It’s a tragic failure that, after a decade of close U.S. diplomatic engagement with South and Central Asia, the media does not provide better coverage of a country of such pivotal importance. “Yes, Pakistan reality is complex,” Anatol Lieven writes in Foreign Policy, but “Western news outlets and academics must examine yet again their chronic tendency to analyze developments in other countries according to simplistic Western frameworks and then assign the titles of ‘Goody’ or ‘Baddy’ to the participants.”
Lieven points to the Pakistani judiciary, which is not all that it seems to the American observer. When the “Lawyer’s Movement” rose to prominence in 2007, the media lauded Pakistan’s middle-class lawyers and judges for attacking the country’s corrupt civilian leadership and military dictators. But the would-be heroes have their own priorities:
Most shocking was the public support of many lawyers for the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who in January 2011 was murdered by one of his own bodyguards for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has been repeatedly misused in private feuds and the persecution of religious minorities. A previous chief justice of the Lahore High Court himself justified this murder to me in an interview last year on the grounds that “the laws of God take precedence over the laws of man.”
Pakistani courts have also repeatedly failed to convict terrorism suspects, even when the cases against them seemed clear-cut. They overturned both a ban on Jamaat-ud-Dawa—the public face of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—and a detention order against its leader, Hafiz Saeed. In a recent case, they acquitted four Pakistani Taliban activists accused of an attack on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Lahore. As many Pakistanis have told them, this kind of verdict not only undermines the entire struggle against terrorism in Pakistan, but also encourages extrajudicial executions by the police and Army. In this case, all four men were promptly detained by the ISI under special anti-terrorism laws. And within a few weeks, all were dead under very suspicious circumstances. . . .
Lower levels of the judicial system are even worse. During two out of my three recent visits to Lahore, lawyers in that city have been filmed beating up policemen who have testified against their clients in court—and have then beaten up the television crews who dared to film them!
The jejune media coverage isn’t limited to Pakistan. Veteran Africa journalist Laura Seay writes that foreign correspondents too often rely heavily on sources who agree with them or speak their language. The result is stories like “Land of Mangoes and Joseph Kony” that are rife with cliches and stereotypes.
Some of this is due to a lack of the necessary funding to produce accurate stories; catering to the short attention span of the average American reader doesn’t help either. As both Seay and Lieven conclude, we can do better. Journalists owe it to the people they write about to be accurate and thoughtful, and the editors and media executives owe it to their audiences to present foreign places in all their particular complexity.