US and Pakistani Media Split Over Balochistan
Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in February held a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations, which he chairs. The subject might have seemed a bit strange for most Americans. It was on the right to self-determination for the people of Balochistan, a province in southwest Pakistan that few Americans even knew existed.
Then nine days later, Rohrabacher went a step further and introduced a House resolution. If passed, the resolution would put the U.S. Congress on record supporting that the “Balochi nation has a historic right to self-determination,” meaning secession from Pakistan.
Few Congressmen are likely to know where the Balochi nation is, and the proposed resolution went largely unreported in the U.S. press. In Pakistan, however, a massive uproar went up. Secession would mean the break up of their country. Political leaders, columnists and many ordinary Pakistanis angrily denounced the US—and not just the quixotic Republican congressman—for brazenly interfering in Pakistani affairs.
Monitoring the coverage of the issue by major daily newspapers in Pakistan, the US and India for a week after Rohrabacher presented the proposed February 17 reveals a classic case of how each country views the other today. The review shows how national biases can permeate the media and reporting.
The province of Balochistan has been in a state of conflict ever since Pakistan’s independence in 1947. It has been torn between the military and the Baloch nationalist parties, with ordinary people enduring severe human rights violations in the process.
Jang, Pakistan’s largest daily Urdu newspaper reported the issue neutrally the day after Rohrabacher filed his resolution. But on the second day, the tone in the newspaper turned to extreme anti-Americanism. The paper was rife with stories about the issue. Many contained statements from local politicians charging a global conspiracy against Pakistan.
The American embassy in Islamabad issued a statement clarifying that the official U.S. government position was that Balochistan was Pakistan’s internal matter. While this fact was reported accurately no clarification about the lack of legal binding of a Congressional resolution was provided in any story
Neither was much attention paid to the reaction of Baloch leaders, many of whom have welcomed Rohrabacher’s resolution for bringing the Balochistan problem to global attention.
DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English daily newspaper, also published multiple stories on the issue. While the tone of the articles was more neutral than the Urdu daily, there was an abundance of statements from local politicians along with the Prime Minister Gilani and Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, condemning the interference and calling it ‘provocative’. There were also several viewpoints from local party leaders calling the resolution an expression of America’s frustration at the trilateral co-operation between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, which remains far from the truth.
On Feb 19, the newspaper ran a story by Eddie Walsh, the senior foreign correspondent for Africa and Asia-Pacific, regarding statements by Dr C. Christine Fair, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. Fair, who had testified before Mr. Rohrabacher’s panel, but was extremely critical of it afterwards. In a series of Twitter exchanges, she called the hearing a “political stunt” and one of her fellow witnesses a “nut.” In the interview with Walsh, she remained unapologetic about her earlier remarks. She added that Congressmen Rohrabacher and Louie Gohmert, a co-sponsor of the bill had used what was ostensibly supposed to be a hearing on human rights violations in Baluchistan to advocate the dismembering of a sovereign state based upon the views of one community in the province.
The paper also ran a story recognizing that the US administration had clearly distanced itself from the move, and no US newspaper or TV channel had taken it up. Other articles quoted Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman lamenting that that recurrent mis-steps like these damage the people-to-people relationship between the two countries, especially at a time when government relations between the two countries are already tense.
Dawn, unlike the Urdu Jang, reported the reaction of Baloch leaders. They welcomed the resolution in the House of Representatives for bringing attention to the human rights violation in the province; an issue long overlooked by the international bodies, in their opinion.
In the U.S., meanwhile, the press didn’t take up coverage of the resolution until it became an issue between the US and Pakistan. The New York Times ran its first story three days after the resolution was presented. The article by Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt focused on strain put on the Pak-US relations, and how it has added fire to an already ripe anti-American sentiment in the country. The Times article also speaks about the support of the resolution by Baloch nationalist leaders, as it has bought the case of injustices against the Baloch population to the global front. This was also the only story done by the publication on the issue but covered almost every aspect of the sensitive issue.
The Washington Post, another leading newspaper, did not run a single story on the issue until Feb 23. The story that was finally run had an indirect connection to the main issue, reporting about a pro-democracy American delegation that visited Islamabad, a week after the resolution and were faced with suspicion and a tense atmosphere. The delegates are quoted to have said, “Even senior Pakistani lawmakers had no clue that a resolution such as Rohrabacher’s did not equate to a law or in any way dictate U.S. foreign policy.”
The press in India was much more on top of the story than the Americans. India is a neighbor and rival to Pakistan, and indeed, the two countries were once one, before 1947, presenting an uncomfortable parallel about secession.
Times of India, one of the main newspapers, covered the story daily and at length, beginning the day after the resolution was presented. The focus was on Pakistan’s reaction, with headlines like “Balochistan resolution in US Congress drives Pakistan crazy”. Some of the stories focused particularly on Pakistan’s constant suspicion of the United States. An article appearing on Feb 19 quoted a headline from an English daily in Pakistan as evidence of ‘hysteria’ in the country. The Times rightly noted that the Pakistan newspaper made no distinction between the US legislature and the administration.
The coverage of the issue by the Pakistani newspapers was a reflection of the popular sentiment in the country-one that views every move by America with suspicion. American ‘interference’ in Pakistan’s state of affairs, a popular discourse in Pakistani media, which has been worsened since the killing of Osama and 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO attack, earlier last year, is a significant reason behind this sudden upsurge in media coverage of the Balochistan issue. However, some seasoned Pakistani journalists like Murtaza Rizvi and Babar Ayyaz have commended the media on openly addressing the problem, giving Baloch leaders a voice and dispelling a lot of half-truths about the region, even if it happened against the backdrop of a resolution, uniformly categorized as irresponsible by policy analysts in both countries.
The American newspapers on the contrary have kept the issue on a leash and refrained from giving unnecessary attention to a Congressional resolution with no legal binding, until it gained heat with government officials and media in Pakistan. Since the Obama administration was quick to distance itself from Rohrabacher’s statements and actions, the press also followed the lead.
Indian media whose stance on most controversial issues is on the opposite spectrum of the Pakistani media displayed the same etiquette this time. The newspapers used strong words and criticized Pakistani media and leaders for being paranoid and blowing an incident with no legal repercussions out of proportion in major news pieces.
While none of the newspapers, Pakistani, Indian or American were factually incorrect, the tone, language and number of stories in each newspaper were reflective of the broader sentiment that individuals, organizations and nations echoed, with the media also following the rule at most times, rather than being the exception. Journalists are from their societies, and so while many try to be “objective”, they naturally frame issues at least in part like the society around them.
Sarah Munir is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@sarahmunir1)