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Discovering diversity in Pakistani media

Church and rights advocates seek equitable representation in mainstream media

Discovering diversity in Pakistani media

Archbishop Joseph Arshad with members of the Christian Union of Journalists at the bishop’s house in Faisalabad in 2017. (Photo: Sameer Ajmal)

In April, two Christian nurses were arrested for alleged blasphemy at Civil Hospital in Faisalabad in Pakistan's Punjab province. Most of the mainstream media skipped the story the next day. The crime reporter for Daily Jang Faisalabad cited a “religious allegation” in reporting the incident.

Another headline from last July said it all. When Khalid Khan, a teenager, killed Tahir Nasim, a former member of the persecuted Ahmadi minority and a US citizen accused of blasphemy, inside a court in northwestern Peshawar city, one newspaper headlined the story as "Ghazi Khalid sent apostate Tahir Naseem to hell."

For the past seven years, Christian journalist Sameer Ajmal has been a senior reporter with the Jang group, which includes some of Pakistan's biggest newspapers and the Geo television network.

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“Despite being reported, our issues don’t get enough space in national media. Most of the talk shows about minorities focus on forced conversions. Newspapers also report on community problems like power breakdowns at Christian feasts. Our youth don’t show much interest in joining the media. Christian political leaders hardly appear in television talk shows,” said Sameer, who is one of the nine minority members of Faisalabad Press Club.

“None of the Christian groups and institutes publish their advertisements in newspapers. Print media can boost our business. Only a few Christian politicians hold press conferences,” he told UCA News.

“Training of online journalists and social media admins of news pages can fill the gap. Coverage of medical reports in cases of forced conversion can become part of the investigation, thus raising hope for justice. Major newspapers and channels should ensure a 5 percent job quota for minorities.”

Sensitizing editors, chief reporters and media owners can help in covering minority issues

In 2017, Archbishop Joseph Arshad, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, formed the Christian Union of Journalists in Faisalabad Diocese. Sameer and other media workers in national media were elected officials at the youth hall of the bishop’s house.

Zia ur Rehman, a Karachi-based journalist with The New York Times, expressed similar concerns at a recent program titled "Pakistani Media and Minorities" organized by Minority Concern Pakistan, a UK-based digital magazine. The speakers urged the need for social media-driven websites, networking of reporters in Urdu media and diversity in government recruitment policies.

“We don’t see religious diversity in the newsrooms of Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan. Sensitizing editors, chief reporters and media owners can help in covering minority issues. The minority beat is reserved for those covering civil society and NGOs. English media is more conscious. Diversifying newsrooms amid the current slump in the media industry seems impossible,” said Rehman.

“Besides forced conversions and violence against minorities, their other issues include political representations, derogatory terms, the marriage act and dilapidated conditions of their graveyards. Minority communities are not open to speaking out to avoid further problems. It is hard for us to find leaders and activists from communities other than Hindus and Christians.

“Under the pretext of blasphemy, media outlets avoid covering them as well. Due to lower literacy levels, most of the minority readers are inclined to Urdu media which portrays them negatively. This causes a distrust between media and minority religious leaders. Majority Muslims don’t know anything about other faiths due to lack of interaction. Someone needs to explain newsworthy church or temple activities. The same situation is apparent in political forums.”

According to a policy brief released by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on June 1, religious minorities are under-represented in media houses in southern Punjab. Most of the media headquarters are in the port city of Karachi.

“They are considered ‘untouchables’; their colleagues do not eat or drink with them. They are given menial jobs such as cleaning and washing — and the lucky ones who do get assigned a respectable job are underpaid,” it stated.

“Threats from religious extremists in KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] prevent journalists from reporting on violations of religious freedom and rights. The rare ones that get reported have to be toned down or the facts are twisted.”

The policy brief recommended competitive salaries for them and running regular women and minority-related stories in the print and broadcast media to create awareness of the problems they face.

They raise their issues and concerns with great openness and protest loudly in the face of injustice

Father Morris Jalal, founder and program director of the Lahore-based Catholic TV, agreed.

“We are ignored in print as well as electronic media. However, in recent years, Christians have come up significantly in social media. They raise their issues and concerns with great openness and protest loudly in the face of injustice. It is making a difference already,” he said.

Father Qaiser Feroz, executive secretary of the Pakistani bishops’ social communications commission, described the media portrayal of minority victims in cases of forced conversions as partial, biased and discriminatory.

A dramatic escalation in the climate of intimidation and harassment of media and its practitioners adversely affecting freedom of expression and access to information environment was discovered, according to media watchdog Freedom Network’s annual state of Pakistan Press Freedom 2021 report.

At least 148 cases of attacks and violations against the media and its practitioners, including journalists, took place over the course of one year between May 2020 and April 2021.

On May 29, news channel Geo “suspended” Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s best-known television talk show hosts, after he spoke at a protest in solidarity with Asad Toor. On May 25, Toor was assaulted by three masked men who forcibly entered his apartment in Islamabad. They bound and gagged him and severely beat him.

Last December, 37-year-old Methodist journalist Qais Javed was shot dead in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

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