Pakistan's image abroad

Published in the Dawn on September 22, 2003

A country is not a product whose image can be marketed through slick advertising

A country's image abroad has multiple dimensions, such as impressions of its history, religion and culture, and profile of its politics, governance, foreign relations and national institutions.

What are the sources contributing to this aggregate image? Printed word, including books, magazines and newspapers, electronic media and the Internet, the country's cultural projection and tourist potential, and the demeanour of its elite and of citizens abroad. Personal exposure to the country through travel and human contact, and anecdotal evidence also help shape and influence perceptions. Many tributaries thus flow into a foreigner's impressions of another country. But that is still only half the story.

A country is not a product whose image can be marketed though slick advertising. It is to an extent like a human personality whose image is so much a matter of perceived behaviour, character, breeding, value system, culture and social standing. And just as humans have enemies so have the countries, some powerful, some vicious and dangerous, in conflict or at war with others. They can vilify and malign countries whom they consider adversaries, just as humans do to each other. Even when there is no enmity, there is always a clash of interests, or sometimes values, perspectives and world view. In our case, we do have a powerful adversary. So our image is always under assault. As much as we would like the outside world to see India through our eyes, the reality is different. India has a place in the world, and an influential voice.

For far too long the national debate in Pakistan on our image abroad has been uni-focal, centring only on one of the above sources - the role of our missions abroad. Unfortunately, this tells only a fragmentary story. A mission's role may be helpful, but in the seamless world of today it is woefully inadequate as an exclusive or unique, much less credible and holistic, source of information or opinion on a country. It has to contend with a formidable array of rival sources competing for public attention, often more compelling, persuasive and seductive. The most powerful rival, of course, is the media, and frankly it is an unequal and unwinnable contest. You have to fight the media on their ground as it is their space and time you need to challenge them; and they will not allow you have an upper hand as this would question their credibility and reputation which is their lifeblood. A closer view of the international media is crucial to the understanding of this point.

Broadly speaking, one observes two cultures in the global media, the western and the non-western. While the former is largely inspired by commercial interests, the non-western media comes in diverse forms - for instance, the captive press reflecting a single party or authoritarian political system, a vanishing breed in today's world; a semi-free press indicative of a transitional democracy; and finally, a completely free and activist press, like in some adolescent democracies such as Pakistan.

What is good for the western media, which is essentially an industry based on profit motive and a high-brow culture, may be irrelevant for most of the media in developing countries. The former spends millions of dollars on correspondents and independent sources to collect first hand and "authentic" reports. News pushed by official sources, such as an embassy, is not so authentic or credible by their standards. Besides, it is often dull and propagandist. On the other hand, the media in the developing countries, even when it behaves as free press, like in Pakistan, still tends to be conservative and correct in its approach to foreign countries and largely conforms to patterns of official relationships. It may thus be a little more responsive to a foreign embassy's viewpoint.

In writing about an issue, the media reflects the set of ideas, body of principles, inherited attitudes, ethnic or bias religious prejudices, group mentality, cultural perspectives and core national interests of a society, and above all, profit motive of the enterprise. Unless one is talking of a war or an international crisis, the western media has limited space for foreign news and to fill it the general criterion is to publish strictly what the public wants to read.

Unfortunately, for the last few years, Pakistan has attracted overwhelmingly disproportionate attention of international media for radiating a wide array of negative and troubling impulses on several issues of considerable concern in the West-democracy, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, drugs, fundamentalism, gender issues, human rights, etc.

The western society has shifted to the visual image, that is the television, away from the printed word, as the prime source of news. And the television has even less time for international news. There is no time for historical or background analysis or to even inform people about the basics of international affairs. To hold the attention of the viewers, news has to be the nearest thing to a murder mystery, a thriller or an adventure story, or at best something with a moral purpose or didactic impulse. Of course, for a discerning audience or readership, there are erudite analyses, more often in the print rather than the electronic media, but they are scanty and written often from a perspective - political, moral, civilizational or sometimes purely personal. They embody the diversity of public opinion and assumptions of special interest groups, powerful lobbies and political leadership of the society, and are invariably meant for targeted audience.

Indeed, the same holds true of the media in the developing societies. When it writes about the western world, does it not write from its own perspective? Whether it is about the so-called "arrogance" of power of the sole remaining superpower or about its perceived anti-Islam bias, or most recently the Iraq War, the perspective is singularly its own. What has caused these societies to speak so critically? Is it because of the failure of western diplomatic missions to project a better image or the policies of the West and clash of cultures and interests, or image? Is it not worth reflecting that the United States, despite spending billions of dollars on propaganda and publicity through such powerful instruments as the VoA, Radio Free Europe and its vast network of highly-professional diplomatic missions, not to speak of the CIA and its generous economic aid, is asking why the world does not like them - "Why they hate us?"

