Tuesday, May 22, 2007

trying to read the news from pakistan

Puck, "The Evil Spirits of Modern Daily News" (1888)

[All links provided at the end of the post.]

Last week, in a post on the challenges facing religious minorities in Pakistan, Saliha linked a BBC article concerning threats that were made against Christians in the town of Charsadda by means of an anonymous letter. Saif responded in the comments to Saliha’s post that the article struck him as a bit of propaganda, and I must admit that my first response was very similar to Saif’s. I actually thought Saliha’s post was very good and that she had made much much(!!) better use of the story than any of the news outlets that were reporting the story.

Several things bothered me about the way the media approached the story. I will begin with the BBC article in particular but then move on to look at broader coverage of the story in the U.S., U.K., Pakistan and elsewhere.

1. I think the number one thing that bothered me about the BBC article was the way in which the anonymous nature of the letter did not give the BBC one moment of pause. No one signed the letter and no one has claimed responsibility for the letter and thus one really has no way of judging the letter itself. For all the BBC knows, this was a couple of guys out on an all night bender that thought scaring some Christians would be funny. Now, this is not to say that as a Catholic if I were in Charsadda I would not be concerned. I would indeed be very troubled and no doubt frightened by such threats especially given the bomb attacks that had already occurred in the area.

2. But the inability to evaluate the significance of the letter was not important to the BBC and it is passed over in silence. This is a news story in their eyes, and does not need any such evaluation, because it confirms to them and to their presumed readers, the preconceptions of Pakistanis and Islam that they already have. As Saif points out, no legitimate religious authority would support such a letter, yet, despite this fact, you have no indication from the BBC that they even tried to get a response from one of the local Imam’s or even a cleric in Islamabad. The function of the story is simply to remind us how violent and uncivilized Pakistanis and Muslims are.

3. Factual inaccuracies: I do not know what they mean when they say John Michael, a Christian member of the Pakistani parliament, is the head of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, but as far as I can tell he is not a Roman Catholic bishop. Also, as far as I can tell, the head of the Catholic Church in Pakistan is still the Archbishop of Lahore, Lawrence Saldahna.

4. This brings us into the realm of more much more troubling challenges that face us as readers of the media. How can we tell what is going on? Who do we rely upon? One of the things I usually try to do with stories like this one, a half a world away with sketchy information, is try and see what other media outlets are saying. When I did that in this case, it was like I had fallen into a spider web and the more I tried to free myself (i.e. find the actual truth of the story) the more deeply I became entangled in the web.

- Let us start with the letter itself. The BBC report indicates only one letter. They show a picture (purchased from the AP) of a man, a cross behind him, holding the letter up for the camera to see. Yet other news agencies indicate that a number of letters were sent to various churches containing the threat, others that it was a mix of churches and homes (FOX, picking up the AP, reports 2 churches and several homes). An Indian outlet reports that the letters were received not only in Charsadda, but also in Mardan. It is in fact one of the Pakistani outlets that seems most helpful, if their information is presumed to be reliable. They report that the letters were photocopies of a hand-written note, written in rather crude Urdu. But this would seem to be contradicted by a Christian news outlet (whose sources are unspecified) that reports that the various letters received by different parties were not identical [Note that this same news agency has a bit from the 21 May edition calling Jerry Falwell a “cultural hero”].

- Then one has to deal with the threat itself. The BBC article, in its opening paragraph, written in bold print just so you don’t miss it, reports that the Christians are threatened with bomb attacks if they do not convert within the allotted 10 days. Christian Today puts a whole phrase about dire consequences and bombs in quotes, as if they were quoting the letter (or some other unnamed source). AsiaNews headline says that the Christians have been told to convert or die. These claims - the BBC, Christian Today and AsiaNews - seem to be untrue. Most news agencies are reporting that the threats are unspecific, noting only that there will be consequences if they do not convert. The above mentioned Christian news agency says that there are definitely letters that do not specify consequences but it is “reported” that some letters contain bomb threats. That is true insofar as the BBC is reporting that there are bomb threats, but no one seems to have any actual letter – unless the BBC knows something no one else knows, in which case they need to be clearer in their article. The AP provides the only translation of the letter that I could find. In its earliest article (from 12 May – oddly its 16 May article is much more inflammatory and for all intents and purposes says the Taliban wrote the letters), in the above mentioned picture taken by Muhammed Zubair, the following translation is provided:
{"Inform all Christians to covert to Islam or to leave this place. Otherwise you will be in trouble."
Thursday, May 10, 2007 in Charsadda, near Peshawar, Pakistan.}

