LUMS Media Freedom Workshop
I meant to write this post last week, right after the workshop had ended, but alas other work priorities coupled with that hidden lurking beast called procrastination trumped my intentions.
Last Monday while I sneaked glances at the sun rise over the tremendous San Francisco horizon, I had the pleasure of speaking to about 60 A levels students in Lahore at LUMS University via skype as part of the CARMA media conference.
The topic was media freedoms in Pakistan and the world, and I tried to keep it as interactive as a video conference with a slight time delay could allow. And I was blown away by how well informed and worldly these students were. When I asked them which country they thought was most ‘free’ in terms of media freedom, one student replied North Korea with a chuckle and a few others said some Nordic countries. Between the sarcasm and genuine answer they had the spectrum pretty well covered according to the World Press Freedom Index which ranks Finland, Norway and Netherlands at the top with North Korea second to bottom followed by Eritrea.
They were most engaged when I talked about self-censorship and press independence using the cases of slain Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad and trigger-happy American spy Raymond Davis. My main argument was despite of the very tangible threat many Pakistani journalists boldly came out and spoke up against the ‘elephant in the room’ in the Saleem Shahzad case: the ISI. Compare that too the Raymond Davis case, which barely got coverage in the US, until he was safely home. Glenn Greenwald wrote a damning piece in Salon about that, the NYT’s journalistic obedience.
In fact last year while Pakistani newspaper headlines and TV’s channels were consumed by the Raymond Davis story, I presented the case of selected coverage to a graduate class in media ethics at Stanford University. Of the 80 students no one had heard Davis’s name. No one had even heard that an American spy had been caught in a murder case in Pakistan. When I asked them if they thought it was newsworthy, only half the class raised their hand. Some looked very annoyed. When I asked them why it wasn’t newsworthy, I got a mix of its too far away, and a few people who agreed with the NYT’s ‘national security’ trumps editorial independence. When I re-phrased the question and told them what if Pakistan received $1.5 billion in American tax-payer money every year to win hearts and minds, was it important then? Almost the whole class raised their hand.
So given that happened to me with a mix of undergrad and grad students at Stanford I was not only surprised when all the Pakistani high school students were well aware of both the Shahzad and Davis cases, but also that no student lashed out at me for accusing the ISI (being a journalist, I used allegedly whenever I said ISI.) Not even when I said if they really want to know what happened to Shahzad, they are best off googling Dexter Filkins piece for the New Yorker, because the truth won’t get published in Pakistan. When I said I wish Americans would read more Pakistani newspapers so they know the truth on the Davis end, they laughed.
But I have to say the Q and A was the best part. I was asked such intelligent questions, about the Shahzad case, being a female journalist and even how the media should handle the religious right.
My response to the last two questions got me an applause, which is what really surprised me. First of all because my talk was on media freedom, second because on the surface religiosity in Pakistani urban youth has risen. The class that I was speaking to was about 30% female and about half of them were wearing hijab. But I saw something else in these students: tolerance and an appreciation for diversity.
When I started O levels we had one ‘hijabi’ in our class who had returned from Saudi Arabia I believe. I had not even heard the term hijab before. Then Farhat Hashmi started her first dars session at my school OPF. Within 2 yrs the Al Huda phenomenon had taken hold in Islamabad. A few students willingly took the hijab by the time I was done with my A levels in 2000. A few of my close friends took it while they were studying abroad in the US and UK.
So when I started speaking about the religious right, I was a little nervous. But when I said there is no homogeneous religious right–we have a sizable Shia population and the vocal Sunni groups Barelvis and Deobands hardly see eye-to-eye. So it is the responsibility of the media to not show them as one group, as representative of the ‘mullah,’ because its simply not true and exaggerates their influence. Before I could explain myself further, I got an applause.
Interestingly, I also got an applause when I told them the story of my first on-camera piece as a reporter for Geo. It was 2005 and it was for a human smuggling case, I had done short reports and interviews before, but nothing on-camera. When my boss saw my report, he thought it needed a P-T-C (piece to camera), so I headed to the roof with a cameraman to record it. I asked the cameraman to give me a countdown and he said, “ready ho ja aye phelay” (get ready first.) So I practiced my lines again and said ready. But he repeated, “ready ho ja aye” So then I said, “aur nahi ready ho sakti, Allah malik hai” (I can’t be more ready.) Then he rather uncomfortably asked me if i didn’t want to fix my dupatta? So I rather uncomfortable asked him what was wrong with it? And he replied saying the other female reporters ‘phelao their dupatta’ (spread out their scarf.) I had taken it as a scarf around my neck, because frankly I thought it looked more professional, and I never ‘pheloed my dupatta’ even when I was in high school. So I told him that was their choice, it wasn’t a Geo policy and that I wasn’t going to change the way I wore my dupatta for the camera.
The students burst out in applause for that too. I guess tolerance is the new creeping urban youth phenomenon.