For the journalists in Pakistan, the September 11 attack was a bolt out of the blue. And this bolt was followed quickly by President George W. Bush’s call to President General Pervez Musharraf asking him to choose sides—the Americans’ or the terrorists’. With the decision to back America, Pakistansuddenly emerged into the world’s spotlight and became a highly strategic news location for the international media. For the people and journalists of Pakistan, this marked a giant change from years of being an international recluse that was known primarily for its many sanctions following its nuclear testing and after General Pervez Musharraf seized power by overthrowing an elected government.
On September 11, and again on October 7 when the bombing campaign in Afghanistan began, Pakistani newspapers employed large-size, hard-hitting headlines to report the news. During much of this crisis, entire front pages of the nation’s several dozen newspapers, along with editorial columns, were devoted to news, opinions and images of its dramatic events. Following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the overriding view expressed in Pakistan’s media was of wholehearted condemnation of the terrorist attack on the United States. However, as American bombardment of targets in Kabul, Kandahar and other Afghan cities dragged on and caused the killing of civilians, media sentiment gradually came to reflect heightened concern and sympathy for the suffering of the Afghan people.
The upsurge in sympathy for Afghan civilians did not translate into support or sympathy for the Taliban. The majority public opinion in Pakistan favors a moderate, progressive Islamic society. Even before September 11, many in Pakistan were thoroughly dismayed with the distortion of Islam by the Taliban. Enlightened public opinion has always been very apprehensive of the rising threat to Pakistani society from indigenous religious fanatics hopeful of imposing a Taliban-type, rigid Islamic system in Pakistan.
Increasing concern was also reflected in stories about the escalating number of civilian casualties and the arrival of hordes of hungry and sick Afghan men, women and children on Pakistan’s borders. Columnists wrote that the American offensive was inflicting very harsh punishment on the citizens of Afghanistan (not the Taliban) and that the United States should have found a better way to deal with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
In Pakistan, almost all the largely circulated English and Urdu language newspapers are independent in their editorial policy, thus allowing a diversity of viewpoints to be put forth in news and opinion columns. Among these independent print media, condemnation of the terrorist attacks was virtually universal, as was support for General Musharraf’s decision to side with the international community, though there was certainly fair and balanced coverage given to all the parties in the conflict. In Pakistan, too, a substantial number of publications are brought out by political and religious parties and, in those, views adhere more to the publisher’s purpose. Their circulation is limited to those who tend to already share those opinions.
Pakistani journalists have had to walk a tightrope in trying to keep all parties satisfied with their “balanced” coverage. Despite their best efforts, no one seems fully satisfied with their performance, and some journalists and publications have faced complaints, even overt or hidden threats from different sides. Government functionaries call editors and news editors with “advices” to be a little more careful in their display of news and headlines hostile to the government. Journalists in this country are quite familiar with the threats concealed in these “friendly advices.” This is a version of the well-known game of intimidating the media and a reminder that the government in power in Pakistan is a military dictatorship. If driven to the wall, it might clamp harsh restrictions on the press.
With this in mind, news managers always take these “press advices” seriously and, drawing on their experience with the two previous military dictatorships of General Ayub Khan and General Zia ul-Haq, exercised care not to provoke the generals. The approach that seems to work best is to avoid printing abusive or offensive words and expressions of the oppositionleaders, while at the same time finding ways to project their criticism. But even with this approach there is a limit. When one religious cleric issued an edict, declaring General Pervez Musharraf a “renegade from Islam” and calling for volunteers to “behead” him, no major newspaper carried the story.
However, more frightening threats have come from the religious elements. In a typical scenario, a group of bearded toughs visit the newspaper office and very “courteously” inform the editor of the growing anger and frustration among their followers because of the unfair coverage of their activities in the newspaper. “We are restraining them, but please be fair to our news,” they will say. For editors, who have in the past seen violent attacks on newspaper offices and newsmen, it would be foolish not to take their message seriously. But, generally, newspapers refused to be cowed, so the only way to cope was to enhance gate security. We are grateful that as I write this article at the beginning of November neither the government nor the extremists have translated threats into action.
Despite lack of popular support and with the help of their limited but dedicated cadre of followers, Islamic extremists were able to organize dramatic protest rallies and marches in various cities of Pakistan. In these demonstrations—broadcast to a worldwide audience—the protesters openly abused Musharraf for siding with “infidel” America, asked people to rise against his government, and called upon armed forces to remove him from power. These demonstrators were not apologetic about the September 11 terrorist attack: “Thousands of Muslim and Arab civilians have been killed by the Israeli and American military forces in Palestine, Iraq, Libya and other countries,” said Maulana Abdul Hameed, a fiery orator, as he addressed a protest rally in Karachi. That a vast majority of Pakistanis neither supported nor sympathized with this viewpoint limited the protesters’ power and enabled the government to control them.
However, those in the West urging that the threat of these fanatics not be underestimated were right, too, given the moderate Islamic social and political structure in Pakistan, which is experiencing economic stagnation and military frailty primarily because of the sanctions. “The lifting of sanctions and visible high-speed arrival of economic and financial succor to Pakistan definitely helped raise the morale of the government and of the moderate majority to stand up to the frenzied assault of the fanatics,” a columnist wrote in the Urdu-language daily, Jang, in Karachi.
In early November, Pakistani media commentators were still skeptical of the successful outcome of the American offensive on Afghanistan, with success defined as getting rid of the Taliban and/or bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Many analysts who were quoted in news articles thought the military action would achieve nothing more than pacification of the revenge-thirsty American public and that what happened on September 11 could happen again if the basic causes underlying such terrorism are not dealt with. “Even if Osama bin Laden is caught and killed, 100 other Osamas will take his place,” said Saeed Hassan, a University of Karachi professor. A senior media analyst, Karachi’s Agha Masood, recently said: “The issue finally boils down to this: investigate and root out the causes of terrorism, solve issues of Palestine, Kashmir and other festering sores in other parts of the world, and you would have effectively rooted out terrorism.”
There was an in-depth and prolonged discussion in the media about how to define what terrorism is. An editorial in a Lahore English newspaper, The Nation, said: “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Even the Western world has historically recognized genuine wars of liberation and supported and eulogized them. It is important that ultimately the world leaders should get together in a saner environment to ponder on how really to eradicate causes that force people to resort to violence.” An editorial comment in a Karachi Urdu-language daily summed up the issue in these words: “It is of fundamental importance that the fine division between terrorism and freedom fighter be correctly understood to achieve lasting solutions to the menace of terrorism.”
That editorial went on to observe: “There is talk of threats from fanatics unleashing nuclear or chemical weapons against civilian populations, but such an attack could be expected only from maniacs undertaking ‘terrorism for the sake of terrorism’ and not from dedicated freedom fighters committed to a ‘cause.’” As more firsthand reporting emerges out of Afghanistan, it becomes more evident that despite civilian casualties the U.S. bombing is directed against Taliban military targets. The overwhelming majority of moderate public opinion in Pakistan, therefore, remains supportive of General Musharraf’s policy of supporting the fight against terrorism.
Fazal Qureshi is chief editor of the Pakistan Press International (PPI) news agency in Karachi, Pakistan.