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Journalists Reveal Unknown Side of Pakistan
SMPA panel brings together writers and filmmakers who have been reporting “realities of Pakistan.”
February 12, 2014
Declan Walsh, Pakistan bureau chief at the New York Times, had been covering major news events in Pakistan, including bombings, political crises and the Osama Bin Laden operation—but he wanted to examine the country through the eyes of civilians. So he took a train ride: The journalist crossed Pakistan on its decaying railway, reporting on both the crumbling transit enterprise and the people he saw along the way in a poignant 2013 feature for the Times.
“One of the complaints one gets from Pakistanis in particular is that you’re not giving a sense of the daily life most people experience,” he said. “I thought a train ride was one way of seeing the country through a new lens.”
Like Mr. Walsh, several other storytellers are working to shed light on the country’s untold stories through film, journalism, radio and other mediums. Azmat Khan, senior digital producer at Al Jazeera America, moderated a discussion on the topic during “Reporting in Pakistan: The Challenges, Realities and Stories You Aren’t Hearing,” hosted by the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs on Tuesday.
The panel included Mr. Walsh; filmmaker Habiba Nosheen; documentarian Sadia Shepard; and Richard Leiby, former bureau chief for the Washington Post and professorial lecturer at SMPA.
In the documentary series “The Other Half of Tomorrow,” Ms. Shepard introduces her audience to women engendering change in Pakistan. One of her subjects, Rani Shameem, is a poet and teacher who has spoken out against “karo-kari,” a tradition of killing women who have brought dishonor to their family through adultery or other means. Ms. Shepard said her six- to 12-minute films have surprised people, both Pakistani and American.
“Every time I would tell these stories, people would say, ‘I’m not sure if that’s right.’ What I found is that those stories were hard to hear and didn’t make sense if they didn’t fit in a larger monolithic narrative about what Pakistan is,” Ms. Shepard said.
Ms. Nosheen’s latest project, “Outlawed in Pakistan,” chronicled a four-year court case of a Pakistani teenager who reported being gang raped by a group of men. The film premiered at Sundance and was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as a “standout.” Ms. Nosheen, who was born in Pakistan and has anchored much of her career to the country, explained she wanted to provide an unbiased look at Pakistan’s judicial system without weighing in on either side of the legal battle.
An important aspect of reporting on the country for Mr. Leiby has been to bring new angles to widely covered stories. He recalled his editor asking for coverage of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, leader of a terrorist organization allegedly behind the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India.
But Mr. Leiby didn’t want to regurgitate the same story of a wanted criminal. Instead, he discovered that the terrorist had a brother who lived in America for many years, but was sent back to Pakistan due to a minor visa violation. Mr. Leiby used the tale of the two brothers for a Washington Post article he called “a study in contrast” to portray contradictions in the country.
“I think the way to tell stories is through people—Americans don’t always understand that Pakistan is a nation of people,” Mr. Leiby said.
However, uncovering hidden stories has also been a challenge in the country. Mr. Walsh was covering Pakistan’s 2013 election when he received a letter from authorities that said his visa was being terminated because of his “undesirable activities.” After living in the country for nine years, he was given just two days to exit its borders. The journalist believes the expulsion may have had to do with his profile of conflicts in Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, but still has received no direct answer—and is working hard to regain access to the country.
Ms. Khan asked Mr. Walsh what message he had for Pakistani authorities. Mr. Walsh provided a simple reminder that in his belief, journalists on the ground in the country genuinely care about the well-being of the country and its citizens.
“It’s always best to have people in your country who have not only a fairly detailed understanding of the country and how it works, but also have a feeling and sympathy for its people,” he said.