Independent Media Try to Be Balanced and Fair in Their Coverage: Yet All Parties Play Their `Well-Known Game of Intimidating the Media.' (Coverage of Terrorism)

Article excerpt

For the journalists in Pakistan, the September 11 attack was a bolt out of the blue. And this bolt was followed quickly by President George W. Bush's call to President General Pervez Musharraf asking him to choose sides--the Americans' or the terrorists'. With the decision to back America, Pakistan suddenly emerged into the world's spotlight and became a highly strategic news location for the international media. For the people and journalists of Pakistan, this marked a giant change from years of being an international recluse that was known primarily for its many sanctions following its nuclear testing and after General Pervez Musharraf seized power by overthrowing an elected government.

On September 11, and again on October 7 when the bombing campaign in Afghanistan began, Pakistani newspapers employed large-size, hard-hitting headlines to report the news. During much of this crisis, entire front pages of the nation's several dozen newspapers, along with editorial columns, were devoted to news, opinions and images of its dramatic events. Following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the overriding view expressed in Pakistan's media was of wholehearted condemnation of the terrorist attack on the United States. However, as American bombardment of targets in Kabul, Kandahar and other Afghan cities dragged on and caused the killing of civilians, media sentiment gradually came to reflect heightened concern and sympathy for the suffering of the Afghan people.

The upsurge in sympathy for Afghan civilians did not translate into support or sympathy for the Taliban. The majority public opinion in Pakistan favors a moderate, progressive Islamic society. Even before September 11, many in Pakistan were thoroughly dismayed with the distortion of Islam by the Taliban. Enlightened public opinion has always been very apprehensive of the rising threat to Pakistani society from indigenous religious fanatics hopeful of imposing a Taliban-type, rigid Islamic system in Pakistan.

Increasing concern was also reflected in stories about the escalating number of civilian casualties and the arrival of hordes of hungry and sick Afghan men, women and children on Pakistan's borders. Columnists wrote that the American offensive was inflicting very harsh punishment on the citizens of Afghanistan (not the Taliban) and that the United States should have found a better way to deal with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

In Pakistan, almost all the largely circulated English and Urdu language newspapers are independent in their editorial policy, thus allowing a diversity of viewpoints to be put forth in news and opinion columns. Among these independent print media, condemnation of the terrorist attacks was virtually universal, as was support for General Musharraf's decision to side with the international community, though there was certainly fair and balanced coverage given to all the parties in the conflict. In Pakistan, too, a substantial number of publications are brought out by political and religious parties and, in those, views adhere more to the publisher's purpose. Their circulation is limited to those who tend to already share those opinions.

Pakistani journalists have had to walk a tightrope in trying to keep all parties satisfied with their "balanced" coverage. Despite their best efforts, no one seems fully satisfied with their performance, and some journalists and publications have faced complaints, even overt or hidden threats from different sides. Government functionaries call editors and news editors with "advices" to be a little more careful in their display of news and headlines hostile to the government. Journalists in this country are quite familiar with the threats concealed in these "friendly advices." This is a version of the well-known game of intimidating the media and a reminder that the government in power in Pakistan is a military dictatorship. If driven to the wall, it might clamp harsh restrictions on the press. …