrays a rather childish view of Pakistan, a view that divides the country into well-intentioned mainstream politicians and the Islamists.
While the Islamist threat is imminent, and often underestimated by Pakistanis, nothing, especially not in Pakistan, is black and white. This brings us to the third mistake: assuming the act was perpetrated by Islamic militants before the infamous transcript was released to the public was a major blunder that would not have occurred if the Western press truly understood the issue. Informed Pakistanis know that the Bhutto family and the PPP have many enemies, ranging from other Sindhi feudal lords to elements within the ISI.
Sadly, even the British press, which is typically more informed than the American media, either has profound misconceptions regarding Pakistan or chooses to gloss over finer details for the sake of making it easier for readers to comprehend. For example - this is an error on the part of many different analysts and journalists - Musharraf is often called a “dictator”. However, and some may take issue with the validity of this statement, he is not a dictator, a term which implies that he “dictates” the actions and policies of the state and exercises almost singular control of its function, like Stalin or an absolute monarch. It is more accurate to describe him as an oligarch. Similarly, the reigns of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif are seen as constituting a democratic phase in Pakistan’s history. As nearly any Pakistani, regardless of socio-economic or educational situation, would attest to, corruption and elitist politics, not the ballot box, brought those two to the fore (although Bhutto arguably could have won a fair popular election). The list goes on. It is sad enough that the general public is subject to receiving such poor information regarding Pakistan without considering that the analysts brought onto CNN, or other prominent news stations, are overly quick to point out the Islamist threat and overestimate the extent to which Pakistan is politically unstable and are often the same ones whose advice is sought by Congress and other policymaking entities.
The Pakistani media itself has its own problems. Musharraf didn’t impose harsh codes of conduct on the media for nothing; the media was biased. One would think that the educated and affluent members of Pakistan’s intelligentsia (if it even meets the standards to be named so) would realize how relatively good Musharraf’s rule has been and would learn to accept its shortcomings. Unfortunately, Pakistani political commentators either share or pander to popular belief. Illogical popular belief. For some reason, they think that Musharraf’s replacement by a civilian ruler would somehow revive Pakistan’s democracy, which it lost 30 years ago. Instead of helping the masses to realize that change for the better cannot simply happen in a single decade, especially when a country has as many problems as Pakistan has, the media merely exacerbated the feeling of hopelessness in Pakistan and did not prevent the Pakistani people from targeting the mostly innocent Musharraf government for problems rooted in the mistakes of past governments. The media truly lost its objectivity after Musharraf’s ill-advised sacking of the Chief Justice.
When Nawaz Sharif made his attempts to return, the media portrayed any effort on the part of the government to prevent him from doing so in a negative light, forgetting that Nawaz Sharif basically committed treason in 1999 when he tried to force the plane carrying his Army Chief to land in India shortly after the Kargil Conflict. He is lucky to have not been hanged. Political commentators, as they rallied against the infringement upon Sharif’s “fundamental rights” and the affront to democracy, also failed to touch upon the fact that signing a deal to go into exile in Saudi Arabia and only returning when public opinion began to take a strong turn against Musharraf hardly made Sharif some kind of fearless leader. When he was sent back to Saudi Arabia after being in Islamabad for four hours, little was made of the fact that he had the choice to enter Pakistan if he agreed to stand trial for the charges brought against him.
That the media has gone mad is illustrated by its deification of Benazir Bhutto after her death. Yes, it was tragic and a step back for Pakistan. But it is curious that the media forgot, literally overnight, how corrupt and utterly horrible Benazir’s previous terms as Prime Minister were. Political analysts forgot that they used to contemplate another term under her with reserved hope, not enthusiasm and optimism as the poems and songs about mohtarma suggest. Sadly, the Pakistani media has shunned its role in providing valuable information to the public and has turned itself into a machine devoted to bringing down the Musharraf government by adopting an attitude which ignores basic facts and lends blind support to the PML-Q’s opponents.
Political commentators in Pakistan need to reexamine themselves before placing the blame on the government. At best, their belief that having a fair election (which is impossible) will inch Pakistan closer to prosperity makes them idealists. At worst, they are merely as frustrated with Pakistani politics as the common man is and will eventually lash out at every government, military and civilian, causing each to become entrenched and useless as it fights for its political survival. The thing that political commentators need to focus upon the most, however, is the formulation of an actual plan. One becomes confused when reading their attacks on the Musharraf government, and wonders what it is exactly that they want - especially considering that the Musharraf government freed the media in the first place.
One view that both the foreign and Pakistani media need to revise is the notion that a free election in Pakistan, if such a thing were possible, would put into power a government with the ability to solve most, if not all of, the country’s ills. The fact of the matter is that corruption is far too entrenched in Pakistan’s bureaucracy and political system for real change. No government, whether led by the military or a civilian, can effectively solve Pakistan’s problems unless drastic, radical measures are taken. The best any government can do “through the system” is promote economic growth and at least try to improve education, both of which the Musharraf government has done but the media ignores.