In Pakistan, news is something to control!
"Veengas has been visiting the Star for the past month as part of a U.S.-Pakistan program for professional journalists organized by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the U.S. State Department".
Information is like a bird. It can move here, there and anywhere. We live in an age where information travels so quickly, but in my country of Pakistan information is often stopped, its movement restricted by unseen hands.
In the United States, information is freely exchanged. That is often not the case in Pakistan, where I work as a journalist for a regional newspaper in my home province of Sindh and a freelance writer for a national English-language newspaper.
Media companies in Pakistan are privately owned, but not necessarily independent. The media - especially the national newspapers, television stations and radio stations - are heavily influenced by the elite establishment made up mostly of powerful families.
Pakistan has rare voices in the media that tell the truth, but not enough. Too many newspapers and TV shows ignore real issues and gloss over real problems.
I want to see Journalism in my country, not Jhoutism. (In Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, Jhout is the word for lie).
After Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan became an important ally of the United States because it shares a border with Afghanistan. World Bank population data show that Pakistan had 177 million in 2009 - surely it now it has more. My province, Sindh, has faced waves of natural disasters for two years - recently 8 million people were left homeless by floods and rain.
Pakistan is an agricultural country. Freedom and rights are granted by the feudal lords, whose power exists not just in villages but in cities as well. Feudal lords own huge swaths of land and have several villages under their command.
There are lords of government and institutes, too. Pakistan's people have many problems, but the worst is extremism. It is like a black hole that sucks up people's freedom of thinking.
Pakistan is stuck where it was in the black era of the 1970s. Then, there were five provinces: Punjab, Bangal, NWFP, Balochistan and Sindh. Bangladesh was splitting off into its own country, and the Pakistani military rulers were trying to prevent news of the split. The people of the neighboring provinces didn't learn about it until it happened. They were shocked.
Controlling journalism in Pakistan is not new. Dictator General Zia ul Haq, who ruled from 1978 to 1988, banned newspapers. Some newspapers still published, but with blank pages when military censors demanded that certain stories not run.
Newspapers are free to publish again. But Pakistan is still a "controlled state" - journalism is still under the command of the establishment.
DRIVING THE MEDIA
In my country journalism does not play the role it should. Some journalists promote their own views. National electronic and print media express one view and regional papers another.
Regional papers are more likely to speak out on issues, but some are labeled as agents of various groups. The elite pay more attention to the national media and tend to ignore information published in regional papers. Many publications do not publish stories critical of the establishment because if they do, the journalist might be threatened.
The national media were critical of Pakistan's two late Prime Ministers, Zulifkar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, who were considered to be liberal and secular. But they rarely criticized General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq or dictators who have done things to destroy the country.
In two separate incidents the Pakistani media chose not to speak out. In one, CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot two people in Lahore, a city in Punjab, but he said it was in self-defense. In the other, American troops killed Osama bin Laden. In both cases, the media seemed to believe that they could not speak out against the establishment - only against the United States.
Recently, the Pakistani media spoke up for Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist accused of grabbing a rifle and shooting at American soldiers while being questioned in Afghanistan. In a recent speech to Pakistan's parliament Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called her "the daughter of the nation" and said he would fight for her release. But the media do not say a word about Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy after a Muslim neighbor accused her of making derogatory comments against the Prophet Muhammad during an argument in 2009.
Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer spoke out against the blasphemy law, but some media interpreted his support as being against Islam. He was assassinated in January.
If media had reported the dispute more fairly, Salman Taseer might still be alive. Asia Bibi is still in prison and extremists in Pakistan want Salman Taseer's killer freed.
If Aafia Siddiqui is a daughter of Pakistan, is Asia Bibi not daughter of Pakistan as well?
Pakistan has two kinds of journalism: biased journalism, and dynasty or family supporters. I call it Uncles & Aunts Journalism, where relatives have places in journalism and are promoted by relatives. Common journalists are stuck in the middle.
Honest talk needed
I have still hope.
Extremists want Pakistan to be deaf, dumb and blind. But if we in the media don't let them, if we talk honestly about issues, then change will come.
In my country we need real journalism. Journalists are the ones who give information to society. A society wants "truth" and if we as journalists mold information, it doesn't remain the truth.
What do we need? Journalism or Jhoutism?
Unbiased journalism would better serve the people of Pakistan.
Published in Arizona Daily Star Newspaper on 10 October, 2011.