America’s media concerns
By: Huma Yusuf
US SECRETARY of State Hillary Clinton probably needed a throat lozenge on Friday night. After intense meetings with members of Pakistan’s security and political establishment, she participated in a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, answered tough questions from Pakistan’s leading news anchors and engaged in a televised ‘townterviewÂ’ with civil society representatives.
The media blitz was a clear throwback to the secretaryÂ’s October 2009 visit, when her candid views and charm offensive managed to win over some stubborn Pakistani hearts and minds.
Clinton’s 2009 trip is widely acknowledged as a high point in US public diplomacy efforts within Pakistan by State Department officials and members of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan’s team. Her accessible manner, blunt talk and willingness to engage directly with different strata of Pakistani society earned her much respect and helped complicate the fiery, nationalist debate around the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. The media component of Clinton’s visit last week was no doubt an attempt to replicate the success of her earlier public forays.
This repeat performance is a good demonstration of the fact that the US is able to learn from past mistakes and respond to ground realities in Pakistan. Clinton’s interactions with Pakistanis in 2009 worked for several reasons: she did not patronise members of the public and gave honest answers to difficult questions; moreover, the open give-and-take indicated to Pakistanis that they were engaged in a conversation with an equal partner, and not being treated as renegade children by a scolding parent. Although circumstances are much altered since 2009, Friday’s outreach also had a respectful tenor, and should help set the tone for US-Pakistan dialogue, as opposed to bickering.
Clinton’s appeal is a departure from other US public diplomacy initiatives, specifically with regards to Pakistan’s independent media. Many of those have been more covert, doctored and heavy-handed.
According to a leaked diplomatic cable from November 2008, US embassy officials considered punishing a major media group for “consciously publishing and broadcasting false and inflammatory stories” about US government policies by cancelling its lucrative contract to broadcast Voice of America programming. That measure, if it had been implemented, would have had financial repercussions for the group and would have amounted to an intimidation tactic.
In a more direct exchange, former US ambassador Anne Patterson in September 2009 sent a letter to the same media company complaining that an article published in the group’s English-language daily made incorrect allegations that had endangered the lives of US citizens.
The offending article claimed that contractors for Blackwater, a private security company, were operating in Pakistan on behalf of the US government. The newspaper dropped the article, leading to widespread charges within the journalistic community and Pakistani blogosphere that the US was trying to censor the Pakistani media.
In light of the failure of the direct approach, the Obama administration in 2010 announced that it was allocating $50m for a ‘comprehensive communications strategy’ in Pakistan. The funds were allocated to strengthen moderate Pakistani voices, counter extremist media and monitor local media for anti-American sentiment. The US State Department also aimed to improve the portrayal of American policy by independent outlets through increased engagement. Unsurprisingly, this allocation was termed a ‘bribe’ for the Pakistani media by the US government and was instantly viewed with suspicion and concern among the Pakistani public.
These incidents, among others, have made Pakistanis fear an American attempt to infiltrate and co-opt their free press. Those fears became apparent during a recent controversy involving two Pakistani journalists filing news reports from Washington through a non-profit intermediary called America Abroad Media (AAM). The organisation was using US State Department funding up to $2m to finance reporting that could be of interest to the Pakistani public. However, neither AAM nor the Pakistani news organisations with which the two reporters were affiliated disclosed their source of funding.
A serious backlash ensued when the US State Department’s involvement in programming intended for broadcast by Pakistani channels became known: the lack of transparency on all fronts raised concerns about the US, its methods, and its allegedly nefarious plan to insinuate its policies and agenda in public Pakistani discourse.
The fact is, Pakistani disquiet about the US co-opting the independent media exists in the same vein as concerns about the presence of CIA contractors in private homes across Karachi and Lahore as well as boots on the ground in the tribal belt.
These concerns are a strong indictment of US public diplomacy strategy in Pakistan – and they know it. Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. in October 2010, late ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the US government’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, conceded that the US’s public diplomacy efforts in Pakistan “virtually didn’t exist” when the Obama administration took office. He added that learning how to engage Pakistan’s “chaotic” press is a high priority for Clinton.
Clinton’s realisation that the Pakistani media must be intelligently catered to – rather than pandered to in suspicious or surreptitious ways – is an important step towards mending US-Pakistan relations. In many ways, the failure of US public diplomacy initiatives in Pakistan is a microcosm of the failure of US politicking vis-Ã -vis the country.
To succeed, both US public diplomacy efforts and US-Pakistan relations require more transparency, an equal equation, a less patronising approach towards Pakistani policy, and greater regard for Pakistan’s concerns.
Mechanisms also need to be put in place to occasionally reverse the dynamic and let Pakistan ask the tough questions while the US defends its actions. It is clear through Clinton’s recent media engagement that the public diplomacy team has acknowledged its failings and come to appreciate the way to move forward. Let’s hope that the rest of the US government follows suit.