Media, policy, and conflict in Pakistan

Policymakers see media's impact as powerful but not always positive

Pakistan’s raucous and increasingly lethal media sector is exerting a powerful effect on decision-making in the country, even though journalists themselves are divided on whether their influence is positive or negative.

That’s the key finding of a survey of more than 350 Pakistani journalists, policymakers, and academics.

The recent assassination attempt against GEO TV anchor Hamid Mir underlines the degree to which Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. The scale of those attacks closely tracks the increased impact of media reporting in recent years.

More than two-thirds of policymakers surveyed said the media has a “significant” effect on their decision-making and 94 percent said they “always” or “sometimes” take media reaction into account before making a decision. That group includes current and former government officials and analysts at policy think tanks and civil society organizations.

Those policymakers actually have a more positive view of the media than journalists themselves.

More journalists and academics believe the media makes societal divisions worse than say media helps heal those divisions; it’s exactly the reverse among policymakers. Likewise, far more policymakers than journalists and academics believe the impact of private TV has been positive.

Pakistani foreign and domestic policies are inextricably linked, shaped by a complex web of political, military, and sectarian factors. Media is one element in that equation. Just over half the journalists defined as “significant” the media’s impact on relations with the U.S. and with India, Pakistan’s key rival for power in South Asia; policymakers and academics agreed with the journalists regarding the U.S., but slightly more than half the policymakers and academics said the media’s influence was “minimal” or “none” when it came to relations with India.

All three groups surveyed are united in overwhelmingly believing the media has played a “significant” role in exposing corruption, though a sizable minority of journalists were more cynical, seeing their role as “insignificant.”

Pakistan is locked in a virtual civil war with Islamist militants, both home-grown and from Afghanistan. Even on this complicated issue, more than one-third of those surveyed from each group believes the media has a “significant” impact on relations with the militants, who recently issued a fatwa against the media, which it declared to be a “party” to “this war on Islam.”

The willingness of Pakistani journalists to speak truth to power has consistently proven lethal.

In the past four years, there have been almost twice as many deaths as the previous decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the most infamous of which was the 2011 torture and murder of investigative reporter Saleem Shahzad, who, like Hamid Mir, claimed he had been threatened by Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence wing, but who also had just published a book on the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Yet the complex calculation involved in determining what kinds of stories could prove fatal and which push the envelope just short of that point is reflected in the responses to the question, “Can journalists report sensitive stories without fear of reprisals?”

Almost 30 percent of journalists responded “yes,” double the percentage of policymakers and academics who thought that was the case, and another 30 percent of journalists said they could “sometimes” tackle such stories.

Pakistan is a nation of contradictions, not least when it comes to the news industry. Nothing better sums up those contradictions than the response to the question: “Should government officials mislead the media if they think it is in the national interest?”

At a time when Pakistani journalists are dying in the pursuit of truth, the response seemed to turn reality on its head: More policymakers than journalists said “no,” the government should not have that right.

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Lawrence Pintak and Syed Javid Nazir Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.
Syed Javed Nazir is a fellow at the University of Cambridge and former editor of The Frontier Post in Pakistan.
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