Post from Pakistan: The Karachi experience

January 30, 2013 01:30

By Edward Esposito, RTDNF Secretary-Treasurer
Ed Esposito is part of a delegation of Americans supported by the International Center For Journalists, and filed this story from Karachi. To follow Ed's journey, visit his station's website.

My first observation on Pakistan, based on our visit to teeming and frenetic Karachi: it is a nation where people manage to go about their daily business, despite the drama that plays out at every level. This is a country that seemingly subsists on crisis. There are many personal dramas. Navigating traffic, buying goods at the market, even a reliable supply of water and power for everyday use. That isn't even coming close to realizing this is a nation still with war to the west, tension to the east, and where American foreign policy plays a role in every political discussion we've had since arriving.

Then again, we are the American journalists put together by the International Center For Journalists, a Washington-based group that organizes such outreach and network-building across the globe. Funding comes through the Education and Cultural wing of the U.S. State Department.

Pakistan can be considered a different case, entering a twelfth year of war footing and nothing but uncertainly with the exception of a U.S. force pullout from Afghanistan in 2014.

It's worth mentioning at this point most Americans see Pakistan in stereotypical terms; that's O.K., it's the way they view us as well. Political parties, even those who agree with an agenda of reducing violence, religious extremism and rebuilding the economy of this sixth largest nation on the planet (and don't forget they've got nukes) where most people are under 35 years of age and that wave of youth will bring with it a new energy, new demands and pressures on whichever government wins upcoming elections to clean up corruption and take care of the basic human needs so sorely lacking.

I was prepared for most of the cultural differences in this Islamic Republic where religion always evident, whether it be the call to prayers issued over loudspeakers daily or in routine conversation. It is also a place where English is the preferred language of commerce and government, and many of the wealthy families who control the political agenda are no strangers to the west's education systems. I've lost count of U.S., Canadian, U.K. and Australian-based college links that come up in conversation.

Karachi is a city that just doesn't "bustle" but it "hustles" with constant energy. Some neighborhoods hold magnificent homes, but most of this water-starved metropolis is dusty and dirty; the air is a challenge breathing. The streets we drove through included carts pulled by donkeys, goats wandering along railroad tracks, cows tied up outside businesses and rubble almost everywhere along with buildings jammed with people and business. Trash is everywhere. But it's the energy of the people that sticks with me; they have been warm and hospitable to us, even as it's clear American isn't a good brand to have.

On our first day here, we visited the Sunday Bazaar set up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Karachi. It is a swarm of bargain bees looking for shoes, fabrics, hats, clothes -- anything you can imagine. I was told at one time military surplus was even sold in the market, at a stall one man referred to as "The NATO Store" with a smile. No arms, but everything else you'd imagine.

We are clearly an oddity here, these Americans in their strange dress and bearing walking along the pathways from one merchant stand to the other. That remains the same even going to the market inside the city, where first floors of buildings are easily turned into mini-malls with dozens of vendors packing their wares for display and bargains. And there are plenty of bargains; here, there's no paying list price. Haggling is expected.

We ask about going to other areas of the city that are everyday, but told some areas just aren't safe. Our hosts are generous, warm and hospitable but unsparing in noting Americans just aren't unpopular here. It's easy to understand the policies of governments, especially during the last ten-plus years of war in Afghanistan, are the foundation of public thinking. We might opine such stereotypes are untrue, but it's worth noting that street runs both ways.

Among our first stops to see news organizations here were visits to newspaper and broadcast operations; they are the Dawn Group with radio and TV, Express Tribune with TV and newspaper and the Jang Group with newspaper and TV. It's important to note media was liberalized just recently, and has seen an explosion of growth. Channels are delivered on cable systems, not broadcast towers, and the government controls the channel allocations on cable. Cost for average Pakistan cable customers in $3 monthly, up to $35 a month for bundled television, phone and internet.

Security is a big deal here in Karachi; there are checkpoints in (and sometimes out) of critical venues that sometimes include dogs sniffing for explosives and sturdy blockades and armed guards, and that's just outside. There's airport-style metal detectors and screening too, and it's found in hotels, businesses, government offices, and political parties. At what is perhaps the most successful operation, the Jang Group, the entrance is behind walls and 55-gallon drums ringed with barbed wire. That's after getting clearance from armed checkpoints, and before going through another layer of armed checkpoints, metal detection and x-ray scans. It's a typical setup for most of the media offices we visited.