- Another British outlet, the TimesOnline, reports that as a result of the letters "Christians have fled their homes". Now this is arguably important because it provides a way of judging whether or not Christians believe that the letters represent an escalated or new level of danger for them. Now I suppose, technically, in order for the TimesOnline claim to be true, one would only need at least two Christians to leave their home as a result of the threat. But clearly the opening sentence of the article is meant to imply that Christians have decided to make an exodus from the area. This seems false. Most outlets are reporting that a few Christians have left, but the vast majority are staying put. The BBC, who at least has the decency to provide a reporters name for the story, has Barbara Plett telling us that a few families have left but most are simply “living in fear”. Melodramatic, and not particularly helpful since it turns out that Ms Plett is reporting on the story from Islamabad and thus clearly has no way of confirming for us that what is being said is true. One Pakistani outlet, not surprisingly perhaps, is reporting that no one(!) has left as a result of the letters. This is stated by the local police chief and confirmed by a Christian source. While I find it improbable that a couple of people did not at least say to themselves, “I have not seen Auntie Mary down in Lahore in a long time; now would be a good time to visit”, it also seems unlikely that Christians have caused a traffic jam on the road south out of Charsadda: especially since the number of Christians we are talking about seems to be between approximately 500 and 600 people depending on which news organization you ask (the Middle Eastern Times reports, e.g., 50 families). Moreover at least this outlet has been responsible enough to provide two independent sources for the fact it is reporting and provided names for both of their sources. Clearly this is a revolutionary idea for modern journalism. They also note that the Associated Press had reported migration from the area and give the name of the AP source. I swear, it is almost like they know what responsible journalism is. Maybe the BBC should take notes.

- And then there is the matter of who is actually delivering the threat. The AP wire, picked up by FOX (FOX picks up the feed without the picture or the translation of the letter, interestingly), among others, opens its 12 May report with the claim that the letter is the work of “extremists” even though a few paragraphs later they admit that the letter was unsigned. It’s 16 May report goes even further, virtually declaring the Taliban party the author. The ironically named Christian news outlet, WorthyNews, declares in its headline that “Militants” are “forcing” Christians to convert and shutting down their churches. Besides ignoring the fact that the letters were anonymous, it makes it sound like armed militants are on the streets compelling Christians to say the shahada while they nail-shut the doors of local churches. Perhaps the most egregious offence on this score is from the Indian media outlet, The Times of India, which unambiguously identifies the letter-senders as the Taliban.

- The official response is another matter that is extremely unclear. If you are to believe the AsiaNews, which is a news service aimed at Catholic readers, the authorities are treating the letters as a “joke” and the Christians of Charsadda are callously being ignored. One can see how they might have inferred this, since a Pakistani outlet reports that the chief of police called the letters “immature” and said that the Taliban were much more sophisticated in their methods. But to say that he does not think that the letters are the work of the Taliban and to say that he is going to do nothing is two different things. And he goes on to say that special measures are being taken to ensure the security of Christians and churches. Now it might also be the case, at the very same time, that Christians do not feel secure despite whatever measures are available to the police. And this seems to be implied by the BBC story and others. But even the BBC notes that police have been stationed near Christian interests.

- Now, while I think it is fair to cut them a break, especially when talking about headlines where they are forced to conserve space and be economic with their words while at the same time trying to inspire you to want to read the story, I think it is also important to notice the way in which the words Christian and Pakistan(i) are used in these articles. Over and over again Christians are mentioned in the headlines as if all Christians of Pakistan were being threatened, and not 500 to 600 in a portion of NWFP. Moreover Pakistan is often used in the headlines in a way that could suggest that it is the Pakistani government or some official authority that is attempting to compel this mass conversion. Clearly Pakistan, if that word refers to the country and its powers, are not complelling anyone to convert, and the letters did not come from Pakistan.

