The information war

Published: December 10, 2011

The writer is a lawyer and political commentator based in London ayesha.khan@tribune.com.pk

There was an interesting discussion on PTV’s “Sochta Pakistan” (December 3, 2011) regarding the decision by Pakistani cable operators to take BBC World News off the air in response to a documentary, entitled “Secret Pakistan”, broadcast by the channel. While Farrukh Pitafi and Adil Najam argued against the decision, Ahmad Quraishi approved the move. As a viewer, it was interesting for me to note that though Mr Quraishi’s views are generally critical of US policy, his methodology of dealing with alternative information is surprisingly similar to the American approach.

When Al Jazeera English first tried to broadcast in the US, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial dubbing it “English Terror TV”. By creating this imaginary fear factor, the American right wing succeeded in permeating mainstream thought such that, cable television in America is limited to domestic news channels or sufficiently unthreatening international ones, such as BBC America. As a result, while cable television viewers in Britain are able to get their information from a variety of sources, including Al Jazeera, Iran’s Press TV, France 24, Russia Today, Chinese CCTV, Indian NDTV and others, American viewers are comparatively unaware and have been prevented from enhancing their understanding of world events.

Notably, by creating obstacles in the free flow of information, American cable operators have not harmed the likes of Al Jazeera — as even Hillary Clinton had to acknowledge its reporting during the Arab Spring — but have severely impeded the ability of American citizens to keep pace with a globally changing environment. America may be a superpower today, but as we move towards a multipolar world, the test of its strength will be in how well it adapts to the emergence of rivals and alternative power centres. In that sense, both the US and the likes of Mr Quraishi in Pakistan would do well to learn from the British model. Britain, having lost its colonial empire, adapted skilfully to its declining power and hence, managed to remain a key world player. One of Britain’s strengths is its ability to tolerate alternative viewpoints, which encourages a stable society relatively free of extreme reactions and a wiser general population.

Mr Quraishi insisted that by being taken off the air, BBC has learned its lesson and will, in future, take cognisance of the Pakistani point of view in its documentaries. This is highly unlikely. The only sure method of ensuring a Pakistani perspective on the world stage is by initiating a Pakistani channel in English, as all the guests on the show concluded and as I had written in an opinion piece for The News (December 13, 2008), shortly after the Mumbai incident.

Ironically, Pakistan’s third attempt at an English channel has recently folded due to revenue issues. But this is hardly surprising given the nearly exclusive domestic focus of the channel. Why should I watch Sheikh Rashid or Veena Malik struggling with their English when I can get the same news a lot more comprehensively by switching to an Urdu channel? In order to be successful, a Pakistani channel in English cannot just rely on the fringe non-Urdu speaking diplomats in Islamabad. Instead, it would need to find its primary audience outside of Pakistan, and, in addition to domestic news, focus on international news from a Pakistani perspective and cater to/involve the large diaspora including second and third generation Pakistanis who care about Pakistan but are not fluent in Urdu.

With a plethora of channels to choose from, I must confess I do not watch BBC and CNN as much as I used to. France 24, for instance, offers excellent coverage on the Arab Spring, perhaps even better than Al Jazeera’s and has an intellectual depth to its talk shows which is difficult for other channels to rival. Russia Today has interesting alternative perspectives — for example, on Afghanistan and Syria — and underscores the fact that while Russia may be down, it is not out in a newly emerging multipolar world. And while Iran’s Press TV is more of a propaganda channel, much like the American Fox News, it is still an interesting watch every now and then. Pakistan has good journalists with English speaking skills, a competent diaspora willing to engage and respect for the free press. The only thing stopping us from launching an English channel, at least as good as India’s NDTV is, our myopia and obsession with Pakistan’s domestic issues, with little or no attention to international affairs.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2011. 

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Reader Comments (22)

  • American Desi
    Dec 10, 2011 - 11:33PM

    Fantastic idea! This would ensure first hand exposure to international community what Pakistanis are thinking. I hope this channel will be truthful and tell the world what mullahs and opinion makers (Zaid Hamid and his ilk) are saying (now covered only by Urdu press). You can even present a one hour special on Pakistani education system and what is being taught for history!!

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  • Prakash
    Dec 11, 2011 - 12:28AM

    Al Jazeera is available in USA and I have viewed its news on Dish network.I agree with Author that Ahmad Quraishi have very sectarian and biased approach on issues.

