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 complex.

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 reality.

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 bytes.

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 West.

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 enquiry.

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 irreconcilable.

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 stories.

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 with Pakistan.

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 view.

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 action.

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.