The Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was a popular joint for 1,300 foreign correspondents even after Kabul fell and became relatively safe for Westerners. Makeshift sets for live TV interviews on the rooftop have all gone but local journalists still hang out, hoping to make a few quick bucks by running errands.
The world media came to town and it was a bonanza for anybody who spoke English and Urdu and was eager to earn a bit on the side. Those who spoke additional languages such as Pushto, Farsi or Dari were in for big bucks.
Over the period of 90 days, some 1,300 foreign correspondents pumped an estimated $5 million into the local media industry, the main beneficiary being the journalists themselves. This is in addition to many millions paid for compliant coverage of the battle for Afghanistan. The fight for stringerships with the foreign media began in earnest as they jostled for exclusive stories, news alerts and exclusive interviews. In the cut-throat competition, media companies offered big money for information.
Local journalists with press cards worn as necklaces strolled about the Marriott lobby or asked irrelevant questions at Foreign Ministry briefings just to attract the notice of foreign journalists. Those lucky enough to have a mobile phone used it to present themselves as “wired.”
A colleague one day asked me to join him at the Marriott. I thought about it but instantly shrugged off the idea. Two hundred and fifty dollars a day is quite an amount for an underpaid journalist — but then what will I be asked to do and will it be journalism? I will not be reporting to an editor or a newsroom. My story will not be published under my byline. Rather I will be arranging interviews and gaining entrees for journalists whose stories I may not agree with.
I remembered a visit to Bombay a long time ago when I visited the Times of India office. One of the editors greeted me warmly, took me out to dinner and asked me if I could write about the terrorist camps allegedly being run at the time by the Pakistani government. He said he would give me a blank check. But I politely refused, believing as I did that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and journalists are easily lured into taking sides.
When the US attack on Afghanistan began, it became clear to me that I had made the right decision. Watching the champions of the free press and objective reporting tell lies left, right and center amazed me and left me speechless. They were so good at putting a spin to everything they reported. After all, these were the correspondents who had been carefully selected by the US defense establishment to “run the media war.” Some journalists, local or foreign, don’t mind selling their souls. If the price is right.
Despite misgivings about Western journalists and their stories, local journalists never manage to hate their dollar. Hiring journalists on per diems would sound ridiculous in Western democratic societies but since a dollar equals about 60 Pakistani rupees, even the journalists’ associations look away while their members make extra bucks.
“We are a global community,” said a union leader, “a little prosperity and exposure will do no harm.” You know why? One day a friend of mine sold three stories making $2,000. He told me he went straight to the Journalists’ Housing Society and reserved a large plot in the journalist colony. That is why.
Prosperity and exposure have surely lent weight to journalists in the local market but the low level of engagement with “colleagues from abroad” has brought Pakistani journalists into disrepute.
A colleague talks about the downside of local journalists, stringing and fixing for foreign journalists. Says he, “Events are happening very close to the border and Pakistani journalists should have taken the lead in reporting them. But they are nowhere to be seen on TV or in foreign newspapers because they decided to settle for $250-a-day jobs.”
The presence of the world media in Pakistan has changed the face of journalism. It has developed a sense of competition for cheap dollars. One has to admit though that the quality of newspapers has gone up. Stories have improved and local journalists who opted not to become stringers and “fixers” do the extra mile to file a good story. Unfortunately, as a consequence of “media imperialism,” the journalistic community in Pakistan is now divided into those who support the US attack on Afghanistan and those who don’t. Those working for foreign journalists, naturally, believe that the US is doing the right thing in Afghanistan. But they are looked down upon by those who believe the US decision to decimate Afghan society and the country under the guise of a war against terrorism is grossly unjust.
The foreign media are doling out money to local journalists just as George Bush is doling out aid to the Pakistani government. In the latter case, the government is fixing intelligence and logistics for Bush’s army and suppressing local dissent. The former case is not much different. Although “foreign-paid journalists” are in no position to police dissenting journalists, the shine on their faces at least tempts them to think about going to the Marriott.