Cost of foreign media temptations
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s media managers prefer to talk to the foreign media instead of local outlets when major news breaks in the country. But this comes at a cost. These foreign media outlets report the news with a slant or without context, leaving Pakistani officials to clean up the mess that is caused as a consequence.
But the lure of the foreign media is too hard to resist and many Pakistani leaders – both civilian and military, prefer to be humiliated on the Western media than be honest on the local ones.
A recent example was a stuttering Yousaf Raza Gilani telling a pushy CNN interviewer that those Pakistanis who are not happy with the way the country is run “are free to leave.” Many recall how a bumbling Sartaj Aziz, then foreign minister in the Nawaz Sharif government, gave away Pakistan’s case on Kargil in his eagerness to be interviewed on a BBC talk show.
As a rule, Pakistan’s media managers prefer to connect with media persons having some foreign media tag especially when it comes to some important news item. Sometimes this costs Pakistan’s image dearly. Local journalists complain that officials of various ministries routinely quote a government notification that ‘we are asked not to talk to media.’ But the same rule is waived for the foreign press. In India, say analysts, the opposite is the case.
The person assigned to liaise with the media tries best to keep them away. “We are often lectured on the ‘national interest’- a vague term in which scope and parameters keep changing.”
There are hundreds of examples where officials prefer the foreign media over the local media when it comes to ‘breaking’ news. “Once the story is leaked we have to toe the line, as the foreign media houses like everywhere have their angle for such news,” complained one local writer.
One international news agency, which has a solid presence in Islamabad, has seen many of its local staff resign as they feel that the news agency is pursuing an agenda of its own, which is anti-Pakistan. Despite this, the EP wing of the ministry of information continues to give it top access to our leaders.
These officials then claim afterwards that they get ‘misquoted.’ It is only then that they bring the local media into the equation for damage control. The information officers bombard the local media with requests to publish clarifications ‘to put the record straight.’ Ironically, the foreign media outlet that is accused to have originally misquoted usually never issues a clarification as in many cases, no misquote took place in the first place.
Officials of different departments and ministries in Pakistan also call the foreign journalists to share the news- ‘to make friends in foreign media’.
The attitude is frustrating say local journalists. One recalls that it was a text message sent in 2009 by then information minister, Sherry Rehman, to the Associated Press which confirmed that Prime Minister Gilani had sacked his advisor on national security Mehmood Ali Durrani for confirming the nationality of Ajmal Kasab.
This text message allowed the reporter break that news and it was carried later by local media outlets. “The honourable minister had similar queries in her inbox from the many of us,” laments one local journalist.
Officials who take care of the military’s media wing are equally guilty. A serving official in the ISPR, who requested anonymity, endorsed this perception and said that military officials in Pakistan think that if they release news to foreign media outlets first the correspondent would present a ‘soft image’ of the Pakistan military. “This payback mentality usually backfires.”
An example of this bias occurred on May 3rd 2011, the morning after the US raid on the Osama compound. Correspondents from across Pakistan started contacting the then DG ISPR, Major General Athar Abbas, but he did not reply and the phone lines of his office were put on hold. But the next day, a background briefing was given: first to the foreign media. BBC and Reuters correspondents flashed the content first. On the third day of the same incident, despite repeated requests made by the local media, Pakistani officials released exclusive pictures that were taken right after the US operation to Reuters.
Back in 2006, during the tenure of then DG ISPR Shaukat Sultan, those Pakistani journalists who had their appointments already fixed with the DG according to the protocol, used to wait for the whole day long if a foreign correspondent dropped by at the 11th hour.
The political leadership is no better. PM Gilani talked about the sensitive details of the memo-gate row with a Chinese daily. And those remarks kicked off a new row.
Business reporters are also victims of this colonial bias. In the last week of May 2011, Governor State Bank chose the Wall Street Journal to inform that Pakistan’s foreign reserves were under pressure due to upcoming IMF payments and this could take country back to the IMF’s door. The rupee nosedived after this interview.
Similarly, ex-defence minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar who released a series of controversial statements regarding resumption of NATO routes, Pak-US ties and Pakistan’s military’s engagements in Siachen did so to the foreign press.
The minister, who is usually inaccessible to local media, later claimed he was either ‘misquoted’ or his statement was taken ‘out of context.’ The story never ends