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  • KD
    Dec 11, 2011 - 12:37AM

    Why do you want your own Pakistani English News Channel? Is it to tell the truth or tow the establishment line and lie further to your populace?…. If your reason is for the latter then you better not have your own english channel and anyways it will collapse over a period of time serving Lies for breakfast, lunch and dinner…

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  • gp65
    Dec 11, 2011 - 1:04AM

    Dear Ayeshaji,

    I usually enjoy your articles but am unable to agree with some ideas expressed in this one. Of course I am an Indian national and that may account for some part of difference in perspective but not all.

    “Instead, it would need to find its primary audience outside of Pakistan, and, in addition to domestic news, focus on international news from a Pakistani perspective and cater to/involve the large diaspora including second and third generation Pakistanis who care about Pakistan but are not fluent in Urdu.”

    There are very few examples of success where the primary source of revenue is based on international audeince. I can think of Al Jazeera and they are really seen an Arabic channel and supported by all Arabs. So even for al Jazeera, the primary market that supports is the home market. This is true not just for news but for entertainment also. Hollywood and to a lesser extent Bollywood provide global entertainment the primary source of revenues is their domestic markets.

    “he only thing stopping us from launching an English channel, at least as good as India’s NDTV is, our myopia and obsession with Pakistan’s domestic issues, with little or no attention to international affairs”

    No question about the talent of Pakistani journalists. The 3 attempts at creating English channel did not fail due to lack of talent or because quality that was inferior to NDTV.It failed due to revenue problems. NDTV too gets over 90% of its revenue from its domestic market. There is no way it would be a successful channel if the focus of the channel were international news. Yes, it does provide international news but that is a very small percentage of its total offering.

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  • Muhammad Ali
    Dec 11, 2011 - 1:15AM

    Asalam o Alaiqum….!!!!!
    Ms. Ayesha Ijaz Khan,

    I really appriciate your views, on why dn’t pakistan having an English News Channel.
    Please be detailed in your writtings.

    Thanks…………!!!Recommend

  • Mumbaikar
    Dec 11, 2011 - 2:12AM

    Interesting ideas. Essentially, the channel creators and journalists are the influencers/leaders of the community watching it. So, is there a community out there which has pakistani /english flavor? sure. is it big enough for a channel? probably not. Also, you want to fight a information war and advance a view point using this channel? What is the view point ? Is it based on any kind of “truth” and a viewpoint worthy/powerful enough of being told and is not being covered already by other news outfits? It all comes back to the question of Pakistani identiy I think :) How is north korea different from south korea?

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  • Arjun
    Dec 11, 2011 - 2:50AM

    Instead, it would need to find its primary audience outside of Pakistan

    Yes…there’s a vast hidden market for the “Pakistani” perspective.

    Today’s shows…Zaid Hamid talks about how the Mumbai attackers were hindus.
    Tomorrow: Haqqanis rock.

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  • Mir Agha
    Dec 11, 2011 - 5:09AM

    But then what would the self-annointed “liberals” do since their whole schtick is to play off of foreign media? CNN airing a propogandist spewing absurdities against “THE ESTABLISHMENT” = GOOD. CNN hosting Manzoor Ijaz online talking against Pak = GOOD. CNN hosting Manzoor Ijaz online revealing Haqqani’s delusional mindset = BAD.

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  • N
    Dec 11, 2011 - 8:51AM

    In English we talking thing. In Urdu another.

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  • Feroz
    Dec 11, 2011 - 8:53AM

    We readers appreciate what you say and probably agree with most of the points made. Where there can be disagreement is whether Pakistani view point however well portrayed and packaged can be easily sold to the global community. Humans react to the environment around them and use a rational thought process to form a view. I doubt if better marketing can solve the problem, when the issue is quality of the product or the idea. Just my two cents on this topic.

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  • Arifq
    Dec 11, 2011 - 8:57AM

    Dear Ayesha, what purpose will a English channel serve? if the objective is to deliver the Pakistani narrative then that is already being transmitted via local channels albeit to the local audience, and we all know the quality of journalism practiced, is that the message we wish to promote abroad? Al Jazeera and BBC International are not good examples since they are subsidized by their domestic operations, question then arises can these local channels generate sufficient revenues to keep a loss making unit alive? Most importantly in our case, do we wish to have a propaganda tool used by agencies or a medium to promote Pakistani franchise?

