Pakistan: Political Interference and Two Faces of Media
More than 30 people died and over 300 were injured in Pakistan in violent demonstrations surrounding the Innocence of Muslims. As this report was compiled, more than six months after the protests, YouTube and hundreds of websites which carried the video remain banned in the country on grounds that the content hurts the sentiments of the Muslim community.
Attempts to restore YouTube have met with public resistance and the government, which has been ready to reopen the site, has backed down on at least two occasions.
These efforts are complicated, not least because although some political and religious parties have been inflaming passions, the government actively supported the protestors, who on one day went on a rampage that resulted in 26 deaths and damage to property worth millions.
Equally important is the role played by the media in stoking public anger and hostility. Led by the broadcast media, the most prominent role was played by the Urdu print media whose inflammatory stories, often displayed with troubling pictures and images, added to the climate of intolerance and violence.
In contrast, Pakistan’s English media played down most of the controversy and provided generally responsible coverage. Comment articles including editorials in leading English papers like Dawn, The Express Tribune and The News, condemned both the movie as well as the protests that surrounded it.
It was a different story in the Urdu Press. From the beginning, on September 14th 2012 a clear line was taken.
Daily Jang, the country’s biggest circulation newspaper and the most prominent Urdu paper, covered the protests against the blasphemous movie on its front page with itsreport highlighting how protests were sweeping the entire Arab world.
Similar sensationalist coverage was seen in Roznama Express(25), Daily Nawa-e-Waqt(26) and Daily Jasarat.(27) The killing of the United States Ambassador to Libya was covered in the context of Arab protests over the film, suggesting that the two events were linked.
However, the impact may have been not as great as some feared because the two issues were overshadowed by a local tragedy, a fire at a factory in Baldia Town Karachi which claimed the lives of around 300 workers.
In the event, the protests over the blasphemous video and the killing of the US Ambassador were somewhat underplayed.
It was on September 16th that the headlines that caused possibly the most reaction were published. Simultaneously, in almost all Urdu newspapers across the country, banner headlines announced that the United States was planning to move troops into Muslims countries where protest were taking place.
This unsubstantiated story, although credited to AFP/Reuters, ran as the lead in Jang, Nawa-e-Waqt, Express and Jasarat suggested that the US troops were on their way to take over Muslim countries.(28)
Daily Jasarat went further and gave front page display to a call by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a banned militant out t, urging Muslims to stand up against the lm.
Not surprisingly in this atmosphere, the protests intensi ed in Karachi where thousands marched to the American consulate and tried to scale the walls. In this melee, two people died and many were injured. The next day, Jasarat ran a front page story claiming, symbolically, that the US flag at the consulate “had been replaced.”
In the meantime, Urdu papers gave prominent coverage to protests around the country in which calls were also made by various religious parties – not just extremists, to come out and protest.
The mood was captured in an editorial in Daily Jang on September 17th, the day of the strikes in Karachi, which questioned why the US – after allowing the release of a blasphemous film was now talking about entering the Muslims countries with its troops. The editorial, read by hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis, gave the impression that the blasphemous film was part of a conspiracy by the US to invade Muslims countries.
As protests flared, Jang wrote another editorial on September 18th in which it said that the test of Muslim patience “had not ended” and that anti-Islam elements were active in attacking Muslims.
On the same day, Salim Sai, a popular columnist for Jang and an anchor with Geo TV, a sister organisation of Jang and Pakistan’s major broadcaster, wrote in his column that the problem was that Muslims were being tested and the West “underestimated the love that Muslims had for their Holy Prophet.”
As the temperature continued to rise there was news that the government had banned YouTube(29) on the instructions of the prime minister. Some newspapers also carried politically significant news that the army had been called out to control the worsening state of affairs in Islamabad.
This gave the impression that the government was losing control of the situation. It was under these circumstances that the government called for a strike to protest the
blasphemous film and declared a public holiday, naming the day “Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool.”(30)
The violence on this day was unprecedented. The government admitted by the end of the day that at least 26 people had died in Karachi alone, many of them trying to protect their property from looters. There was some confusion over the number of casualties, with Daily Jasarat putting the death toll at 31.
The coverage of protests and the looting that went with it by the Urdu press was significantly different from other media in the country. Most did not put pictures of the destruction on their front page. Giving the death toll, most papers also highlighted how strongly Muslims had protested against the blasphemous film.
On September 22nd, the editorial that appeared in Daily Jasarat captured the mood of the Urdu press. It praised the strike, took into account the muted reaction of the US government to Muslim protests, and warned the government against selling its soul and concluded by warning the West that Muslims would not tolerate an attack on the person of the Holy Prophet.
