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Pakistan in the media: changing the narrative, bringing in new voices and talent

November 4th 2011
By Rima Saini

The third conference in the RSA, Samosa and City University series was held at City’s Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre, and thus seemed to take on a much more academic student-focused angle with some intelligent and hard-hitting questions from members of the audience.

Chaired by author Professor Ziauddin Sardar, the passionate discussion featured input from Mobeen Azhar, assistant producer, BBC Current Affairs; Nayha Kalia, editor, The Samosa; Homa Khaleeli, commissioning editor, Guardian G2 and Saima Mohsin, former face of Dawn News and current Channel 4 presenter.

Traditional to new media

The changing landscape of media was a thread that ran right through the discussion, picked up by all the panellists and in some audience members’ questions, particularly with regards to the implications on the way we view and consume media.

The profliferation of Pakistani television, domestic TV serials and news channels which are readily available to British household means many Pakistani families nowadays grow up consuming exclusively Pakistani television, not getting a balanced, informed view. This has brought along with it a whole host of obligations, on the part of the consumer, therefore, to make responsible choices about the quality of media they, their family and ultimately their community consume.

There are so many more platforms on which to inform, educate and entertain nowadays, giving us the chance to not only branch out in the type of media we consume but to all become spokespeople for our communities, generating our own media.

The Samosa, for example, features firsthand accounts from young Pakistanis and young Indians which both contributes to and challenges the mainstream discussion on these countries and their complex relationship, a relationship which is often mis- or underrepresented and can thus alienate second and third generation, as Nayha Kalia pointed out.

Alternative media is thus playing a key role in opening up independent dialogue, moving away from the clichés and looking behind the stories to see the progress that is being made, not just the problems themselves, contextualising events to give them the objective assessment and relative importance they are due.

Nayha noted how that even though the media industry these days is crowded beyond belief, amazing changes that have taken place in social media. Citizen journalism opened up seminal events such as the Arab Spring and the London riots to be broadcast to the world in a completely revolutionised manner, giving us in-depth insights into events happening on the ground and an intimate portrayal of these complex and intricate processes.

Through blogging and alternative mediums the disorganised silent majority including youth movements such as Khudi Pakistan, as Saima Mohsin mentioned, are trying to get their voices heard. This is not without its restrictions and dangers however– the assassination of the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the only Christian in the cabinet, being a case in point.

In the mainstream media, however, commissioning editors who pick up on interesting, hard-hitting stories and do not restrain open-minded journalists are needed. One of the audience members reminded us that the minority who are voiceless are the ones who are the most subjugated, and thus the ones who need the most representation.

Diversity in the industry

More young representatives from the Asian community going into traditional and non-traditional streams of media is thus the way to progress the stagnant narrative on Pakistan, represent the voice of the minority and take the industry into the future.

The media has to take more steps, however, to open itself to people who will champion this diversity. Homa Khaleeli used the opportunity to mention the Scott Trust Foundation bursary provided by the Guardian (of which Nayha Kalia, editor of the Samosa, was a beneficiary) which is working to increase the range of voices across the paper. But access is still difficult, as she pointed out -many internships are unpaid and largely concentrated in London, toughening access routes and discouraging many form all groups to consider it as profession.

Integration

A number of the panel members were keen to stress the role that good, balanced and representative journalism makes in encouraging integration between both countries and ethnic groups.

Professor Sardar reminded the panel members that integration is a two-way process but, essentially, the isolation many in the Pakistani Diaspora is partially the symptom of insufficient representation, particularly the lack of interest many key decision makers in the industry take in other cultures and the skewed way in which it is portrayed when they eventually do.

Homa who grew up in Cheshire around few people of same cultural heritage as her had the opportunity to travel to Pakistan every year and witness the disparity between how political events in the country filtered through to the West before and after 9/11. There was little understanding as to how entrenched the Taliban were becoming in the region before the attacks, resulting in a very two-dimensional portraying of subsequent events and a very misunderstood global perception of the political situation the country was in.

Saima was raised as a South Londoner, speaking Punjabi and Urdu, with a strong connection to Pakistan but nonetheless fully British. She initially avoided the Asian media for fear of being typecast and stereotyped but moved to Karachi in 2007 and has since witnessed as well as reported on the political, social and cultural changes the country has undergone. The prejudices from partition still haunt the country today and can be felt through the problems Pakistan faces, from extremism and terrorism, through to integration, cultural and economic development, and corrupt politics. She ultimately realised that if she did not speak about these issues which relate to her ancestral home, nobody would, which compelled her to devote her journalist career to this cause.

Responsible journalism

The quality of the media that comes out of Pakistan is a key cause for concern and was clearly a source of consternation for many in the panel. The lack of regulation of the media in Pakistan has led to a boom in broadcasting – there are now more than 50 news channels reporting news 24 hours a day, seven days a week – but it is still highly monitored, and thus often the result of weak, watered-down journalism.

The media hasn’t recognised the burden of responsibility, and that those in the rural communities who are illiterate watch TV, listen to the radio are cannot differentiate easily between fact and opinion which is so extensively blurred in Pakistani media. Little thought goes into the means in which media outlets communicate information, the quality of that communication, and the audience they are reaching out to.

Dawn TV which broadcast in English was initially criticised as a new channel ‘by the elite, for the elite’, but it was in actuality watched across the country, by some who just wanted to improve their English, to others who were craving an impartial and objective voice in the media.

But it is still the ‘organised minority’ – the extremist groups – who have the loudest voice. It is the Urdu newspapers who proliferate radical thought, thus it is impartial, open-minded journalists who must beat them at their own game by communicating their media in Urdu, Pashto, Balochi themselves, Saima urged.

Skewed representation

This lack of balance within the Pakistani news outlets and globally in the way Pakistan is represented throughout the world, therefore, leaves little room for the stories of grassroots activists and individuals in Pakistani society who are helping the country progress politically and economically, and even less of the ordinary people on the ground in the arts, culture, sport – beyond cricket scandals, of course.

However, the Pakistani media is its infancy – it cannot, and should not, be compared to established broadcasting agencies such as the BBC. It has not the chance to develop organically.

But there are some positive aspects within Pakistani broadcasting. There is increasingly more talk about difficult issues which some in the community may have traditionally wanted to sweep under the carpet, an important positive step in moving on the cultural and political community-centred discussion as Mobeen pointed out. Saima also added that some Pakistani serials are trying to incorporate some commentary about activism and political issues within their running storylines. And bloggers are also pro-active about their disillusionment with the media, seeking to change the narrative.

Fatigue brought about by poor journalism and bad broadcasting will not have a profound effect if it is passive; audiences need to be educated to become discerning, openly and actively critical.

There is a cultural assumption that seeps through in that all Pakistani journalists must be ambassadors for the country. But objectivity, and ultimately constructive criticism, is the mark of good journalism, promisingly something exhibited by all the members of the panel.

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