- And, finally, to take up Saif’s complaint, which I believe is a relatively legitimate one. Only the news services, like the Middle Eastern News, which picked up the AFP feed and the quote from Shabaz Bhatti, have any statements denouncing the letter and claiming that they violate the spirit of Islam. Even that paragraph is not terribly clear in the AFP feed and it is not clear who is speaking, who the “Alliance” is, and whether or not the speaker is Muslim. A better version of this article (perhaps the original full version, I can not tell) is found at ChristianToday, where one learns that the Alliance is the “All Pakistan Minority Alliance”. Moreover, I presume that the All Pakistan Minority Alliance is a private organization, but who they are and what they do is unstated. Unfortunately, the Christian Today article fails to mention Shabaz Bhatti by name, so I have to put those two pieces together from two different articles. Another thing that the Christian Today article does well is link this event with broader events affecting religious minorities in Pakistan, mentioning the recent failed legislation that was brought before Parliament for the equal treatment of blasphemy no matter which religion was involved. Saliha has also provided us a very useful post on that topic. The 12 May AP report is also one of the few (the only one?) that provides a quote from Pakistani authorities insisting that religious minorities in Pakistan have the right to practice their religion and that their rights will be protected by the Pakistani government. This statement disappears from nearly ALL subsequent reports from other news agencies. Moreover no one seems to have gone to the “trouble” of attempting to interview religious leaders in Peshawar or Islamabad or anywhere else to get their reaction. Meanwhile we have statements from Christian leaders in Islambad and Lahore, as well as foreign Christian figures denouncing the threat to Christians. This is the point at which the articles, especially from the Western media come very very close to being propaganda. They refuse to even acknowledge the need to seek the opinion of Muslim voices. The presumably Muslim voice of the letter(s) is the only voice they can hear. Whether or not it is self-consciously propaganda, it is Yellow Journalism by any standard.


The following provides, I believe, a complete list of the all the links that were referenced in this post, beginning with Saliha Shah's two wonderful posts on religious minorities and the freedom of religion found at eteraz.org:

Saliha Shah, "A Step Back for Religious Freedom"

Saliha Shah, "Why Protect Religious Minorities?"

AP - 12 May (includes translation of letter), "Pakistan Christians Receive Threatening Letters Urging Conversion"

see FOXNews version of same article here

BBC (as already linked by Saliha Shah), "Pakistan Christians Demand Help"

Middle Eastern Times (picking up the AFP feed), "Christians in Pakistan Ordered to Convert"

The TimesOnline, "Christians in Pakistan Told to Convert"

AsiaNews, "Christians Threatened: Convert to Islam or Die"

The Times of India, "Pak Bishop Slams Taliban Threats"

Worthy News, "Pakistan Militants Force Christians to Convert to Islam and Shut Churches"

The Daily Times, "Threatening Letter to Christians in Charsadda: Police Guarding Homes and Churches"

Assist News Service (ANS) [A Christian News Outlet], "Letters Threaten Pakistani Christians to Convert to Islam"

Christian Today, "Christians Have 10 Days to Convert to Islam in Pakistan"

AP - 16 May, "Pakistani Christians Warned to Convert"


1 comment:

spincitysd said...

With a cut and paste of the BBC news site I was able to get a slew of articles. Term was "Pakistan Christians" The term yielded 10 pages of hits.

Go to Google news with the same term and get tons more. Not all the hits are on point, but a clear pattern is visible. The Pakistani government is not getting any loving from the major media outlets.

Is this because there is a cabal out to smear the good name of Pakistan? Or is there trouble in Pakistan caused by or inflamed by religious extremism? With real dissent about the government being literally being beaten down by the Pakistani authorities; is it any wonder that the anger of the common folk is finding an outlet else ware?

I would not be in the least surprised that elements of Pervez Musharraf's government are actually secretly encouraging the unrest. There is a not-so-secret group of Military officers that are sympathetic to a Taliban-style government in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a dictatorship, if the government really wanted to provide security to religious minorities they could. They could make it abundantly and painfully clear that they will not tolerate any molestation of religious minorities. Even the BBC would take note of the parked Tanks and Battalions of armed men.