Pakistan does not fare well in the foreign media. It is a greatly misunderstood country. Rarely is there a positive story and the perception remains of a very dangerous country. No matter what happens, what the achievements are, there is still very little shift in perceptions. In the past two years, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been extremely successful, terrorism has decreased, ongoing operations continue to destroy the remaining terrorist groups and their infrastructure throughout the country, and the security situation has improved greatly. Yet recent articles from leading international media organisations remain extremely negative.
Friends overseas, the ones who have never visited Pakistan, are constantly concerned that I spend my life avoiding bombs, the Taliban are at my doorstep, that I could be kidnapped at any moment, and live a hard life in a very scary place. Somehow I think they merge Pakistan and Afghanistan in their minds. They were shocked when I declared I like living here and planned to stay in Pakistan and after all this time, mostly their views have not changed. Their perceptions are guided by what they read and the visuals in the foreign media despite all that I tell them about my ordinary and pleasant life here amongst good people. Most won’t visit me despite travelling overseas frequently. They feel the risk is too high. Those who do visit – despite dire warnings from their other friends – discover a lively and beautiful country, and nothing like what they were led to believe in the media. They return home as good ambassadors for Pakistan as do so many others who have made the trip.
Like most foreigners who have made Pakistan home, I look at the media through both a local and foreign ‘lens’. I am not naïve or blind to the problems the country has struggled with, and continues to face. Some seriously horrible things happen here and, no doubt, may continue to happen. Stories emanating from a news desk somewhere overseas frequently lack the nuance and understanding of the ground reality and culture which is more obvious in stories written here by locally based foreign media. Pakistan is a developing country and like many other countries in the developing world, there are very challenging issues about poverty, violence against women, attacks, and other sad tales. Pakistan is not alone in that. We only need to look across the border at India.
It is not just westerners who have a very negative perception of Pakistan. Last year I travelled to Saudi Arabia to teach a course in Disaster Management at a well-known, highly respected organisation. Every person I encountered, from immigration on arrival to my students, voiced their surprise and shock that I was living in a ‘dangerous country like Pakistan’. Despite being frequent travellers, not one of my students, all well-educated, from middle and upper class families, aged in their 20’s, had any wish to visit Pakistan despite being Muslim, and the ‘brotherly relations’ between the two countries. I found this surprising and disappointing. Again, their views were mostly influenced from the international media.
There is much more to Pakistan than the image portrayed through the media. Friendly people, diverse and vibrant cultures, amazing hospitality, colourfully dressed women, delicious food and the most spectacular scenery are just part of what makes Pakistan a fascinating place. There are so many talented people including world-class scientists, engineers, and a thriving entrepreneur scene particularly in the IT industry. The country continues to host three million Afghan refugees and has done so for almost 40 years, at enormous cost and disruption, a tribute to Pakistan’s hospitality. But little is heard of these stories internationally.
Despite the reduction in terrorist attacks, and growing market opportunities, and the country being recently upgraded to ‘emerging market’ status by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, attracting investment remains a challenge. The stock market is doing well but most investors still believe Pakistan is too high a risk. In fact, many potential investors won’t even visit Pakistan for fear of attack or kidnapping, so representatives from Pakistan have to travel to the UAE or elsewhere to meet them. Even IMF meetings are held in the UAE. If investors and other potential partners won’t travel to Pakistan for meetings, it seriously diminishes any chance of any deal progressing. However, there have been some recent large investments from international companies, as well as the massive Chinese investment in CPEC, which would pave the way for others to gain the courage to follow.
It is clear that Pakistan needs to do more to communicate its case to the world. But first, it is important to consider what are some of the current key drivers of this bias and negativity. Geo-politics certainly plays a large part and two factors seem to be currently in play. The first is the foreign policy of the U.S. in the region. The worsening situation in Afghanistan remains a monumental problem for the U.S. Containment of China’s influence in the region is also on the U.S. agenda. Pakistan’s close relationship with China, and the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor seems to be of concern to policy makers in the U.S. The U.S. is now strengthening its ties with India which itself, is already making strong inroads in Afghanistan and also building strong relationships with Iran.
Megaphone diplomacy – using off-the-record briefings of the media by Washington or other ‘insiders’ – to push a particular agenda to crush an opponent or draw a supposedly recalcitrant party into line, does seem to be at play in many stories about Pakistan. A recent article by the editorial board of the powerful The New York Times, “Time to Put the Squeeze on Pakistan”, lays the instability in Afghanistan at the feet of Pakistan calling the country a ‘dangerous and duplicitous partner for the United States and Afghanistan’. It is tragically amusing when they refer to Pakistan’s ‘double game frustrating American officials’. Pakistan might sometimes say the same of the U.S. and Afghan officials. Who can forget how the U.S. ran off and left Pakistan to pick up the pieces after the Russians were defeated in Afghanistan, the problems from which continue to this day. But one does wonder who was briefing against Pakistan to the editorial board.
With Afghanistan again at the crossroads, and the U.S. considering increasing its military support again, the pressure on Pakistan is being ramped up on all levels including in the media. The blossoming romance between Afghanistan and India, and the U.S. and India, is cause of concern for Pakistan, particularly with India so bent on isolating Pakistan. The cross-border firing attack from the Afghanistan side at Torkham in June 2016 does make one wonder who is stirring this up on the Afghanistan side. Pakistan is constantly asked to control its borders yet when it does something positive to control the flow, as well as protect its own people, it is roundly criticised. With approximately 25,000 people crossing unchecked into Pakistan daily from Afghanistan, surely some border control would be a good thing on all levels.