In the aftermath of protests a number of Urdu papers published opinion pieces and editorials most of which questioned what they saw as the two-faced policy of the west. On the one hand, they argued, many western countries do not allow any discussion over the Holocaust, but at the same time they give publicity to the burning of the Koran by extremist Pastor Terry Jones in Florida, and they condone the publication of blasphemous cartoons and the airing of a blasphemous movie.
An opinion piece in the Roznama Express by senior editor Tanweer Kaiser(31) summarizes what most Urdu papers were saying. Titled “Kay Hail Hue”(32), Qaiser says that on the one hand the west incites and on the other it does not care for the feelings of Muslims.
One political consequence of the extensive coverage of rallies, protests, strikes and statements of religious parties on the issue was that it gave a boost to marginal and extremist groups. There was a sudden rise in coverage for religious parties in comparison mainstream political parties most of which remained on the side- lines on this issue in the Urdu press.
In stark contrast, as the blasphemous movie controversy erupted the English media were focused on other issues – the Fair Trial Bill, the visit of Indian foreign minister to Pakistan and the culling of Australian sheep at a farm outside Karachi.
Nevertheless, most of the English papers in Pakistan: Daily Dawn, The Express Tribune, The News and the Daily Times, reported on the lm and the violent protest, but the story of the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya was overshadowed by the Baldia factory re, which was covered extensively in the English press.
According to journalist and media analyst Ghazi Salahuddin(33), the English media was more objective but it too was under pressure. “The English print media did the best coverage on the issue,” he said, “certainly if we compare it to the other media, especially the television channels.” At the same time, Salahuddin says that the English media “also operated under restrictions and was not entirely candid.”
The threats issued by religious parties to the United States government and their inflammatory statements against President Zardari were largely ignored by the English media as were coverage of their activities on the issue.
In fact, Daily Dawn in its editorial on September 15th suggested that the issue may best be ignored, and that attacking American missions abroad serves no purpose and that such actions are done by some people and the state is held responsible for them. The paper also suggested that the US respect Muslim sentiments.
After the deadly rioting on September 21st, Dawn came up with its lead headline “Day of reverence or killer rage.” In its comprehensive four-page report on the rioting, it showed much of the destruction that was caused in the name of religion.
In its editorial on the same day,(34) the paper argued that much of the damage was caused by the government- sanctioned strike. It blamed both religious parties and the government equally for the carnage.
The same line was adopted by The Express Tribune. Extensive coverage of the protests at the US consulate general in Karachi and the damage caused on September 21st was high- lighted. Interestingly, neither the papers nor those interviewed criticised the root cause of the carnage. In The News, an interview with a cinema owner illustrated the problem.
He said that while his cinema was burnt, the cause for which it was burnt was right.
However, all English papers also came down hard on the cash bounty declared by railways minister Bilfour who pledged $100,000 reward for the killing of the producer of the blasphemous movie. This offer was extensively covered.
A scoop for The Express Tribune was the burning of a church in Mardan by rioters protesting against the blasphemous movie.(35) This action was also condemned all round and these were prominently published in the English media.
While the English press kept is eye on the losses and damage caused by the rioters and those who supported action against the makers of the movie the Pakistan broadcast media played a role in shaping public opinion against the blasphemous movie with news channels covering extensively riots over the movie across the Arab world.
The rst program to tackle the issues behind the protests was aired by Kamran Khan on Geo TV.36 In general broadcast media, which is often criticised for sensationalism and playing fast and loose with the ethics of journalism, in this instance displayed a certain reticence and most coverage was guarded. Most of the networks – including Geo TV, Express News, Dunya TV, Samaa TV and other smaller news channels, gave prominence to the strikes with less commentary over the issue.
This prudent approach may be because Pakistan’s broadcast media has come under re on previous occasions for commenting on religious issues.
Nevertheless, all major news channels covered the blow by blow account of rioting in Lahore and Islamabad as well as the attempted attack on the US consulate in Karachi.
TV reporters also complained that they too were attacked by protestors some of whom accused the television networks of bias. Saad Hasan, a reporter for Express Tribune newspaper, for instance, said that he felt unsafe while covering the violence because a lot of the anger was directed at the media.
However, no television channel aired any clips of the offensive video or even described its content. Almost all anchors and TV show hosts took refuge in talk about how the West had double standards and how the Muslim world is under attack, particularly from the United States.
But media analyst Ghazi Salahuddin blames the broadcast media,(37) especially Urdu news channels, for stirring up the audience and he disagrees with the notion that only a minority of people supported the protests.
