A Conversation with Pakistani Journalist, Conflict Expert Wajahat Ali
April 13, 2011
In Asia recently spoke with Pakistani journalist Wajahat Ali, on a visit from Washington, D.C., where he just finished a fellowship at the New America Foundation as an Asia Foundation William P. Fuller Fellow in Conflict Resolution. Ali spent six months examining the causes of religious radicalization in Pakistan, and published articles in Foreign Policy on U.S.-Pakistan relations, blasphemy laws, and more.
Q: Since joining DawnNews TV in 2007, where you launched Eye of the Storm, a primetime television show on Pakistan’s foreign policy and regional security challenges, how well do you think the Pakistani media have covered rising militant violence there?
The primary objective of terrorism is not to kill; it is to create greater fear. The real challenge for media here is to cover militant activity without creating anxiety, and for that, there has to be a collective strategy. The media hasn’t done enough to create public opinion against these militant organizations. We need to raise the cost of using violent means to achieve political objectives. If these are the benchmarks, we haven’t really performed well.
Mainstream media’s role is particularly critical now, because the militants are creating their own publications. And, I must say, the literature that they produce is quite compelling, and very, very effective. For instance, some of their publications highlight governance challenges, the energy crisis, spiraling inflation. They criticize the government for not doing enough to secure lives and properties and for slow administrative processes. Then, they present themselves as an alternative to the government. They provide materials outside mosques after Friday prayer congregation, and set up illegal radio stations. The government has tried to use jamming devices, but it’s not easy to counter these, especially in areas controlled by the Taliban. So, their voice keeps resonating with the people, and that is a big, big challenge.
Q: And, the media there has a reputation for being highly emotional, if not sensational in its coverage.
That’s true. In fact, as a reporter who covers a suicide bombing, for example, the first thing that your editor wants is a death count and strong, heavy-hitting visuals. By showing graphic, gruesome images, we are actually helping the militants to achieve their objective to create anxiety and fear. It is important that when we cover activities, we also condemn any group that uses violence in our coverage. This is where media will have to come together to develop a strategy to cover militant activities without glorifying them. But, consensus on this will be critical.
Q: What is the relationship like between mainstream media and the government in Pakistan?
Actually, until 2007 the media weren’t really criticizing the government. It was only when Pakistan’s former President General Pervez Musharraf started making some bad decisions, like firing Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, that the media became very critical of him. I agree that the media should always have an adversarial role with the government, but too many here are now positioning themselves with the opposition – they have become political actors themselves. They criticize the government no matter what it does, and that is not a very healthy trend.
For example, when the government says it’s going to raise the price of gasoline, reporters immediately start interacting with the people on the streets to get their take. The people are obviously going to say this is a bad thing, and that’s what gets published. But those reporters aren’t also going to the economic experts to explain to the people the government’s reasons for such action.
It’s our role to educate the people about the kind of society we have turned into, and the kind of society we should become. As you start educating the people, mindsets will change and it will become easier for the government to deal with these militant groups.
Q: When we look at events unfolding in the Middle East, do you see any resemblance to public outcry in Pakistan after Musharraf fired the Supreme Court judges?
The media played a tremendous role in mobilizing the people during the movement to restore the judges. That movement actually resulted in General Musharraf’s ouster. The media in Pakistan are very powerful, but with great power comes great responsibility. It is perhaps easy to get rid of one person, but very difficult to create a different system. That is something we all have to keep in our minds while we are looking at the situation in the Middle East. I always say that I’m not really a big fan of revolutions because revolutions always create unintended consequences. I don’t think we need a revolution in Pakistan, I think we need evolution and greater progress.
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