April 14, 2010

How to report Pakistan (or anywhere) and how to.... not

This story in the Washington Post is good example of how to write a story on Pakistan. By that I mean, go there. If you do, you get to say stuff like this with some authority:

"U.S. officials have expressed frustration about Pakistan's reluctance. But a rare visit to the restricted region (FATA) by two Washington Post reporters offered a fresh vantage point into Pakistani thinking, and it suggested that the two sides are trying to find common ground in addressing what Washington sees as the epicenter of the terrorist threat."

On the other hand if you pontificate from far away.. ahemm.. Peter Tatchell in the Independent... you write stuff like:

"Punjabi supremacists have imposed an alien language, Urdu, on Baluchi-speaking people. Borrowing from the tactics of apartheid in South Africa, which forced black children to be schooled in Afrikaans, Islamabad has dictated that Urdu is the compulsory language of instruction in Baluch educational institutions. The cultural conquest also involves the radical Islamification of the traditionally more secular Baluch nation. Large numbers of religious schools have been funded by Islamabad with a view to imposing Pakistan's harsher, more narrow-minded interpretation of Islam. This is fuelling fundamentalism."

OK, so the WaPo article isn't perfect; I mean I'm not sure what the "fresh vantage point" was. Since basically, this was all based on a visit organised by the Pakistani military and involves lots of commentary by official types and the same information might well have been gained just talking to them in Islamabad. But hey, they went and saw the place with their own eyes. And that's a hard thing to do these days. At the same time, the Independent article isn't totally insane. I do agree that Pakistani military reactions to political problems in Baluchistan help extremists sound credible. But seeing stuff for yourself helps you get some real-life understanding and not sound silly.

So, just to make the point that getting on the ground helps expand the mind:

1 - Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. It actually is an "alien" language for the entire country since its native land is actually northern India where back in the day Muslim princely states used it as a sort of lingua franca and then a courtly language of cultured exchange. So if Pakistan is "imposing" it on Baluchistan, those same Punjabis are also imposing it on their own people by trying to educate people in a language they should be able to use in the whole country and not just their province. 

2 - Islamabad is paying for radical madrassas? Really? Islamabad has never really paid for madrassas anywhere in the country. Islamabad might have looked the other way while other people built them, but it's not been a policy decision of Pakistan's to put resources into building madrassas. Radical madrassas are being build right across the country, but that's a national issue. And the money for those is definitely not coming from the government (It's too broke). 

I don't think Tatchell has been in Pakistan recently. At least I hope not, otherwise the Independent article is inexcusable. I can see the paradigm he's using to look at the Baluch issue. But not all insurgencies or conflicts are the same. It's as if I used what I know of the Middle East to pronounce on Burma. Rights might be universal, but conditions never are.