I had the opportunity to interview a U.K.-based Pakistani journalist who works mainly with a U.S. news network. She has worked on the ground in Pakistan for many of the country’s recent breaking news stories. Below is a transcript of our discussion after she returned from covering the situation following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
You were a journalist on the ground following Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency last November, and again after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. How was the atmosphere in the country each time?
When the state of emergency was declared, two groups of people were under pressure from the government: 1) political opponents and lawyers; 2) the media. There were strict restrictions on the media. Both the local and international news channels were off air. Newspapers were printed, but with certain restrictions. Lawyers were arrested in the thousands. As a member of the media, I definitely felt like I had to be careful. I was with an international TV network, so we seemed to have a bit more flexibility and weren’t stopped from reporting anything. But the local media was under extremely tight restrictions. Some local journalists told us they had received veiled threats.
Having said that, if you weren’t a lawyer or a journalist the state of emergency didn’t really affect your life at all. On the surface everything seemed normal for the everyday man/woman. However, there was a definite sense of uneasiness because people didn’t really know what the state of emergency really meant. Psychologically, knowing their country was in a “state of emergency” was a bit demoralizing.
This time when I went, I got there a little after Ms. Bhutto’s assassination. The whole country was in mourning immediately after her death. Friends in Karachi especially, said the city …was like a ghost town. A few days after, life seemed to be getting back to normal. This time, there were no media restrictions. But with the upcoming elections, we were concerned that the violence might pick up, so we had to remain vigilant.
The Economist recently called Pakistan “the world’s most dangerous place.” Given your experience on the ground, do you agree?
There is no doubt, there is a terror threat on the ground in Pakistan. This is the first time the country’s been plagued by suicide bombings. Pakistan’s been through a lot in the past, but never suicide bombings. But to call it the world’s most dangerous place is a bit over the top. You’ve got places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, you can pretty much carry on with normal life. I would stay away from crowded/market areas, if possible. But apart from that, it’s all pretty normal. People don’t need to walk around with armed guards and armoured vehicles. Having said that, it’s always good to be vigilant.
The story of Nicholas Schmidle’s alleged deportation caused waves in the media over here [see blog post January 16 for more information] – what is your opinion on what happened? If the government did deport him, did that effect your or your team’s approach to framing stories, etc.?
The government is extremely sensitive about anything to do with the militants and the army’s activities in the north of Pakistan. During the state of emergency, there was a blanket ban on reporting on any of the stories in the north. That didn’t stop us from reporting on the fighting in Swat. We just gave the government a chance to comment, and they didn’t stop us from releasing our story. But you never know, it could be different next time. Each time we talk about any of these stories, we know we’re risking angering the government; we know we’re risking deportation. There is a very real threat in northern Pakistan, which is spreading into the main cities. That’s something no one can deny. Banning stories and deporting reporters draws more attention to the story, and gives the government bad publicity. So I’m not sure why they do it. All they have to do is refute any claims they deem as false. The Pakistani media in general is very bold and really courageous. They should be encouraged, not stomped on. But historically, the governments in Pakistan – even the “democratic” ones — have tried to control the media when their power was threatened. This is not the first time.
What is your opinion on what is occurring right now?
Elections are slated for Feb. 18, so the political parties are in full campaign swing. So far, I’ve yet to see any of the two main parties address the terror threat. If you ask a man on the street what his main concerns are, pretty much all of them will tell you security, the cost of living – or both. They don’t seem to be too fussed about what democracy means or who’s at the top. They just want the bombings to stop – and they want to be able to feed their families. It’s pretty basic. We’ve yet to see any of the parties discuss how to tackle those issues, so far. For the two main parties – PPP and PML(N) – Pakistan is a different country from when they last ruled. There are new and more immediate priorities, namely security and inflation.