Our Image Abroad
Published on Sep 13, 2005 in the Dawn
THERE has been much debate in the country recently about Pakistan.s image
abroad. One side has lamented that Pakistan has an .image problem.
implying that the reality may be far better.
The other has insisted that Pakistan.s image is indeed its reality. And in
the middle you have a great mass of people who may have been critical of
the conditions in Pakistan but, without a second thought, denominate
similar criticism in the international media as a conspiracy.
The fact is everybody in Pakistan at one time or another has felt that
Pakistan is hard done by the international media, and there is a grain of
truth in it. The reality of Pakistan.s image abroad is thus quite
A country.s image abroad has many facets, such as impressions of its
history, religion and culture, and profile of its politics, social order,
governance, national institutions and foreign relations, and behaviour of
its citizens broad. And above all, how its conduct and demeanour affect
other countries and their interests.
In assessing other countries, or international issues, the western media
is not necessarily fair or just. It is not meant to be. In addressing an
issue the media, American as much as ours, essentially looks through the
prism of its own set of ideas, inherited attitudes, ethnic bias, religious
prejudices, and cultural perspectives, indeed the self image, and core
national values and interests of the society.
In covering international issues and foreign countries, the American media
thus naturally ends up highlighting moral and cultural superiority, modern
political institutions, and humanitarian concerns of the West, and by the
same token moral bankruptcy of .inferior. cultures.
For the last several years, Pakistan has attracted an overwhelmingly
disproportionate attention of international media as it has bristled with
multiple subjects of irresistible media interest. And unfortunately
Pakistan has made for only a negative story for radiating a wide array of
troubling impulses on several issues of serious concern in the West. In
the 1990.s it was Kashmir, fundamentalism, Taliban, terrorism, risk of a
nuclear war with India, political instability, corruption, economic
failure, instability, institutional break down and human rights, etc. And
currently, terrorism, Al Qaeda, madressahs, religious extremism, safety of
nuclear weapons, A.Q. Khan, and democracy. From the media.s point of view
thus Pakistan has been an unending story.
The American society has shifted to the visual image, that is the TV, away
from the printed word, as the prime source of news. To this end, the news
has to startle, if not alarm, or be the nearest thing to entertainment;
and issues have to be presented in black and white, or stark terms, not
beyond average understanding. This often tends to trivialize serious
issues and magnify triviality. As a consequence Pakistan.s negative image,
already negative by any standard, comes out even worse than the
The reports are, by and large, factually correct. At least they have been
no more correct or incorrect than what has already been widely reported in
our own media. We cannot challenge their veracity any more than we can
question our own media.s truthfulness and credibility. If they seem
exaggerated, that is because of the cumulative impression of constant
repetition, and the distortion they undergo being packaged for sound
Based on what is generally factual, the media then goes on to interpret
and express its opinion. And that is where the image gets further
degraded. Even then on some of the issues, like democracy, gender issues,
and basic human rights which have become universal values, our media.s
projection of Pakistan.s image is not much different from that of the
Of course, for a discerning audience or readership, there are also erudite
analyses in the Western media, more often in the print rather than the
electronic media, but they too are written often from a perspective .
political, moral, civilizational or sometimes purely personal. It is a
rare analysis or a story that reflects an unbiased and purely academic
To be fair, 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 even in the academia and the thinktank community you
have well meaning and exceptionally smart scholars sharply disagreeing
with each other.
The disagreement is even more pronounced as they engage in dialogue with
other cultures and religions, let us say the Islamic world. The two sides.
terms of reference are different; their concepts, philosophies and values
In the US, the dividing line between media, academia and the thinktank
community is getting somewhat blurred. The journalists are writing books
like academics, and academics are writing books that read like news
Just as the media audience is not interested in cold news but stories, the
readership of books is interested in more than erudite analysis and
research. It wants stories. As a consequence, the academia whether in
universities or thinktanks has also been smitten by the story bug. It
must, like the media, use catchy phrases, dramatize events, cause a scare,
and .sex up. the issues.
The media is also exploited by the policy community, for turf wars and for
testing public reactions to policy changes. Dissidents within the
establishment use it for their own purposes. In foreign affairs this is
specially true of high profile US policies like the current US relations
Traditionally whenever Pakistan has had close ties with the US, it has
come under greater scrutiny over a host of issues by non-proliferation
high priests, democracy activists, Indophiles, and human rights groups.
Pakistan was literally stripped naked. It is not conspiracy . this is how
the open and pluralistic political system works in America . through
competition, dialectics, contention and challenge.
To sum up, Pakistan has over the years become a favourite hobby horse of
diverse and complex forces. It interests media, which finds a lot of
things to criticize. It provokes the academia which is idealistic, and
generally liberal, and finds many issues in Pakistan that offend its world
It is the focus of campaigns by civil society which is by nature
anti-establishment and revisionist. Finally, Pakistan attracts the
attention of dissenting voices within policy makers. As all roads pass
through the media, the media ends up providing a launching pad to the
.slings and arrows. of a whole array of forces that have been provoked by
developments in Pakistan for varying reasons. And since their target of
advocacy is often policy making community, the issues end up getting
dramatized or exaggerated, and imparted a sense of urgency to stimulate
There are reports suggesting that the government is looking for a public
relations firm to refurbish Pakistan.s image abroad. Before such a firm is
hired the government will be well advised to keep in mind that it will
only make a marginal difference, if any.
Over its image, Pakistan is in an unequal contest which is not winnable.
First and foremost, the improvement of image must begin with the
improvement of reality at home. Then in America, which I guess would be
the main target, you need to have more Pakistani academics or policy
practitioners in thinktanks and universities, in Pakistan Chairs or
otherwise, who can establish high academic credentials and earn access to
the media as independent experts and analysts, hopefully to project a more
balanced view of Pakistan.
And finally we need to organize the community to play a supporting role.
But the community which tends to be liberal and thus disaffected will not
be involved till it itself is conciliated and befriended by more benign
changes within Pakistan.
Pakistan is no doubt turning the corner, especially in the economic
sector, due to the economic policies and management of Prime Minister
Shaukat Aziz, but much more needs to be done to improve the social
structure, to bring justice to citizens and educate and modernize the
society.s outlook. For the media it is a society.s failings not so much
its successes, economic or otherwise, that make headlines.
The writer is a former ambassador and senior fellow at the United
States Institute of Peace, a Washington-based thinktank.