Pakistan: The land without people

August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the things that frustrates us here at APP the most is the way in which Pakistan is spoken about in the West, especially in the U.S. Discussions and reportage of Pakistan are always embedded in a narrative that makes some very negative assumptions about Pakistan, and one that always highlights the security angle of Pakistan above all else (i.e., either as a place to be feared or, much more rarely, as a place to be rescued).

One major assumption that undergirds this narrative is that Pakistan is a land without people. Not literally, of course, but all too often reportage on Pakistan completely misses the local human element. Actual Pakistanis themselves, as real people and not just as stock characters or as mere scenery for the “real” story, never make an appearance in such accounts. The best recent example of this is Nicholas Schmiddle’s ridiculous account of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. There has already been considerable criticism of Schmiddle’s account based on journalistic principles, but a great analysis is the one by Myra MacDonald, a journalist who has lived in and covered Pakistan. MacDonald notes:

In a post over the weekend which prompted me to re-examine the New Yorker story, Jakob Steiner at RugPundits complained about Orientalism. That in turn led me to look at how small a role Pakistanis play in the story. Pause here, and consider that Pakistan is a country of some 180 million people of diverse religious, social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. People who fret about their children’s education and grieve for their parents like the rest of us. People who in the office will bitch around the water cooler, and over dinner  talk about the weather. And yes. I simplify people’s lives, because those of us who live them (signpost irony here) know how simple they are.

Then start perhaps, by noticing the dog has a name and a breed. He (she?) is called Cairo and is a Belgian Malinois.

Yes, that’s right. We learn more about the dog accompanying the SEAL team than we ever do about any actual Pakistani.

MacDonald goes on to point out the contrast in attention paid in the piece to a very important local Pakistani, the man who first alerted the world that something big was going down in Abbotabad: Sohaib Athar, who tweeted that there had been a helicopter crash that night which seemed very unusual to him (and to the rest of us on Twitter who happened to see his post in real-time, including me). Here’s MacDonald again:

The first person to comment publicly on the raid did so on Twitter, a resident who asked what a helicopter was doing in Abbottabad so late at night.  He is a man with a full name, a profile and an online identity, who I and thousands of others found and followed easily enough on the day bin Laden was killed.  In the New Yorker article, he becomes merely “one local”.

Read the rest of the piece, it’s a great reminder not only that coverage of Pakistan is truly opaque, but also that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that at least some smart journalists get it.

Pakistan: A Primer for the New York Times

March 20, 2009 § 2 Comments

These are a couple of reminders for the paper of record:

  1. It’s the social forces, stupid.
  2. When writing editorials, making sense is a Good Thing.

Let’s start with the first. Here’s the lede to the NYT story announcing the reinstatement of the Chief Justice:

LAHORE, Pakistan — The Pakistani government agreed early on Monday to reinstate the independent-minded former chief justice of the Supreme Court, a stunning concession to the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who had been heading toward the capital in a convoy threatening to stage a mass protest over the issue after he broke free from house arrest at his residence near here.

This is just wrong. The concession was not to Nawaz Sharif; it was to the lawyers’ movement, you know, those thousands who have been marching in the streets defying government repression and getting their heads bashed in by the police.  Those people. The concession is to them. And while Nawaz Sharif and his party have been pushing for the reinstatement of the judiciary, the movement does not belong to them. They belong to the movement. The Sharif brothers know this. In fact, they’ve glommed on to the movement in a shrewd political manoeuvre to polish-up their tarnished image, and it’s a tenuous alliance.

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Policing the Press -Long March Day 2

March 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Remember this? In a reprisal of Musharraf’s policies during Emergency Rule in 2007, Pres. Zardari has banned the largest news channel, GeoTV from major sections of Pakistan including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Multan. Following the ban, PPP Information Minister Sherry Rehman resigned from her government post.

Rehman had held a “a series of heated arguments” with other officials in the PPP, according to Dawn, but after failing to convince them against the ban, she resigned in protest.

A prominent member of the PPP, Rehman’s decision signals splits inside the PPP about how to tackle a vigorous press that has been openly critical of the government’s policies towards the Long March.

In fact, activists and politicians have relied on it during the recent crackdown. When police came to arrest lawyers’ leader Athar Minallah, he turned to the press for help. From Time:

“I locked myself in the car, and the police didn’t know how to get me,” he said. “So I called the television cameras who were only two minutes away. I began giving live interviews from the car, addressing the Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, directly. After a while, Mr. Malik came down himself and shouted the police officers away.”

There may be institutional issues at several levels in Pakistan, but the press is working. “The media,” Open Society Institute’s Fawzia Naqvi told us, “has become the most trusted institution in Pakistan.” The statement was borne out in interviews with refugees from the NWFP and Fata who thanked the press for covering the dismal situation in their hometowns and exposing the damage caused by the US drone attacks, the Pakistani military and the Taliban.

Activists over at the popular listserve, Emergency List, have asked that people thank Rehman for her principled stance.  You can email her at:

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