A much-publicized Al Jazeera story following the Torkham incident, castigated Pakistan as the cause of the current situation in Afghanistan. The author, Helen Malikyar, an Afghan political analyst and historian for Al Jazeera, said: “Other disconcerting events of late include the U.S. shift of policy, indicating the end of favouritism to Pakistan, and the opening of Chabahar Port, a collaboration of Iran, India and Afghanistan, that could isolate Pakistan in regional trade activities”. Ms. Malikyar went on to say that the majority of Afghans believe that “Pakistan has been playing a ruthless game of manipulation with both the Afghans and their biggest benefactor, the U.S.” The article goes on to be dismissive of Pakistan’s efforts to bring peace in Afghanistan and totally overlooks the burden Afghanistan has placed on Pakistan with millions of refugees, and the impact on the social fabric. The article is extremely biased, undoubtedly due to the author’s Afghan lineage, but oddly, also seems to mirror the language of The New York Times article in the ‘name-calling’.
Despite the U.S. spending over USD 1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan so far, and millions of refugees taking refuge in Pakistan and Iran, the Taliban continue to be a serious threat, again, expanding their territory, and challenging the Unity Government. This is a high risk for Pakistan. Pakistan was dragged into the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan back in the times of the Russian invasion, and again when the U.S. invaded the country, and has paid a heavy price for its alliance ever since with great loss of life in Pakistan. India is now more openly flexing its muscles in Afghanistan and trying to push Pakistan out of the equation and to alienate it from the U.S. relationship. This it does both politically and through international media briefings.
However, the reality is that despite the squabbles, the U.S. and Pakistan remain partners in the fight against terrorism. Partners don’t always see eye to eye but in the end, accommodations must be made. Pakistan deserves respect for its sacrifice and commitment in this long war against terror, and support rather than alienation and threats. It remains an important partner in peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region. The U.S. has recently assured Pakistan of its continued support. Yet every time there is an attack by the Afghan Taliban, the international media links it to Pakistan.
Another major factor driving the anti-Pakistan sentiment is coming from Pakistan’s eastern neighbour and its well-oiled and very effective propaganda machine. It does its best to try to isolate Pakistan at every opportunity through briefings to international media like the Wall Street Journal and other top publications, and through high level foreign visits. Indian Prime Minister Modi’s highly promoted and over-the-top jaunt to the U.S., designed to sway U.S. political opinion, received extensive and glowing media coverage. This visit was one of several high profile overseas trips including to the UK, Canada, and Australia since he became leader, and in which he has received a ‘rock star’ welcome. In the U.S., he again met President Obama who assured him of U.S. support for India’s NSG application. He also met top business leaders, and addressed the Joint Houses of Congress with a highly crafted and eloquent speech (assisted by the all-but-invisible teleprompter to each side of the podium) as a sales pitch for enhancing India’s economic and security relationship with the U.S.
Clearly trying to become the ‘Deputy Sheriff’ for the U.S. in Asia, time and again, Modi alluded to Pakistan – without naming the country – as a problem for stability in the region and that India and the U.S. together can anchor stability in the region. He said: “a strong India-U.S. partnership can anchor, peace, prosperity, and stability from Asia to Africa and the Indian Ocean to the Pacific”. For these comments he received standing ovations, giving an indication of how negatively the members of the Congress and the senators also view some other countries.
It does not take much effort for the informed observer to pick his rhetoric to pieces. The human rights record in India is deplorable. Hundreds of millions of people live in abject poverty. Corruption and inefficiency is a way of life. Hindu extremist groups attack Muslims and Christians at will. Women suffer extreme levels of violence. India interferes in the affairs of other countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan. It frequently targets Pakistani villagers over the Line of Control and Working Boundary, a breach of International Humanitarian Law. Thousands of people are buried in mass graves in Kashmir courtesy of the Indian Army and the people live under a regime of fear and violence. Yet, rarely on Modi’s visit to the U.S. was any of this raised in any meaningful way in the media.
So, how to change these international perceptions and ‘sell’ Pakistan to change the image and provide a more positive and informed perspective? Not an easy task but Pakistan must be on the ‘front foot’ whenever facing the world’s media; more positive and less defensive. If Pakistan was a big corporation, a top communication and brand advisor would most likely give the following advice. Define the message and the positives about what you are ‘selling’. Be clear about the negatives that can derail your message and understand how to counter these without being distracted. Engage top class independent international media, public relations and political advisers with substantial links and networks in government and the media, and take their advice. What works for a domestic audience, does not work for a foreign one as foreigners often have a very different perspective about the world around them so top class international speechwriters can also be a great asset when engaging with a foreign audience to ensure the message is clearly communicated.
Big corporations and governments are not so different when it comes to media and international relations. Building a more positive international media profile is about selling a brand, a strategy and a narrative. For governments, it has to be a ‘whole-of-nation’ approach. Political will, leadership, a strong foreign policy with a clear national narrative, articulated eloquently and constantly at international forums, is a key component of turning the media tide. Militaries too play a vital role internationally, particularly for a country like Pakistan, in communicating the achievements, challenges and strategies in defence, defeating terrorism and the terrorists’ infrastructure, and improvements in the security situation. But it is also up to the people themselves to contribute at a more personal level through using the incredible reach of social media to show to the world the best of the country.
The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.
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