“A large number of people wanted to protest and were angered by the film,” he said, “but the media was responsible for creating the environment in which violence took place.” He cites the example of the murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 who was killed by a bodyguard because of his moderate approach to blasphemy. In that instance, public opinion was in favour of the killer and this was reinforced by the media. Similarly, the Innocence of Muslim lm was seen as deeply offensive and unacceptable slight on Islam and media reinforced that sentiment.
For its part Pakistan’s emerging social media, which is usually very vocal and not bound by the censorship and decency laws or requirements of other media, also remained largely constrained on this issue. Blogger and journalist Mehmal Sarfraz says that the social media work under certain constraints.(38) He says that no one questioned whether the movie was blasphemous and there was much debate on what should be done about it.
Some of the bigger names from Pakistan, like Mosharraf Zaidi and Marvi Sirmid insisted that the best way to deal with the situation is to ignore it. But at the same time several insisted that America should be held responsible for the movie and action must be taken against it.
The country’s growing Twitterati is constricted by the fact that the medium is still in English. While one would have expected some sort of debate in this somewhat elitist medium, there was none that trended.
Facebook and Twitter provided avenues for many Pakistani Muslims to protest over the blasphemous movie and the manner in which the US government had responded to protests. There was much comment, too, on the way the stories appeared in the English media, but most people were wary of commenting in any way on blasphemy, which on almost all platforms, is a taboo topic in Pakistan.
However the religious parties actively used social media to generate support for their protests and demonstrations and also to stir up anger on the inter- net. This was particular evident in the actions of two Twitter-savvy religious outfits Jamat-ud-Dawah (JuD) and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Another academic critical of western media coverage is Dr. Zafar Iqbal, Associate Professor at International Islamic University, Islamabad, and attached to the Annenberg School of Communication, at the University of Southern California as a Sabbatical Fellow.
He reviewed more than 1000 media stories on the film, mostly in the Western print media, and he finds that media were “fraught with irrelevant discussions on freedom of expression and whether the film constitutes hate speech.”
In an interview for this report he said that reactions from the Muslim world were overshadowed by western media focus on “head counts and violent processions” followed by pundits and reporters defending free speech.
“Some pieces were full of polemics against Islam and Muslims,” he said. “On the other hand, in some quarters, ironically, the movie was declared it a ‘mockery of basic standards of human decency, good taste, artistic subtlety and historical discernment’ as stated by the Jerusalem Post, September 24th 2012, but such items were played down in most media in the West.”
His research found that reporters presented the issue in an over-simplified manner and found it easy to “tag their stories with Muslims protest or protests by the Muslim extremists.” As a result media failed to give due coverage to Muslim scholars denouncing violent protests.
He said that media coverage was problematic, not least because it appeared to be on one-dimensional, that the core issue about the film concerned free speech rights. Most media he said followed the same line, as articulated by The New York Post which reported ‘This is no joke. It’s a matter of free speech’ and ‘it may not be a good lm, but it has every right to exist – a right guaranteed by no less than the US Constitution.’(39)
Finally, if there is blame to be laid at the door of media in Pakistan for inflammatory coverage that may have provoked more violence it rests with the Urdu press and some of the
broadcast media. Media were particularly influenced by religious parties, not necessarily extremists, who saw this as an opportunity to regain lost political ground.
While the popular impression may be that there was a lot of anger among the Muslim community, in fact very few advocated violence or confrontation with the police or the government. By and large, most people who wished to protests wanted to express their anger and hurt through peaceful means.
However, religious parties channelled public anger, with media support, to promote anti-American and anti- government feelings. They took the lead in organising and rallies, protests, strikes and marches; they fed the media appetite for strong, confrontational language with angry statements; and they cynically used the issue for their own political gain.
This should surprise no-one given the nature of politics and communications, but the way media went along with this strategy not only helps to explain the intensity of protest and violence against the Innocence of Muslims film, it also raises serious questions about how some media can be manipulated by largely marginal and minority politicians and sometimes with deadly effect.
(25) Pakistan’s second largest circulated Urdu paper and the largest circulated paper in Punjab province
(26) Largely Lahore based Urdu paper with a right of center leaning
(27) Official newspaper of the Jamat-e-Islami party which is a right wing political party with a limited electoral base but representation in the civil and military bureaucracy as well as in academia
(28) Lead story September 16
(29) Daily Jang front page September 14, 2012
(30) Day for the love of the Prophet (pbuh)
(31) October 1, 2012. Opinion pages Roznama Express 32 Urdu for “What did we achieve”?
(33) Interview. March 20, 2013
(34) Daily Dawn September 22, 2013
(35) September 24, 2012
(36) Aj Kamran Khan Ke Saath: show on September 14
(37) Interview March 20, 2013
(38) Interview March 15, 2013
(39) New York Post, September 17th 2012