A Question of Image

Pakistan has perennially suffered from an image problem, recently reaching endemic proportion because of the “terrorism” tag, this despite the fact that we are an acknowledged frontline State in the US-led “war against terrorism”. The irony is that while we have been in the forefront thrice in the free world’s engagement with their opponents, viz (1) during the cold war as an US ally in the 50s and 60s (2) during the struggle against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 80s and (3) the on-going confrontation since 9/11 with terrorists on our own soil and those using Pakistan as a logistics area for Afghanistan, we have been pilloried from pillar to post by the western media, duly orchestrated across a broad front by baseless stories fed by Indian sources. The result has been a build up of adverse perception about Pakistan (and Pakistanis) in the world psyche. After 9/11 the negative fallout has been force-multiplied to the extent that the green passport is now universally viewed with barely muted suspicion. Things are not helped by prestigious western magazines carrying stories divorced from reality about Pakistan.

The adverse propaganda that we have to deal is mainly directed viz (1) against our population to subvert our beliefs, culture and traditions and (2) to create hatred against Pakistanis among the world’s population. Our populace is subjected to a endless barrage of subtle propaganda by the Indians through their many TV and radio channels. The effect is force-multiplied when picked up by foreign channels like BBC, CNN, Fox News, etc. While our masses are not gullible they do find the entertainment on Indian electronic media quite appealing. The mature mind may enjoy the entertainment and shrug off the propaganda, younger minds are adversely influenced more easily. With the proliferation of the private sector in electronic media in Pakistan and the banning of Indian TV channels as a quid pro quo because of the 2002 confrontation armed, the imbalance has been corrected somewhat. Because of restrictions imposed on our entertainment as opposed to the liberal policies in India we will never really catch up with the Indians, what is to be seen is whether our channels can nevertheless provide a viable alternative. One must say that despite the necessary straitjacket of religion, our TV channels have got the attention of our viewers and what is required is to sustain the process. Almost all the private TV Channels in Pakistan have reacted positively to the challenge. The other day Information Minister Shaikh Rashid promised another 6-8 TV channels, including some in the public sector. This would add to the competition and raise the quality of both production and dissemination of the Pakistani electronic media.

Whether the public sector can compete with the private sector without active government intervention is another story. Given that the number of Hindi (as opposed to other language) channels in India has not increased substantially over the years, the substantial increase in Urdu channels in Pakistan will give the viewers plenty of choice, with merit and quality the harbingers of success or failure. Given the parameters, we have to exist in we can probably never successfully catch up on the gyrating entertainment on offer by our Indian counterparts thankfully the population is also looking for healthy entertainment e.g. good drama and comedy serials and therefore the quality and merit of the production will influence the percentage of viewers.

In an informal debate with the Information Minister Shaikh Rashid, one got the impression that the government was keen on further improving the TV coverage on the domestic front in competition with Indian TV Channels. That is an excellent objective but the fact remains that our image problem is more external than domestic, unfortunately what we are doing to address the situation is laughable. The Minister was in fact contemptuous in asking how we could compete with BBC, CNN, Fox News, etc? Unfortunately he could not comprehend that while we certainly cannot compete with these channels, the English-speaking population in the world are being fed by such channels without any recourse from our side. Our message to the Arab world is also not getting across, moreover while we can equate Urdu to Hindi, we must also have some coverage for the French, Spanish, etc speaking populace in the world. If we can make the programs interesting, there is no reason why at least some of the world’s population will not eventually began to take notice of what we are saying. At the moment we are leaving the field open by default to our detractors, unfortunately we do not have a media policy to even defend ourselves, what to talk about taking initiatives to make sure the correct news is reported. For the moment we cannot even manage “damage control” successfully whereas the propaganda against us is mostly “spin” done by embellishing the facts in such a manner that it seems to be true i.e. if not creating “facts” themselves.

A rather sick joke well illustrates the point of how the media can be manipulated to represent something totally contrary to facts. A person visiting New York’s Central Park saw a mad dog about to attack a defenseless young girl, he bravely fought off the dog and saved the girl from any harm. When a New York reporter reached the scene, the person was being treated for his wounds, “you are a hero,” said the reporter “tomorrow the headlines will say, “Brave New Yorker saves young girl from a mad dog.” When the person commented that he was not a New Yorker, the reporter said, “So? The headlines will say “Brave American saves young girl from being savaged by mad dog!” The person said that he was a Pakistani not an American, the next day the headlines said, “Islamic terrorist viciously attacks defenseless dog!”

The first thing we must do is to establish a panel of advertising companies who will lead the effort to establish our image abroad. Let them then acquire the services of local lobbyists and consultants in each country. We need to get our best advertising minds together to see what we can do in the electronic media on the world stage. The cost of operating TV channels has reduced considerably. With cost of uplink facilities of going down, with manpower and resources becoming easily available, the TV stations could be based somewhere where they can become operational soon without stretching our resources. The problem will not be in setting up something but in how to maintain it. Obviously this has to be in the private sector but supported by the public sector, a cost effective mechanism has to be created where the electronic media meant for world audience can have financial support. One would rather see this the form of advertisements rather than outright cash grants. There could be in the form of a royalty of 50% taken from PTV license fees and diverted towards subsidizing advertisements from Pakistani companies. PTV is already being well paid for advertisements and if private TV Channels can flourish without subsidy, 50% of license fee revenues (about Rs 350 million) is enough support for them.

The government must soon take the initiative to confront our adverse image problem, we must get something done and soon! Most importantly, we have to separate the internal requirements from the external image factor. Obviously a full fledged comprehensive plan has to be worked out and acted upon if we can successfully cope with our rapidly depreciating image in the comity of nations.