The level of security is something few back home in Ohio would comprehend. There are police, Rangers, military and private security everywhere, even at schools. Driving into locations usually involves going through a series of barriers and checkpoints. The security uniform is common; every media office has barriers in front of their buildings, armed guards at corners and sometimes towers point their weapons at people as they do their regular business. Barbed wire is everywhere, like steel ivy covering fences and walls.

Staying safe and finding the balance between risk that kills and doing one's daily job is certainly a part of daily life for journalists here in Pakistan, a nation that's held the record nobody wants: a place were more reporters are killed doing their jobs than anywhere else.

It's what most Americans think of when thinking about Pakistan, one of our closest allies in the fight against terrorism. With over a thousand miles of border with Afghanistan and Iran, seeing how reporters operate here is difficult. Editors and producers sober any conversation noting the deaths of friends and colleagues; the provision of bullet-proof vests and flak jackets as normal attire, and how their editorial strategies are impacted. For example, we heard loud and clear the tactic of wiring two explosives to go off. One followed by a delayed bomb to inflict maximum damage and casualties on first responders and those covering the story. Our colleagues at the Karachi Press Club dryly noted there's insurance for cameras and equipment but not for the people who use them. Only the bigger and richer media companies provide even a basic insurance policy covering those who work in their newsroom.

You hear the anecdotal testimony; families killed in a blood feud over truth. When asked what message he had for his fellow American journalists, Farooq Moin, chief editor of the Pakistan Press International news agency, simply says "…please keep in touch." That message was repeated again and again as we visited newsrooms of the Express Tribune, Dawn TV and radio, and GEO News, the privately-owned news channel.

The media landscape here is electric.  Radio stations are less than ten years old; dozens of brand-new television channels available on cable (the government enjoys broadcast over the air) and newspapers are found everywhere. There are mostly native Urdu-speaking outlets as well as others reflecting the ethnic makeup of the local region. English-language print editions serve the business, government and military class where English is still the language of commerce. That vestige of the British colonial empire is seen in designs of older buildings, too. For English language television, there's CNN International and the BBC.

There is a hum of generators just about anywhere you go. We are told power theft is common, and one imagines it would be hard to trace even by concerted effort given the standard of electric wiring one sees on utility poles and buildings. Cable television is the only way to view the country's growing list of television channels, and the media here has exploded after restrictions were lifted to permit a more public press.  But it does come at a cost; there is a weariness, even a sadness in the eyes of those who've seen too many colleagues kidnapped, killed or assaulted for trying to help the world understand what's been happening in their neighborhoods.

Pakistan seems to be a country at war with itself, at war with it's future. But a casual observer of history would note Pakistani's aren't the only ones who've had to push beyond sectarian, ideological or political violence. What seems to run as a common thread for many I spoke with in Karachi is a sense of pride this is the first civilian government to actually transfer power politically rather than the military stepping in; but the deep disappointment and frustration over a government that can't even keep the lights on reliably, or struggles with education needs for one of the youngest countries in the world.

Power is dicey, even for national landmarks. At the Jinnah Mausoleum the hot and dry conditions of Karachi mean fountains don't have water -- and if they did, not having power for at least an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening due to roving, scheduled power outages also means the 880 lights used to illuminate what is essentially Pakistan's Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials all wrapped up into one are out too. It is an impressive memorial to Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who founded the country after it was split from India in 1947. Everyday people call him "The Founder" and Mazar-e-Quaid, as the mausoleum is called, stands atop Karachi's highest point with his tomb buried underneath. A museum with displays of his life show a much different time, when he walked the same timeline of world leadership with people like Churchill, Mao, Stalin, DeGaule.

Pakistani's have grown used to losing an hour's worth of power in the morning and another hour in the afternoon or evening to lighten the load on an overburdened system. But there are no new power plants coming online; officials of MQM, the dominant political party in Karachi, told us the last power generating facility was built in 2009. Despite the abundance of the sun here, there's not much evidence to be seen of solar power. Wind and tidal are possible, they say, even coal from mineral-rich but violence-torn Baluchistan IF they could get it out of the ground and transported to where it'll turn from black rock to kilowatts.

Poverty is almost everywhere in Karachi, and not restricted to slum neighborhoods. We saw beggars in the swankiest of shopping centers, including those horribly disfigured by birth or tragedy. So many of them are children, at night standing over trash fires to stay warm. And trash is everywhere, piled up in empty lots, street corners, even right next to a beautiful beachfront park where locals have turned a spot along the Arabian Sea into an unofficial landfill. 

But even then, vendors offering camel, horse, ATV and dune buggy rides along the shore run up to us. I skipped the camel ride but some of my colleagues were eager to give it a try. More with our next posting from Lahore, a city described as Pakistan's cultural heart.