I miss the sunrise in Islamabad. I have jet lag and sleep through it, but I am up by noon. A colleague, a respected researcher in the region, takes me to lunch in one of the remaining villages in the middle of the city, a city that was made from villages when it was constructed in the 1960’s. Islamabad is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Pakistan, according to the guidebooks. We lunch in the hills under an awning on sofas looking out on other hills and restaurants attracting locals and tourists. We drink fresh squeezed orange juice—I drink the sweet, delicious orange juice at almost every meal—and eat a local chicken dish with nann piled high. In the evening I also dine outside by a fire with a journalist friend of a friend at an Italian restaurant in a residential neighborhood.
I am here for a conference of Pakistani and American journalists hosted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) on whose board I serve. But this first day is my own and the only day I will not be inside the security corridor of the hotel or on a bus with an armed guard. Pakistan is reputed to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and one in which Americans are urged to be cautious.
Pakistan stands at a pivotal point in its history right now with elections coming up in the next month for a democratic turnover of power. The expectation is that the civilian government will hand over to another civilian government peacefully for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Everyone I meet no matter their political affiliation is hopeful this election will occur.
“Even if imperfect, it is an important step in evolving democracy in the country,” says a leading human rights lawyer.
Central to the democracy the citizens aspire to is a free press. According to journalists at the conference:
–“What we do now in the media will make a difference 50 to 100 years from now.”
— “People are saying to the media: it is your job to protect us.”
–“Good journalists feel responsible and accountable to tell the story.”
The International Center for Journalists has sponsored and continues to sponsor over 150 Pakistani journalists to work in U.S. newsrooms around the country from California to Arizona to Texas to Minnesota to Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to Florida. It also sponsors 30 U.S. journalists to visit the Pakistani newsrooms. For most of the participants the visit is the first to each other’s country. The exchange has opened up perceptions and extended skill sets on all sides.
“Unless you touch the grass in each other’s yards, you won’t know each other,” said a journalist from Karachi who spent time working in Tucson.
In the U.S. the journalists work side by side on stories, including elections, schools, crime, the judiciary, local government, all the while learning about America and about techniques in American journalism. Americans also learn about Pakistan as the Pakistani journalists speak to Rotary clubs and schools and give interviews to the media.
–The journalist from Waziristan in the tribal territories in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan who worked in Austin, TX blogging and is still blogging. “I loved Texas. The people cared for their families; they are like us.”
–The TV reporter based in Chicago who covered the US elections for his channel. As he stood in front of President Obama, he said he thought: “Here is a king of the world and yet he has a modest personality and is easily approachable.” The American experience was also good for him, he said, because he quit smoking. “After going to America, which has a no smoking culture, I cut my cigarettes down to 15 a day then to 5 a day then to none, and I now have quit.”
–The journalists in Pittsburg and in Charleston who hadn’t used social media except for family learned to use twitter and to tag and to send back notes on stories through smart phones.
–The Karachi journalist in Bakersfield, California who said he learned how American journalists fact checked content and shared information via facebook. He said he got tickets to see Conan O’Brien and Universal Studios for free and started a blog about his experiences and is still blogging.
–The journalist from Quetta who worked in Tallahassee, Florida and met the Mayor and Governor and Education Minister for the state. “I came back and did a story on education and mistakes in results in Punjab.”
–A journalist who was also a faculty member worked in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a local TV channel and saw firsthand how important freedom was and saw the diversity of the culture, including the Amish country. “To understand the American ideal of freedom is so important for Pakistan. The journalist who picked me up every day told me democracy didn’t come easy; he said they had to struggle for it. It’s our way now. This is what I learned. American didn’t get it easy.”
–A journalist in Austin, TX had access to wander around with a camera. “I had a view of people and of the U.S. and that completely changed. They don’t hate Muslims or Pakistanis.”
–Another journalist was educated in school not to think well about America. “When I talk to different people and see the strong system and story of civilization and met Americans, I’m not against American people now.”
–One Pakistani journalist went with a Minneapolis journalist to interview the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and was surprised how liberal he was in his views, especially towards gay marriage.
There were also journalists at the conference who’d been accepted to the program but were still awaiting visas, including a journalist from Waziristan and a woman television journalist in Lahore, who explained that in her city she couldn’t leave the house without covering her head; she longed to come to the US and study international relations.
Many of the American journalists went to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, but were not able to spend the same amount of time in the Pakistani newsrooms because of security concerns. They said they were surprised how much the Pakistanis wanted to engage with them. They too remarked on how alike they all were as they pursued their careers and families.
An editor in Florida told the story of a father of one of the women reporters working at his paper and living in his home. The father called him from Pakistan concerned about his daughter. The American editor shared his own experience as a father of a daughter, and the two families became friends.
Pakistan is acknowledged as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. The danger to a free press isn’t the arrest and imprisonment of writers as it is in many countries. “The danger to the journalist used to be that he or she would be beaten up,” said one reporter. “In the old days you would get a good thrashing. Now they kill you!” Some cities like Karachi are more dangerous than others.
One leading journalist said there was no criticism of the Taliban in the press because it was too dangerous and because the Taliban are the biggest advertisers in certain media. “No story is worth dying for,” he said though others disagreed.
“To cover Pakistan is like looking through a fog,” said one American journalist based there who noted that people still remember the beheading of Daniel Pearl. “American journalists should be able to cover and go many places, but we can’t. Thirty-five journalists were assassinated in the past few years. If the media can’t work in certain areas, then how is it free?”
The constriction on the working U.S. and Pakistani media is balanced by the welcoming attitude of Pakistani civil society, noted one editor active in the Rotary Club back home where the visiting Pakistani journalists spoke. When he got off the plane in Islamabad, the President of the Rotary met him and took him around, and rotary members greeted him everywhere.
“When journalists on a major story are threatened and still run the story—that is courage,” he said. “Fight for a free press. The whole world is with you!”