News reflects a divided Pakistan


Coverage: Pakistani papers show schisms of class, education and world perspective - and news of Afghanistan often takes a back seat.

October 05, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Possible U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan may dominate headlines across much of the world, but Pakistan's most popular newspaper has other things on its mind.

Instead of leading with a story on Afghanistan or the United States yesterday, the newspaper Jang focused on a topic guaranteed to grab even more readers here: bashing Pakistan's longtime enemy, India.

The lead story, one of five front-page articles about India, focused on the false report of a hijacking in New Delhi. Foreign news services quoted Indian officials as saying the hijacking was a false alarm. But Jang accused India of engineering the event in hopes of blaming Muslim terrorists with ties to Pakistan. India's goal, Jang suggested, was to put Pakistan in the cross hairs of America's war on terrorism.

"On the issue of hijacking, India has staged a big drama," read an Urdu-language headline over an article that provided no direct evidence for its claim. "After hours of this baseless propaganda in the international media, the whole drama was found to be false."

As the world focuses its attention on the looming conflict in Afghanistan, the people of this nation and its news media continue to see many of the unfolding events through the lens of their hatred for India. Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India have fought three wars since the late 1940s, two of them sparked by conflict over Kashmir, a mountainous territory divided between the two countries.

Pakistan's near-obsession with its lifelong rival is one of several factors shaping the way its media cover news in this nation of 141 million. A review of the front pages of two of Pakistan's leading newspapers yesterday illustrates some of the common ground and divisions here as the country faces what its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has called its greatest crisis in three decades.

If distaste for India seems to unite Pakistanis, class, education and perspective on the world divide them. Jang and the English-language Dawn, the oldest and most professional newspaper in the country, capture some of the schisms.

Jang, which means war in Urdu, was founded in 1965 during a war with India. A pro-government newspaper, Jang appeals to middle- and lower-middle class Pakistanis, with short, punchy stories.

Yesterday's front page had 27.

Although the newspaper declines to give figures, it is thought to have a circulation numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Part of Jang's appeal lies in a taste for sensational - and sometimes irresponsible - stories that feed the prejudices of its readers. About a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jang reprinted a short article from a Persian Gulf newspaper called Al-Watan, based in Oman.

The article reported that 4,000 Jews had failed to show up for work in the World Trade Center the day the hijacked airliners struck the twin towers. The implication was clear to all Pakistanis: Israel was somehow involved.

Amplified by militant Islamic religious leaders in speeches to their followers, the untrue story, which appeared in other newspapers as well, played to the resentment toward Israelis in this country that is 97 percent Muslim. The Jewish conspiracy theory soon became gospel from the bazaars of Punjab to the refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

"Jews are involved," says Rehmatullah, a lecturer at the University of Baluchistan in southern Pakistan and who, like many ethnic Afghans, uses only one name. "Jews are trying to start a war between Muslims and Christians."

Dawn, which has a circulation of about 100,000, never ran the story. Catering to the nation's government, business and academic elite, Dawn approaches stories more carefully and conservatively than Jang.

"We have to have sources," says Mohammed Ziauddin, who runs the paper's bureau in the capital, Islamabad.

Dawn also presents news from a broader, international perspective for its globally attuned audience. While Jang attacked India yesterday in a lead news story that read like an editorial, Dawn ran a different version in a narrow box flush against the right edge of the front page.

The headline was ambiguous: "Confusion surrounds Indian plane hijacking." The article cited a British Broadcasting Corp. newscast quoting the Indian civil aviation minister as saying that the hijacking was a security drill.

"We could have played this story any way, like Jang has done it, but normally we don't," says Ziauddin, 62, sitting at his desk next to a glowing computer screen and a television tuned to BBC World. Ziauddin says his paper's correspondent in New Delhi found no evidence that India had staged the incident.

"The government looks at anything that happens in India with a suspicious eye," he says. "They would like to play up angles which would put India in a bad light."

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