x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

US aims to improve image in Pakistan

The United States has emerged as the leading investor Pakistan's media in a bid to improve its image with the public.

ISLAMABAD // The US government has begun funding cable news channels in Pakistan in its latest bid to win the support of a public that generally views the US with animosity.

While the practice is fairly common, the United States, which has struggled since its 2001 invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan to persuade Pakistanis that it is an ally, has emerged as the leading investor, industry leaders and politicians say.

"A lot of international agencies and a lot of international institutions are working with the broadcasters and have hired air-time to influence the people, or gauge their opinions," said Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a former minister for information.

Mistrust of American intentions has grown dramatically since the arrest in January of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore. Mr Davis alleged the men were attempting to rob him and he was eventually released after blood money was paid to the dead men's families. Protests were held throughtout the country after Mr Davis' release.

Political opposition to US drone strikes against militant targets in Pakistan's north-west tribal region has also risen dramatically since the Davis arrest.

Veteran Pakistani broadcasters said the US faces a formidable challenge in changing the Pakistani public's view and the media's portrayal of its role in the region.

"If you ask a Pakistani television viewer about the US, the only response you'll get is negative. The media has been instrumental in breaking bridges, rather than building them," said Aamir Ghauri, a former director of the ARY and Dunya cable news channels, adding that some media outlets have an institutional bias against the US.

Nonetheless, the US State Department continues to invest heavily, funnelling money into Pakistani broadcasting in a variety of ways - some obvious, others more discrete.

The latest initiative, launched in February, has seen the US State Department offer funding and production support for Pakistani channels to establish a bureau in Washington, channel managers said.

The Dunya and Express cable news channels signed up to the project, under which the State Department will fund the $80,000 (Dh294,000) annual salaries of bureau chiefs working out of the offices of America Abroad Media, a non-profit media organisation that specialises in production partnerships Muslim broadcasters.

"They would provide all production and technical support in Washington, and arrange access to Congress, the White House and other US institutions," said Mian Aamir Mahmood, the CEO of Dunya.

Mindful of political sensitivities, he claimed to have demanded a contractual amendment to assure Dunya's retention of editorial control. Mr Mahmood said he wanted to avoid being viewed as an instrument of US propaganda.

"American officials were surprised, because Express had signed the original draft, but they accepted our conditions," Mr Mahmood said.

Dunya has nominated a producer, rather than a journalist, for the role, but Express has had problems hiring a suitable "face" for the job, because several candidates pulled out of negotiations after learning of the US funding, said an applicant, who wanted to remain anomymous.

Currently, none of Pakistan's cable news channels has a bureau in Washington.

That is a shocking oversight, considering the critical nature of the US-Pakistan relationship, said Shahid Masood, the president of Pearl Communications, a new Dubai-based media house.

"Considering Pakistan's position, you'd expect there to be coverage of all news related to it in the major political centres, but Pakistani broadcasters don't even cover Nato headquarters in Brussels, even though it's at war just over the border and is supplied by trucks coming through Pakistan," he said.

The best-known example of US investment in changing Pakistani perceptions is Khabron Se Agay (Beyond the News), an Urdu-language programme on Pakistani Americans produced by the Voice of America (VOA).

Since 2006, the programme has been broadcast three times a week on Geo News, the country's leading cable channel.

"Pakistan is, if not the only country, one of the very few that permits American government broadcasts," said Mr Ahmed, the former information minister.

The terms of the agreement between Geo and VOA have no been made public, but advertising tariffs for the prime-time slot it occupies suggest serious money.

The National calculated that 30 minutes of air time between 7.30 to 8pm would ordinarily add up to 351 million rupees (Dh15.22 million) a year.

Channel managers said that amount would certainly be subject to "bulk buy" discounts, but the money would nonetheless have a major, positive impact on the bottom line of Geo News, industry leaders and politicians said.

Mr Mahmood and Geo News managers, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated the channel costs about Rs100 million a month to operate.

Geo is believed to be the only profitable cable news channel in a market where the advertising "pie" is being carved up by an ever growing number of broadcasters, and cable distributors do not share revenue with the channels.

Public policy experts said the US funding was aimed at softening the Pakistani channels' often-irrational spin, but believed Washington was fighting an unwinnable propaganda battle.

"The US government doesn't like the Pakistani media's portrayal because it wants Pakistanis to think that the US government is a bunch of teddy bears that are here to give them schools and roads, and they are not," said Mosharraf Zaidi, a Canadian-Pakistan commentator.

"The American government is here to protect the American people from terrorists that live and operate freely in Pakistan."