Let us look at the specific case of coverage of Pakistan in the last decade or so, specially in the 1990s. Whether the international media has written about the incidents of sectarian killings, terrorist bombings, street violence, honour killings, police brutality, corruption scandals, immigration racketeering, blasphemy charges or simple bad governance, miscarriage of justice, absolute rule and high-handed politics, the reports have been, by and large, factually correct. If they seem exaggerated, that is because of their cumulative impression. At least they have been no more correct or incorrect than what has been widely reported in our own media. So what wrong has the international media done in reporting what we already believe to be true? We cannot challenge its veracity any more than we can question our own media's truthfulness and credibility.

As I said, there are two aspects of any media coverage - the facts and their interpretation, what you call opinion. Invariably the reputable media is sensitive about its credibility. It generally tries not to wilfully misrepresent or distort facts, or create stories where they do not exist. So, if it reports, for instance, about the fanatical attacks on mosques, churches or on foreign schools, it is because these incidents have indeed taken place. Now, what are our embassies supposed to do or say - that these things did not happen?

Based on these facts, the media then goes on to interpret and express its opinion. And that is where the real problem of defending one's position arises. Social and political issues do not lend themselves easily, if at all, to objective analysis. There is no scientific truth involved - there are only opinions, perspectives and moral or didactic impulses at play. That is why you have exceptionally smart people from the West, some of the best minds educated at Ivy League institutions on the one hand and some of the brightest intellects from Asia, let us say Mahatir Mohammad, for instance, on the other, disagreeing vehemently about the same issue. The two sides' terms of reference are different; their concepts, philosophies and values irreconcilable.

Let me now come to the specific issue of coverage of Kashmir that agitates the minds of Pakistanis a great deal. If Kashmir has been in the news in recent years, it is mainly because of wrong reasons - fundamentalism, terrorism, infiltration and risk of nuclear war - having no significant bearing on the substance or merit of the issue. Kashmiri resistance may have got some projection, but unfortunately it has come at a cost. The picture that emerges is mixed. Kargil, for instance, highlighted the issue but somewhat stigmatized the resistance.

Many times, I have been asked the question how come India's point of view on Kashmir is more readily accepted by the international community than ours even though our case is more just. This is true. But the reasons people cite for this imbalance are not true. It is generally assumed that the international community's slant against us is due to the superior propaganda effort by India. And it is a reflection of our missions' failure. This requires a deeper analysis.

On an international dispute, it is important for a respectable media to disentangle the fact and fiction of a story. They often do it by verifying as far as possible the available information of the story and establishing the credibility of each side. Take the case of the Kargil episode. Whatever we claimed in the beginning about the identity of fighters on our side and the nature of the incursion, and was contradicted by India, was subsequently either back-tracked by us or was refuted by the ground realities. Whatever India claimed turned out to be true later on by our own admission.

Because of this credibility gap and the circumstantial evidence, India has nearly succeeded in redefining Kashmir as an issue of religious extremism and militancy tearing away at India's national unity and stability in which the West has come to have so much stake because of economic reasons and the China factor. The West's fear of fundamentalism has also predisposed it to India's point of view. Is this fair or just? No; but this is the reality.

President Musharraf has managed to redress the imbalance a little, but we still have to go a long way in the resolution of the issue. We need to bear in mind that Kashmir is not a foreign policy issue; it is a national issue in which no single institution is either sufficient to our success or responsible for our failures.

Now I come to another problem. We have had five governments dismissed in our recent history. I do not question or criticize that. But the fact remains that each dismissal was justified by a well-publicized scorching indictment of the previous government. All this was not a propaganda by our enemies - certainly not by India. This created a credibility problem for our diplomatic missions. When we praised one government sky high one day and savaged it the next day, how should foreign media have taken our word seriously? Does it mean the missions bear no responsibility? No, I am not suggesting this. Missions may not be able to manufacture or doctor a country's image, but they must stay in touch with leaders of public opinion, specially in the media. What the media may write about Pakistan will not project our diplomats' views but could reflect their influence, howsoever imperceptible, depending on the issue and the strength of our case.

Missions could also play some part in softening a negative perception of Pakistan through cultural projection. But success in both areas would depend on the capability of the mission, both in terms of ability and commitment of its diplomats and resources, human as well as financial. It is hardly known outside that only some 18 odd missions of ours have Press Officers and unlike India, we have no cultural centres or tourist projection offices. The government does not even have budgetary resources for sending out cultural troupes. So, unlike India, we have no softer side of Pakistan to project that could help to partially neutralize the negative image.

As for personal ability and dedication, there is some room for improvement both among foreign office diplomats as well as Press Officers. Pride in the country and keenness to promote its name is perhaps not as strong as it used to be, because of the confused and turbulent times we have been passing through or due to changing standards of competence and professional commitment. The odds have been heavily stacked against them.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.