Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why America is losing the battle for hearts and minds in Pakistan

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent more than $5 billion in Pakistan over the last decade to build schools, provide safe drinking water, fund earthquake reconstruction and other projects aimed at wooing Pakistani public support for America. But open any Pakistani newspaper and you’re unlikely to ever find even a sentence of praise for this aid. Instead, the message of America’s good deeds is drowned out nearly every day by relentless press criticism of America’s policies in the region.

“US mocks Pak demand with fresh drone strike,” declared a typical headline this month in Express Tribune, an English language Pakistani newspaper affiliated with the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

“USAID can spend billions of dollars to build infrastructure in Pakistan,” said Lawrence Pintak, dean of Washington State University’s College of Communication. “But one drone attack can undo all that good will.”

Pintak, whose academic research focuses on journalists in the Muslim world, recently completed a survey of 395 Pakistani journalists to study their attitudes toward America.

Pakistani journalists have often been blamed for stoking anti-American sentiment in the country. But Pintak’s survey reveals that, contrary to popular perception, most Pakistani journalists – 76 percent of those responding to his poll – actually hold a positive view of America and the American people.

What they don’t like, according to the poll, is American foreign policy.

For example, in the questionnaire, which was administered locally by Pakistani newspaper editor Syed Javed Nazir, 84 percent of Pakistani journalists said they believe America is “unjustly meddling in Pakistani politics.” And two-thirds of those who responded defined the controversial U.S. drone attacks – which are meant to target militants in tribal areas but also can result in heavy civilian casualties - as an “act of terrorism.”

“It’s the policy, stupid,” said Pintak, who argues that “Pakistani journalists are not inherently anti-American but are fed up with America’s policies in the region.”

Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News, an English-language daily published by one of the leading media groups in Pakistan, said coverage in papers like his reflects the public sense of “imperial arrogance” in U.S. policies. “We only get to experience the hard power of the US,” he said. “We are not treated as human beings.”

No U.S. policy draws greater fire from the Pakistani media than the drone campaign. More recently, media have also lashed out at a covert deal that resulted in Pakistan’s release of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who was arrested in Lahore earlier this year after shooting two Pakistani men in broad daylight.

“Imagine what would happen if the situation was reversed,” said Cheema, the investigative reporter. “What if a Pakistani murdered two Americans in broad day light? You would expect criminal proceedings. But these standards are not applied when it comes to Pakistani deaths.”

The day after Davis’s controversial release, a U.S. drone attack killed over 40 people in Pakistan’s tribal areas, giving Pakistani media a fresh angle for their anger.

“Drones celebrate Raymond release by killing 41,” complained one stinging headline in The News. An editor at the paper, Ansar Abasi, described the timing of the two events this way: “Within 24 hours of the shameless release and handing over of the American double murderer Raymond Davis to the US, Washington gifted Pakistan with one of the deadliest drone attacks in North Waziristan, killing more than 40 innocent tribals attending a Jirga.”

At Dawn, another prominent English-language paper, columnist Khalid Aziz wrote with similar frustration: “Just when patience was needed for the Pakistanis’ anger to subside over the release of Raymond Davis, we heard of multiple drone strikes that killed more than 40 persons attending a jirga in Datta Khel, North Waziristan.”
Civilian casualties in drone attacks serve as a regular news hook for Pakistani journalists to express their anger at America’s policies in the region.
Things get even more complicated when the media write about the increasingly unpopular Pakistani government’s close ties with the U.S.

“I fail to understand how these drone attacks occur without approval from the Pakistani government,” said Hassan Chaudhry, a national pages sub-editor at Express Tribune. “There has to be an under-the-table deal between both governments. I don’t know… maybe money is being exchanged too.”

Chaudhry is echoing a growing belief that U.S. drone attacks cannot occur without covert support from the Pakistani state apparatus. But the Pakistani government does not reveal the exact nature of the deal that allows the U.S, to conduct drone attacks deep inside Pakistani territory. Publicly, the government continues to demand that the U.S. end drone strikes in the country.

Cheema, who received an award at Syracuse University this week for investigative reporting that has often angered the Pakistani government, argues that Pakistani journalists simply mirror the views of their fellow countrymen, who happen to be vehemently anti-American despite the large amounts of U.S. aid poured into Pakistan.

“Why do so many Pakistanis hate the U.S.?” Cheema asked rhetorically. “Because money isn’t a substitute for self-respect. We don’t want to feel that we receive dollars one day and the next day some of our countrymen are killed in return.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is the US losing a "global information war?"

Alarmed by the growth of state-financed English language television news channels across the globe, some U.S. officials are warning of a new “global information war” that seeks to wield “soft power” in influencing global public opinion.

“We are engaged in an information war and we are losing that war,” declared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her testimony on the State Department budget to Congress earlier this year. In Clinton’s view, “Al Jazeera is winning” that war. Al Jazeera is financed by the tiny Middle Eastern emirate of Qatar, but other much larger governments are also joining the fray. “The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multi-language television network, said Clinton. “The Russians have opened up an English language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive.”

