The Image of Pakistan in Western Media

Too Little Research, too Many Clichés

Especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the German media have presented a distorted view of Pakistan. Much of the reporting reveals that reporters often take a prejudicially selective view. An analysis by Thomas Baerthlein

photo: AP
Too little research, too many clichés about Pakistan in German media.

​​The German media were quick to jump on the bandwagon when international attention turned toward Pakistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11th – and especially after the war in Afghanistan had begun. At that time, visitors to Peshawar, the province on the country’s northwestern border, observed scenes that have remained emblematic for the way Europe and America perceives Pakistan: Those days saw numerous and repeated small, anti-war demonstrations in the city’s streets, carried out by a few, mostly bearded men, whom were always followed by an equally large throng of Western photographers and camera crews.

Television reporting in particular was dominated by images such as these, while a few newspapers were more honest and explained early on that the protesters were but a small minority of the Pakistani population. And yet to this day, German media have continued to exaggerate the significance of Pakistani Islamists – as if the reporters had specifically gone out in search of them.

Shady reporters in place of traditional correspondents

No German news medium retains permanent representatives in Pakistan, with the possible exception of the German wire service dpa (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, German Press Agency), which transmits reports by local stringers as well as stories reported by correspondents stationed in New Delhi to its headquarters in Hamburg.

Those correspondents responsible for reporting on Pakistan to newspapers, the ARD radio-broadcasting consortium and the various television networks are usually stationed either in Delhi or in other, even more distant Asian cities such as Bangkok or Singapore. They do make frequent visits to Pakistan, but of course these trips adhere to a previously determined agenda, and are much less likely to bring to light spontaneous, diverse impressions of the country than on-going local observation would yield.

These curtailments in the journalistic infrastructure may be an important reason why reporting about Pakistan covers an extremely narrow range of topics: A systematic review of the reporting and commentary that have appeared in leading German media outlets since September 11, 2001, reveals that attention remains consistently focused on two subjects: The Islamist movement and terrorism on the one hand, and the conflict between India and Pakistan on the other.

Only very few articles have appeared that dealt with any other topics. Even though it is true that most of the articles that did appear dealt with their subjects responsibly, the fact that such one-sided priorities were set results in a severely distorted view.

SPIEGEL reporters know more … – the "Stone Age Islamist"

photo: AP
In the media focus: The armies of India and Pakistan

​​In many cases, however, there are fundamental problems with the way reporters make their observations in the first place. When western reporters write about Islamism and its role in Pakistan, two things often occur: Firstly, there is a lack of genuine observation. From time to time, diligence in reporting is replaced by pure fantasy: A SPIEGEL reporter sees the police arresting a few men in flowing robes (“presumably members of a sect”) and comes to the conclusion that the atmosphere in Islamabad is “restless and unquiet, infused with lurking tension, such as one might experience before a storm” (SPIEGEL, September 24, 2001).

The second problem arising in this context is distance: The same reporter visits the northwestern border province and notices that the place seems to be “in another world”. The article makes mention of “Stone Age Islamists” – a patently absurd phrase. After all, aren’t movements such as the Taliban, at least in come aspects, a decidedly modern phenomenon?

Overall, the article leaves the reader with an feeling of unbridgeable distance and the impression: “These people and political movements are incomprehensible to us; they come from the Stone Age or from another world that has nothing in common with ours.”

"Madrassas", also known as Koran schools, are places many reporters love to visit. But the reporters always target those schools that are able to supply them with frightening stories about children being indoctrinated with radical ideologies, schools where young people are being prepared to die as martyrs for the Jihad. There is no earnest estimate as to how representative these schools are. And there is no reporting about all the other schools, religious or otherwise, that are attended by the majority of children.

Occasionally the articles quite simply appear under the wrong headline: The author reports in detail that fundamentalists are merely a small minority of Pakistani Muslims, who have as yet exercised little influence, but the article carries the title: “Pakistan has not yet found a way to deal with Islamism” (FAZ, October 6, 2001).

Karachi – sometimes a city in chaos, sometimes a cancerous tumor

German newspapers devoted a great deal of space in 2002 to the nuclear showdown between India and Pakistan. Many

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editorials spoke of the imminent danger of war, whereby they occasionally alluded (more or less clearly) to the extremely dubious fear that India and Pakistan could not be relied upon to behave rationally. But even analyses that dealt rationally with the danger, for example by pointing out that Pakistan’s atomic arsenal was not likely to fall into the hands of Islamists or terrorists, left a vague impression of Pakistan as a place filled with danger.

When reporters write about the city of Karachi, they invariably do so under headlines such as “Chaos in Karachi” (SZ, September 26, 2002) or use sentences such as “Karachi is a monster of a city”, “growing like a cancerous tumor” (SPIEGEL, October 7, 2002): This is the diction of prejudice, not that of open-minded observation.

