World Leaders Forum Slideshow

Student Essays

Musharraf, the Media, and Perceptions of Pakistan

By Catherine Elizabeth Morgan

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf opened his World Leaders Forum appearance at Columbia by presenting two very different perspectives on his country. Pakistan, Musharraf argues, is a victim of international misunderstanding.

Pakistan is a victim of misperception | start: 0:7:54 | end: 0:8:25

He sees the country in a different light.

Pakistan is on the rise | start: 0:15:33 | end: 0:16:3

Offering evidence of Pakistan's success in economic reform and its progress in curbing extremism within the country and hunting down terrorists outside its borders, Gen. Musharraf presented a positive, generally well-argued view of the country's realities — realities that, Musharraf claims, are often overlooked.

Yet just three days before his appearance at Columbia, Musharraf sparked the ire of the international community for comments he made in an interview with the Washington Post. Speaking about the case of Mukhtar Mai, a woman who challenged Pakistan's feudal system and sought justice for a 2002 gang rape, carried out on the orders of a village council, and who has been prominently featured in recent columns by New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, Musharraf commented: "You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped."

Musharraf later denied having made these comments, but the Washington Post reviewed its transcript and confirmed the quote's accuracy. Some additional details from the interview further illustrate Musharraf's portrayal of Pakistan as a victim, and once again, a sense that his image of the country is quite different. The Post stated: "Musharraf said that he is ‘on the side of women' but that Pakistan is being unfairly ‘singled out when this curse is happening everywhere in the world.'"

On the case of another woman who has spoken out about gang-rape, Dr. Shazia Khalid, Musharraf commented to the Washington Post: "She is again talking all against Pakistan, against whatever we've done. But I know what the realities are." (September 19, Washington Post)

Just as in Musharraf's World Leaders Forum speech, two "realities" are thus presented here: the realities of the women on the ground — be it Mukhtar Mai or Dr. Khalid — and the reality Musharraf claims to know. How is a foreign audience, often with little or no understanding of the country and no experience living there, supposed to discern which is more legitimate?

Musharraf's assertions that his country is doing all it can to fight terror, and his assurances that he is strongly in support of women's rights, are convincing. Yet Nicolas Kristof's columns on the plight of Pakistani women are equally compelling. Musharraf's contradictory behavior — harsh statements to the media, followed by denial that the statements were ever made — complicate things further.

As Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet recently told the New Yorker, a newspaper's job is to help its readers understand the world. In fact, the news media are often the only outlet providing such information, and thus shaping public perception, on foreign countries. Unfortunately, as a spring 2005 course at SIPA, "Perceptions and Politics of Global News," demonstrated, most papers generally do a poor job of this — making Musharraf's effort to present a different image of Pakistan to the World Leaders Forum audience even more of a challenge.

A few issues determine coverage of foreign countries in domestic media. Foremost is proximity, of which geographic proximity is the most prominent; Mexico and Cuba are more important to the United States than Paraguay or Papua New Guinea. Proximity also encompasses historical ties (Britain's relationship with Commonwealth countries), security (U.S. relations with Israel and the Middle East), and cultural bonds (U.S. involvement with countries that have a large diaspora in the United States). In general, countries with more proximity to the United States will be accorded more prominence in the U.S. news media.

Given increased U.S.-Pakistani political and military cooperation after 9/11, including Pakistan's involvement in helping the United States seek Osama bin Laden and, more broadly, root out Taliban and Al-Qaeda influence, Pakistan enjoys a high level of proximity to the United States under the security rubric. Because the United States is worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Pakistani "rogue scientist" A.Q. Khan's suspected exports of centrifuges to North Korea are of high interest. In addition, as part of U.S. efforts to fight terrorism by promoting development, the United States provides Pakistan with debt relief and education reform assistance; after Gen. Musharraf visited the United States in 2003, President George W. Bush announced a five-year, $3 billion economic and military aid package that was launched in 2005.

Another factor that makes a foreign news story "newsworthy" for an editor, according to a "Perceptions and Politics of Global News" reading by Tsan-Kuo Chang and Jai-Won Lee, is a threat to the United States or world peace and U.S. involvement. Here again Pakistan is important: the United States is heavily involved in operations in Pakistan, and the continued existence of terrorist training camps or terrorist cells presents a continued danger to the United States — and indeed the world.