The speed with which these satellite channels are mushrooming, signals that world leaders view the role of “information” as pivotal to their global ambitions in the 21st century. In addition to competing for military & economic supremacy, global and regional powers now view information as another battle ground through which they can grow their influence.

“Clearly countries that want to play on the global stage feel they have to have a voice,” says Simon Wilson, Washington bureau chief for BBC, explaining why governments are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on global TV channels in an era of economic austerity. Wilson argues that some of these channels may not have a big global reach, but do find a niche. France24, for example, the state-financed company that operates 24-hour news channels in French, English, and Arabic, is popular in northern Africa and in Francophone West Africa – just as BBC remains popular in former British colonies around the world.

Clinton’s testimony in Congress reflects a gradual recognition in some quarters that America needs to actively compete in the “global media marketplace” to get its message across to the world. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger recommends a revamping of publicly-funded broadcasting in the U.S., to create a service modeled on the BBC.

“Americans certainly do not want government propaganda,” wrote Bollinger, in a recent article on “But they do need both a credible voice and source of information about the world. The fact is that Russia Today, China's CCTV and Xinhua News, Qatar's Al Jazeera, and others are already competing aggressively in this new global media marketplace.”

P.S. This is something I wrote as part of a drill for international newsroom (a class at the J-school). Next month, I'll share a link to a larger project on global information wars that our class has been working very hard on for several weeks now.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In America, Al Jazeera English creates space for a coup in broadcast news

Valentine’s Day may have passed several weeks ago but Al Jazeera English is still feeling the love, courtesy of the network’s groundbreaking coverage of the Egyptian revolution.

A typical example from the dozens of mainstream media’s valentines to the Qatar-based TV station: “Millions across the world, including many first-time viewers in the U.S., have marveled in recent weeks at Al Jazeera English's impressive coverage from the front lines of the protests currently shaking the Middle East,” wrote Ishaan Tharoor, in a TIME magazine article.

The article’s title “Why the US needs Al-Jazeera” revealed how much U.S. attitudes may have changed since Al Jazeera English’s launch in 2006.

Though mainstream media covered its startup, almost no TV viewers in America could watch Al Jazeera English five years ago (few can see it on cable even today). At the time of its launch, cable companies told the channel they had no space to carry it – and their viewers were unlikely to watch it anyway. Al Jazeera English’s defenders charged the cable firms were simply being cowardly, fearful of the Bush administration’s frigid relations with the Al-Jazeera Arabic channel, which the administration implied was being used by terrorists as a propaganda tool.

“There were political concerns about its image, founded or otherwise, that it was hostile to the U.S.,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director at Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “That may still exist even after Egypt.”

The channel’s managers are hoping that’s no longer the case. And it does appear that Al Jazeera English’s reputation– particularly for solid, in-depth reporting from remote parts of the globe – had grown substantially even before Egypt. So had the understanding that, while Al Jazeera Arabic and its English counterpart are both financed by the government of Qatar, the English programming is distinctly different in content – and sometimes in tone.

“Al Jazeera English is a world news leader now,” said David Marash, an American journalist who joined the network as an anchor in 2006 and left two years later over “irreconcilable editorial differences.” Despite the unhappy separation, Marash said he continues to get his news from the channel because “Al Jazeera English has more reporters in more places than anyone else.”

But has Al Jazeera English evolved into the most respected international news channel not seen on American cable TV?

There are still just three places where it’s available on cable: Washington, D.C., Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington, Vermont. And it’s not at all certain whether AJE’s riveting, round-the-clock coverage of the Egyptian revolution will open the way to new markets, though its management is scrambling now to make that happen.

A “Demand Al Jazeera” campaign has emphasized the favorable reviews of the Egypt coverage on NPR, in The New York Times and elsewhere. The channel’s Facebook page advertised public meetings aimed at sparking grass roots demands to cable companies.

“Call and write to your cable companies. Make as much noise as possible,” pleaded Sophia Quershi from AJE’s communications team at one such meeting in Manhattan. “Be as bold and aggressive as you can.”

It was a strong message to a tiny audience. One of the 15 or so participants asked Quereshi whether getting rid of the name “Al Jazeera” might help the channel get more cable access. Qureshi said there were some initial discussions about the possibility of a name change, but added that it’s not really an option.

Another audience member, noting allegations that the Bush administration in 2006 had urged cable operators like Comcast not to carry Al-Jazeera English, asked, “Is the Obama administration trying to resist AJE getting greater access in America?”

“There are no signs of Obama saying no to us,” replied Qureshi. “Obama hasn’t given us an interview yet. But that’s different,” she said smiling.

Whatever reasons Comcast may have had earlier for not carrying Al Jazeera English, the cable operator has confirmed that it met with the channel in late February. AJE insiders say the current surge in interest and 40,000 e-mails of support they have received should make it difficult for Comcast and other cable operators to deny the demand for AJE in America.

If that happens, “CNN and other American networks will have to rethink their product,” warned Marash. “When it comes to television journalism, there is simply no other network that does it as well as Al Jazeera English.”