An arrogant media
By Shada Islam
IT has been an unusual week at the European Union, dominated by the EU-Pakistan summit and the arrival in Brussels of an avalanche of Pakistani politicians, parliamentarians and journalists all determined to strut their stuff, while also taking in as much shopping, sightseeing and cafes/restaurants as humanly possible.
As expected, the EU-Pakistan summit was predictable enough. The EU and Pakistan promised to start a strategic dialogue, forge stronger relations and begin a comprehensive partnership for peace and development. There was no breakthrough on trade and market access but much talk of helping Pakistan to weather the economic crisis and make friends with its prickly neighbours.
Alright, I admit, there was some excitement. At the last minute and with no forewarning, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton did not turn up for the summit, embarrassing both the Pakistani delegation which had Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in tow and EU governments which were not told of Ashton’s unexpected decision to snub Pakistan. EU insiders admitted they could not quite make out just why Ashton had decided to play hard-to-get, especially since Britain is one of the few European countries to actually back stronger relations with Pakistan.
However, Ashton is not exactly known for her foreign policy experience/acumen and one EU diplomat shrugged off the diplomatic faux pas as just another example of how difficult ‘Cathy’ found it to juggle her work/life challenges.
“Ashton’s overworked,” he said, referring to the foreign policy chief’s dual role as foreign policy ‘high representative’ as well as European Commission vice-president. “But she is certainly not underpaid,” the diplomat added, referring to reports that Ashton is the world’s highest-earning female official.
The focus, however, was not on EU officials but on the huge delegation accompanying Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani – and a second, more modest, group of Pakistani media representatives who were invited by the European Commission for a bit of ‘soft power’ diplomacy designed to correct perceptions that Europeans don’t really care what happens to the country of the pure.
The insight into Pakistan’s psyche provided by the two groups was enlightening – not just for this correspondent but also for their European hosts. First, the officials. As he spoke to a select group of Pakistani-Europeans over lunch on Thursday, it was clear that Prime Minister Gilani was slowly but surely coming into his own as a confident, self-assured politician.
As the national anthem played, I felt a certain thrill of recognition and pride, followed by horror at having forgotten the lyrics and then relief since I was certainly not the only one unable to sing along. More mortification followed as I took out my notepad to take down a few quotes from the prime minister – his oratory got the better of me. I soon could not keep up with Mr Gilani’s references to jails, dictators, democracy and power cuts.
“Democracy is power,” said the prime minister at one point, while loyal PPP activists at the luxury Conrad Hotel shouted: “Pakistan Zindabad!” A Pakistani woman parliamentarian spent the next hour looking soulful and gave me a few odd looks. A young woman reporter on my left compared Pakistan’s decision to declare Ahmadis non-believers to the Belgian parliament’s decision to ban the burka. I was slightly baffled but too weary to pursue the argument.Then the journalists. Whenever asked to speak on Pakistan and EU-Pakistan relations, I always put the spotlight on the strength, resilience and vibrancy of Pakistani civil society and insist that the country’s independent media is a force for positive change. The group of 10 journalists invited to Brussels for a bit of gentle ‘brainwashing’ by the European Commission certainly proved that Pakistani reporters are clever, argumentative and knowledgeable. But in some cases, also, rude, macho and overbearing.
Asked by the European Journalism Centre to address the Pakistani colleagues on EU-Pakistan relations, I was eager and ready to oblige. I looked forward to some stimulating exchanges and also to learning more about recent developments in the country. The media team did not disappoint. Led by what I assumed were the country’s ‘leading’ TV personalities, the group queried me on all aspects of EU-Pakistan relations and the country’s image in Europe.
My frank response that Pakistan is seen as a country that shelters, equips and trains terrorists, extremists and insurgents, drew an angry response from some members of the group. I was constantly interrupted, and taken to task for daring to question Pakistan’s pristine pure reputation as an ‘island of stability in a violent region’.
As I spoke, the voices rose, the interruptions became more frequent – and the attacks more personal: by accusing Pakistani security services of nurturing insurgents, I was “disconnected” from the reality of Pakistan and a pawn in the hands of “western”’ analysts, said a certain Moeed H. Pirzada of Dunya News.
As the argument progressed, it became clear that, according to the reportedly famous Mr Pirzada, I was no better than Ahmed Rashid. “He’s not one of us, he does not represent our views,” he proclaimed loudly. I was fortunate: Mr Pirzada did not call me an Israeli/CIA/Indian agent. But clearly, from his standpoint, people like Ahmed Rashid and I should be sent to Coventry – or its Pakistani equivalent – and never heard from again.
I am sure Mr Pirzada is a great anchor but the incident made me think: what is it that makes Pakistanis so unable to take responsibility for their actions? Why are Pakistanis perennial victims, believers in conspiracy theories, misogynists and chronically unable to stop rudely interrupting, especially when women speak?
And really, who is disconnected from reality? Those who dare question conventional wisdom, take authority to task and believe that governments must be at the service of the people? Or those who swallow official propaganda, spread dishonest views, fuel more hate and prejudice, while insisting: it’s ‘my country, right or wrong’?