Saturday, October 1, 2016

Notes from Pakistan: Being a journalist in Pakistan means risking your life to save a country

Randy Bangert, "Notes from Pakistan: Being a journalist in Pakistan means risking your life to save a country,"; see also.

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One of the keys to bringing about a more peaceful Pakistan is journalism. A free, robust journalism that can be aggressive in providing accurate information and producing lively debate in this Muslim country, which has had both good moments and bad as it tries to build an emerging democracy.

The International Center for Journalists based in Washington, D.C., certainly believes in that concept. It sponsors a Pakistan journalist exchange program that so far has brought about 230 Pakistani journalists to the United States to observe journalism and how it works in America. One of those Pakistani journalists, Ali Xafar, came to Greeley last summer and spent three weeks in The Tribune’s newsroom. I just returned home Thursday after spending two weeks in Pakistan with other journalists from around the country. I was part of a group of eight journalists to visit Pakistan over the last two weeks, bringing the total to 34 American journalists who have visited Pakistan.

And here’s one thing I learned during our visit: The U.S. State Department also believes journalism can play a key role in helping this terror-torn Muslim country put together a democracy that works and perhaps can help bring peace to the Mideast.

The State Department has given a $2 million grant to the ICFJ to help fund its Pakistani journalist exchange, among other programs. Journalists from Cambodia, Russia, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and China have also visited the United States.

But the State Department has made a bigger commitment: It has given $4 million to the Centre for Excellence in Journalism in Karachi. It is the second largest public diplomacy grant by the State Department in the world.

The CEJ program offers a variety of two-week training programs for TV, print and digital journalists in Karachi. The ICFJ and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University also are partners. The grant has paid for classrooms and meeting space, a working broadcast studio and a multimedia lab. Overall, it teaches working journalists practical skills in a setting where they can have access to leading academic and professional journalists from around Karachi or the United States.

Our group of eight visiting journalists from America had the benefit of observing one of the training sessions on a Monday afternoon. I have never seen such a lively discussion or a more passionate group of journalists. In teams of five or six, they presented ideas for investigative TV projects to the rest of their classmates as well as their teacher. There was lively debate, shouting, laughing, disagreement, suggestions, more laughter and more loud debate. But it became quickly obvious: There is a bountiful passion and enthusiasm for journalism in Pakistan.

It should come as no surprise in some ways. Before 2001, there was only one TV news program in Pakistan, and it was government funded. Then, the government decided to allow privately-owned TV news. Now there are 90-plus stations. Many of the best-read newspapers in Pakistan also have TV stations.

The journalists’ enthusiasm for journalism should come as a surprise, however, in another way. It is a dangerous profession.

In my two-week visit to the Islamabad and Karachi, we stopped by the Kirachi (Pakistan) Press Club on our last day. It has a history that goes back to 1958, less than a decade after the country was formed. Today it is a bustling center of activity for journalists. They come there for a meal, for meetings, for training, to write stories, and to enjoy social activities. Press conferences are conducted there. Protests, rallies and demonstrations are frequently scheduled there by the public, in the hopes they will be more easily covered by the media.

One of the first things you see upon entering the Karachi Press Club building is dozens of mug shots on a wall. They are some of the 109 journalists who have died while doing their job in Pakistan since 2000, according to Media Matters for Democracy. Pakistan regularly ranks in the top 10 worldwide on the list of the most dangerous places to work for journalists.

The Press Club has an unusual rule: No one wearing a military uniform is allowed onto the grounds.

The rule highlights an uneasy relationship between the media and the military in Pakistan. Media leaders in the country say the journalist deaths rarely result in an arrest or prosecution of the perpetrator. Some will say privately that a few of the deaths have been at the hands of the military.

Beyond the deaths, media officials in Kirachi say their reporters regularly receive threats from both the military as well as militant groups for their coverage. Reporters are whisked off the streets and assaulted while on assignment. There are threats delivered by email or phone calls. The building that houses the Pakistan Express-Tribune in Kirachi was bombed a few years ago.

All three news outlets that we visited — Dawn, the Express-Tribune, and GEO — have heavily guarded entrances to their buildings. That includes multiple guards with guns and big metal gates that stop any visitors on the outside.

The media is “officially” free of government interference in Pakistan. But it is hard not to be aware of the unofficial pressures. The threats, the bombings, the deaths all lead to self-censorship at times, media leaders admitted. It turns out the free press in Pakistan is not quite as free as it could be.

Which is why the State Department tries to nurture good journalism with its substantial investment.

Being a journalist in Pakistan means putting your life on the line daily.

But it also means trying to help to save a country, and save a democracy.

— Randy Bangert is the editor of The Greeley Tribune. He just returned from a two-week international journalism exchange program with Pakistan, sponsored by the International Center for Journalists.

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