The farce of media freedom in Pakistan
Nadia Mirza reports on air as Aaj TV station and its news personnel get caught in the crossfire between MQM and a rival group

The farce of media freedom in Pakistan

In a Q&A with AsiaMedia's Natasha Garyali, journalist Kiran Khalid discusses the state of Pakistani media from her experience filming 'We Are Not Free'

By Natasha Garyali
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Friday, February 1, 2008

The media in Pakistan united in March 2007 and joined lawyers in the movement opposing President Pervez Musharraf's dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, but in doing so, journalists faced unexpected repercussions. They were threatened, beaten, arrested and abducted.

Filmed before Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November 2007, independent broadcast journalist Kiran Khalid shows the dangers that surround journalists who criticize the government in her short documentary We Are Not Free. Khalid has reported on Pakistan in the past. She was one of the first American television journalists to be allowed into a Pakistani madrassa post-9/11, where she wrote about its ideology, purpose and teaching. She also visited Pakistan in 2006 on the six-month anniversary of the earthquake that hit northwest Pakistan and wrote about the reconstruction process.

A clip from Khalid's 10-minute documentary discusses the role of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the agency that monitors the press, and the struggle to deliver news that the public needs to hear while adhering to PEMRA's rules.

Video written, produced and directed by Kiran Khalid

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The following is an edited transcript of her interview:

AsiaMedia: What prompted you to make We Are Not Free?

Kiran Khalid: I started receiving information from friends about television stations in Pakistan being under duress and having their newscasts interrupted by government forces. But an attack on Aaj TV in Karachi by MQM, a political organization that favors Musharraf, where they fired shots into the building [and] at news personnel, was one instance when it became increasingly obvious that Pakistan was far from being free. And this was at a time when Musharraf was receiving a lot of positive press in the West for being moderate. The irony to me was just something that warranted further exploration.

AM: What is it like reporting in Pakistan?

KK: As the documentary illustrates, the conditions of the journalists are totally unacceptable. The Human Rights Watch and CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalist) have been sounding alarms for a long time. It is not improving. In fact, it's deteriorating.

At this point the journalists in Pakistan have been reduced to becoming a mouthpiece for the government since they are prevented from saying anything against the military [or] the president. They are not allowed to even mention that the [state of] emergency occurred.

AM: What was your perception of Pakistani media before and after you visited Pakistan?

KK: The thing that really struck me when I went over there and interviewed these people was how brave they were. Journalism isn't a profession that pays very well -- certainly not in that part of the world -- and yet these people willing put their safety at risk in order to pursue what they think is a noble calling, which is basically to expose the corruption and wrongdoing that is happening in the country or just to report everyday events.

They have bullets stuck to their cars. They get strange, anonymous phone calls [from] people reporting to be ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) agents. All of these things really impressed me because this is certainly not the climate that we Western journalists are accustomed to, and [Pakistani journalists] were working in an environment where people could behave like this with impunity.

AM: There has been a surge of new television channels in Pakistan. Do you feel that the growing demand for journalists will warrant proper training as well?

KK: Absolutely. There is the whole issue of sensationalism in South Asian press to begin with. [And] a young press doesn't always get the good training that we receive in the West. Their media laws are [also] so fluid that they change almost at the whim of whoever is the leader at any given time.

But that aside, basics like not showing blood and having the common sensibility to shield viewers from gory images does not necessarily [exist there]. So we see a lot of young, hungry reporters, but at the same time they probably don't always make the most prudent decisions because of the lack of training and experience.

AM: What is your response to the recent deportation of U.S. journalist Nicholas Schmidle from Pakistan? Do you see it as a sign of further repression against media in Pakistan?

KK: Absolutely. Up until this deportation and also the attack on New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, censorship was confined to the Pakistani press. The foreign media, especially the Western media, were able to operate [more freely], and they had a longer reach than the domestic media. But this shows that censorship in Pakistan is being stepped up and they are going after anyone who says anything against whatever the government wants people to know.

Pakistan is one of the hot spots in the world, and it is alarming that the people on the ground, who can really put their finger on the pulse of society and [who know] whether in fact extremism is flourishing or whether it is exaggeration, are not able to report [it]. And that puts everybody at risk.

AM: Lastly, do you think Pakistan will be able to conduct free and fair elections in February?

KK: I think there is a great deal of skepticism. How can you have free and fair elections when the media is muzzled to the extent that it is? People who wish to gain information in order to make [an] informed decision cannot do so because they are not getting it.

A free press is a cornerstone of any democracy, and Pakistan does not have a free press right now.