A final key element that shapes news coverage of foreign countries is hinted at by David Perry's thesis on the "highly unrepresentative nature" of news. Perry provides evidence for the hypothesis that "the news media may influence human judgments by covering unusual events and ignoring less-newsworthy, typical events…. Reduc[ing] the accuracy of people's . . . perceptions of foreign nations" (Journalism Quarterly, Summer-Fall 1987).

[It is important to note that, although this paper cites U.S. sources only, this problem is not specific to the United States.]

In recent days, Pakistan has been prominent in the news headlines with coverage of the October 8 earthquake. This devastating natural disaster, with its high loss of life, extensive — and expensive — worldwide recovery efforts, and potential impact on stability and cooperation in the often-volatile South Asia and Middle East region should, and indeed has, to be covered. As with much of foreign news, however, this is crisis-driven coverage (i.e. "highly unrepresentative" news) that doesn't provide a larger picture of the society as a whole. Pakistan doesn't have an earthquake every day, so what is the country like the rest of the time?

Because of Pakistan's proximity to the United States (for the reasons noted above) the country figures heavily in U.S. media. Yet the picture presented, as with many foreign countries, is often skewed.

Headlines such as "Arrest Points to Murky Taliban-Pakistan Ties" (Washington Post, October 9 2005), "Al-Qaeda Hideout Destroyed" (Los Angeles Times, September 14 2005), "Pakistan Leader Confirms Nuclear Exports" (New York Times, September 13 2005), "Despite U.S. Effort, Pakistan Remains Key Terror Hub (Wall Street Journal, July 22 2005) and "Are Terrorist Camps Still Operating?" (New York Times, August 28 2005) demonstrate that much of the news coverage centers on Pakistan's efforts, not always successful, to rein in extremist elements and support the United States.

Many other stories focus on Pakistan's tenuous relationship with India. A long history of mistrust and violence between these two countries, both important U.S. allies, combined with the more recent prospect of a nuclear clash, brings India-Pakistan issues to prominence for U.S. audiences. Articles describing continued fighting in Kashmir are mixed with more positive ones on joint prisoner releases, a meeting between the Indian premier and Kashmiri separatists, progress towards reducing conflict and increased India-Pakistan business deals.

A search for stories on Pakistan in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Times from mid-July through mid-October reveals only a handful that address issues other than terrorism, Al-Qaeda, relations with India or tragedies such as the recent earthquake or the July rail crash. Some of these stories are positive, others are not: "Woman Mutilated for Seeking Divorce" (Los Angeles Times, September 23 2005); "Fuel Prices Increase in Pakistan" (New York Times, September 7 2005); "Local Politics in Pakistan Offers Hope for Democracy" (New York Times, August 23 2005); "Pakistan's Education Ills" (Los Angeles Times, August 19 2005).

This brief survey illustrates that for Pakistan, as for many other foreign countries, the main factors influencing foreign news coverage — proximity, tragedy and war and peace — frequently beat out social issues such as human rights and women's rights.

In his speech at Columbia, Gen. Musharraf claimed:

I am a believer in democracy | start: 0:36:6 | end: 0:36:10

But, on the issue of human rights, he stated:

Human rights | start: 0:35:53 | end: 0:35:56

This failure to provide more detail on critical issues raised by international observers and journalists exposes a flaw in Musharraf's efforts to portray his country as a victim of misperception. Although Musharraf devoted a significant portion of his World Leaders Forum speech to Pakistan's economic progress and its participation in the U.S.-led fight against extremism, these achievements were quickly overshadowed by the revelation of his earlier comments to the Washington Post. He was given a chance to address similar concerns at Columbia, but skirted the issue.

In the question and answer period, he was highly critical of the media:

Criticism of media | start: 0:50:28 | end: 0:50:34

The media can be criticized on many fronts — and not just in Pakistan. But as is evidenced by the mistrust and outrage generated by Musharraf's rape comments, the media are also a crucial player in presenting Musharraf's — rather than Muktar Mai's or Dr. Khalid's — vision of Pakistan to the world.

Musharraf has accomplished much in his years as President, and in his speech, he correctly places Pakistan at the center of the four major concerns of the world today: terrorism and extremism, nuclear proliferation, human rights and democracy.

Yet the current realities of the news business, combined with Musharraf's apparent distaste and disrepect for the media, will make it even more difficult for him to convince the rest of the world to listen while he sings Pakistan's praises — even if much of what he says is true.

This essay was sponsored by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) and produced using their technology, Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning (VITAL).