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  • pmbm
    Dec 11, 2011 - 10:14AM

    With plethora of channels to choose from why does people need a ‘ pakistani english channel’Recommend

  • Mirza
    Dec 11, 2011 - 11:07AM

    http://www.bridgestv.com/AboutUsCompany.aspx
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free
    Speech_TV
    While the main stream channels like MSNBC is one of the most liberal channel, there are other smaller names that show Muslim programs and then the nonprofit Free Speech TV, which is almost anti USA. In addition, there are Arabic and all major language channels available but for a price. The channels which are popular in Pakistan or even in the UK cannot be popular here because of lack of financial support. In the market economy everything is available but for a price. In fact there are so many Indian channels available that one can lose count. Moreover, there have been weekly and daily programs where ethnic minorities rent time on certain channels for their own language programs both on the radio and TV stations. Of course all the major channels are also available here on the Dish and Cable if one desires. Recommend

  • Javed Latef
    Dec 11, 2011 - 11:10AM

    It will have to be more like Al Jazeera with worldwide coverage. Maybe it should be based outside Pakistan too, in Dubai or London. I wish the English channels in Pakistan that closed would have given this model a try.

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  • You Said It
    Dec 11, 2011 - 12:58PM

    Al Jazeera is available in the US on Time Warner and Verizon FIOS cable networks, in addition to the Dish Network. The fact stated in this article about Al Jazeera being unavailable in the US dates back to the early part of the decade, and is no longer true. In any case, a recent Pew survey stated that given the prevalence of the internet and social media, only a third or less of Americans get their news from cable networks these days.

    While it is popular to stereotype Americans for their lack of awareness about world news, such views are now passe. Given the hgh casualties US has suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring and now the European economic crisis, I find mainstream American media have extensive coverage of international affairs. Add in the effects of the social media, and you have an American audience that is far more world-wise and aware than has been the case for generations. Just talk about AfPak to lay Americans today and you’ll hear remarkably cogent arguments about duplicity, insecurity and the role of religion.

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  • Parvez
    Dec 11, 2011 - 1:53PM

    Instead of closing down the English channels the management should have improvised in order to get the correct balance to be economically viable. Possibly a mix of English News, Views and Comments and Urdu entertainment thrown in to attract advertisements. Why did they have to be 100% English channels ???

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 11, 2011 - 3:06PM

    I agree with those above who express surprise at your uninformed statement about Al Jazeera in the US. It is widely available. I don’t have a “dish”; I get it through FIOS 24/7.

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  • Nwaq
    Dec 11, 2011 - 4:33PM

    Good informative article.totally agreed with writer.

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  • x
    Dec 11, 2011 - 4:46PM

    @parvez, dawn news tried that and failed that. i agree with the writer, english channels fail to generate revenue because only a small percentage of viewers watch english news channels so investors are unwilling. targeting an international audience might work but a brilliant business model will be needed!

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  • Dec 11, 2011 - 6:51PM

    @ those above who are talking about Al-Jazeera being available in the US—first of all, I did not mention satellite dish availability but was only comparing cable in the US with cable in the UK. Moreover, I was focusing more on the attitude of US cable operators when Al-Jazeera first tried to beam in the US and the hostility to foreign news channels portrayed. I do understand that at present some cable providers may be carrying Al-Jazeera, but the number of Americans they provide to are miniscule in comparison with how widely available it is in the UK. Moreover, what do you think the reaction will be in the US if, for example, the Iranian Press TV (an English channel) wanted to also be allowed cable space? In the UK, there was no problem and it too is widely available.
    Whenever I have travelled to the US, I have found very few people watching Al-Jazeera—and this is in Manhattan, which is more connected to the world than the rest of the US—and primarily this is because it is not available to them. This is vastly different from London where nearly everyone I know watches it, as they do Russian, French, etc. networks. The other really amazing thing about the US is that when I tell American friends about this fact, about how controlled information is in the US, they refuse to acknowledge it because this idea about “American exceptionalism” is so well engrained. Having lived in the US myself for about 7 years, and now in the UK, I find there a large difference between the two in terms of freedom of information on foreign issues.

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  • Dec 13, 2011 - 2:33AM

    I understand what you are trying to do, Ms. Khan: substitute a false narrative for a true one. Spread the dishonesty of Pakistani governance to Washington!

    Have you considered what has happened in the past when this has succeeded? Have you forgotten 1971 when Nixon and Kissinger took the words of Pakistan’s leadership at face value and tens of thousands of East Pakistanis died as a result? Or Zia’s reign when he chose to support the Islamists over the secularists in Afghanistan and the U.S. accepted this?

    The lesson you are failing to absorb is that ultimately Pakistan must face a reality check and that trying to falsify America’s perceptions will help Pakistan even less.

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  • Syed Kashmiri
    Dec 13, 2011 - 6:41AM

    You are correct. However an English only private channel may not be economically viable. There is an Information War going on in the world. Facts don’t matter as much as the perception mattere in the minds of the people. And yes you are right. The american public is the most ignorant about the rest of the world,particularly about the muslim world especially Pakistan.May be The Ministry of Foreign affairs should help in starting such a channel to counter the negative image of your country.

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