Since there are no positive stories at all, readers are left feeling helpless and threatened. A headline on the editorial page of the “Süddeutschen” newspaper put it like this: "Pakistan in Chaos – The West, helpless and indignant, casts an eye to its ally in the war on terror” (SZ, August 12, 2002). Another editorial headline refers to Pakistan quite simply as “The real threat” (FR, August 13, 2002).

The overall impression arising from this kind of reporting is one of Pakistan as an extremely dangerous country, threatened by a massive wave of Islamist terror, that simultaneously represents a flashpoint of nuclear confrontation with India, and that ultimately is a hotbed of criminality and intolerance, especially toward women.

photo: AP
Far removed from the media’s war scenarios – Parliamentary elections in Pakistan.

​​There is no denying that these kinds of problems exist in Pakistan, and that they must be broached by journalists. But taken together, they do not come close to giving readers a representative view of the country. All other developments and topics – e.g. economic and social development, regional conflicts, everyday life in cities and villages, art and culture, education – seem to be entirely missing from German news reports.

Also missing is the entire spectrum of Islam in Pakistan, which does not exclusively consist of radical groups. The traditional political parties, civil society in general, human rights activists, the media landscape that has been drastically changed since the introduction of private television broadcasters – all of this seems not to exist, receiving no mention in news reports.

Islam and the climate of fear

What is to blame for this misleading over-simplification? One cannot accuse the reporters and editors of doing it on purpose. Those who study the media generally ascribe such stereotypes and tunnel vision as the result of “framing”: Journalists describe reality from within a given framework that is usually established subconsciously over a long period of time. In the case of Pakistan, two factors in particular have played an important role in defining this framework:

photo: AP
Rehabilitation center for torture victims in Pakistan

​​On the one hand, this is an example of the fact that at least since September 11, 2001, the West has exhibited a fear bordering on paranoia of radical Islam. This fear has been augmented by political/military campaigns on the one hand and by continued terrorist attacks on the other. Tragically, this development is precisely the “clash of cultures” that the terrorists seem determined to bomb into existence.

In Pakistan, too, some have profited from the West’s exaggerated fear, in some cases even bolstered it. President Musharaff, for example, hopes to strengthen his position by presenting himself to the world community as the only potential anchor of stability. Unfortunately, this kind of manipulation is not sufficiently questioned by the German press.

Instead, the news is dominated by the dubious contention that the Islamists enjoy considerable support within the population, and that only this fact prevents Musharaff from pursuing them as diligently as he would like.

A double standard

Even more difficult to understand is why reporting about Pakistan in German media comes across as even more narrow-minded and negative than reporting about the country’s Muslim neighbors, Afghanistan and Iran. Readers of German newspapers may not be aware that Pakistan is a pluralistic country, considerably more so – and considerably more free – than Iran or many of the Arab states.

The reporting from Iran and especially Afghanistan is more colorful and diverse, offering portraits of very different kinds of people. The media have made Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi a symbol of the “other Iran” and for the diversity of Iranian society.

It would not be difficult to find people like her in Pakistan as well. The fact that they find no mention in the German press is perhaps paradoxically explained by the complexity of the political situation as a whole. Words like “perplexing”, “confusing” and “difficult to comprehend” appear again and again in news reports with a Pakistani dateline.

The journalistic path of least resistance

But rather than seeing this fact as a reason to spend more time in the country, many writers tend to make stark oversimplifications, perhaps also because this makes it easier for them to sell their stories to their editors. Clichés, according to this interpretation, are symptomatic of the unwillingness to come to terms with a complex situation – something that has been observable in reporting on South Asia for some time now.

A journalistic alternative might lie in the development of a new reporting format, as has taking place in India. There have been rare laudable approaches, e.g. a report in the “Süddeutschen Zeitung” about arms deals in tribal areas of Pakistan, in which a diversified view of individuals and their motives was presented without sweeping any problems under the rug (November 24, 2001).

Why isn’t there more of this kind of reporting? When it comes to freedom of the press, Pakistan cannot be compared with Saudi Arabia. The cruel murder of "Wall Street Journal"-correspondent Daniel Pearl may have scared away many colleagues. Still, the safety risks in Pakistan cannot compare to those in Iraq, where there is a glut of reporters.

No one expects German newspaper readers to be interested in the details of political and social developments in Pakistan. But on the other hand, Pakistan is not just another “banana republic” but a nation in possession of atomic weapons and home to 150 million people. In light of these facts, thorough and well-balanced information should not be treated as a luxury...

Thomas Bärthlein

© 2003

Translated from the German by Mark Rossmann

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