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Pakistan on the brink

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

“Pakistan is always on the brink,” journalist and documentarian Wajahat Khan told a packed room of Northeastern journalism students last week, but “we don’t know what it’s on the brink of.”

Khan, a Fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, has covered Pakistan’s military and the war on terror, for which his native country is “ground zero,” he said.

He is studying the uses of new media, such as Facebook and Twitter — not, as in the Arab world, by democracy-minded revolutionaries, but by fundamentalists such as the Taliban, pushing their views on a public eager for uncensored information. “Anti-social social media” is Khan’s term.

Speaking in Shillman Hall, Khan said that decades of repression in Pakistan have left the mainstream media in a weakened state; occasionally able to investigate politicians but unwilling to criticize the military or the powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), “Pakistan’s darker version of the CIA.”

Because the military and ISI are nominally U.S. allies in the war on terror, Khan said, the repression is essentially supported by U.S. aid.

Pakistani ruler Pervez Musharraf “actually freed the media,” allowing a proliferation of television stations. “Cable news came to Pakistan in a big way,” said Khan — inspired in part by the Indian media’s power during Pakistan’s failed “Kargil War” with India in 1999.

However, because of relationships between media moguls and military leadership and the ISI’s relentless pressure to both censor the press and plant false information, the Pakistani media remains weak.

“The media has been fooled,” he said. “The media has also stopped itself.” The prevailing editorial stance now, said Khan, is anti-American, because it serves ISI’s and the military’s purpose to focus Pakistanis on external enemies rather than poverty, unemployment and corruption.

Those who don’t toe the line, he suggested, are in danger. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Pakistan the world’s third deadliest countries for reporters this year, behind Iraq and Libya, and the deadliest in 2010. “Most of those cases were not even investigated” by Pakistani authorities, Khan said.

“Why should this worry you?” Khan asked rhetorically. “The last attempted terror attack in this country (the Times Square bombing) emanated from my country. Most Americans think the next terror attack will come from Pakistan … the intelligence community thinks so. The White House thinks so.” Further, he said, “your tax dollars — or your parents’ certainly” are supporting not only the Pakistani military, but a war of drone attacks along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that helps destabilize the country.

“The American government,” he said, “is really not trying to bring out the best in Pakistani journalists.”

Approximately 60 students and several faculty members engaged in a question-and-answer session with Khan after his remarks. In response to a question on the effects of Wikileaks revelations about covert U.S.-Pakistani relationships, he laughed. “We assume that at every level there is corruption,” he said. “We didn’t need Wikileaks to tell us that.”

When one future journalist asked, “What can we do?” Khan urged: “Pack a bag and go, man.”