By Sonya Rehman
Perhaps best known for his widely popular, hard-hitting talk show, “Talk Back,” and “Eye on India” for the local Pakistani news channel, DAWN News, Wajahat S. Khan is one of the best-known Pakistani broadcast journalists in the country today.
Having worked for a number of local and foreign media houses; such as CNN, and more recently, as a correspondent for NBC News covering South Asia, Khan has reported extensively on the Pakistani military and interviewed top politicians and heads of state in both Pakistan and India.
In an exclusive with The Diplomat, Khan speaks about the state of contemporary journalism in Pakistan today, his toughest assignments and the lack of security for local journalists in the country.
Wajahat, you’ve anchored and worked for some of the biggest media houses in Pakistan over the course of twelve years – how has local journalism changed, evolved (or devolved), in the last few years?
TV news has changed the game that is Pakistani politics. Besides the usual fora, the business of the state is now conducted through the Great Conversation that is nationally broadcast every primetime evening. Print has kept its own little sphere of influence intact, sending different signals to different people via different languages, but the DotCom and social media game has helped everyone – the celebrity TV reporter, the angry blogger, the quaint columnist, even the politically incorrect standup comedian – find a larger audience for their messages. With these quantum leaps in editorial services, and the folks who are consuming them, have come money and power, which always ends up leading to controversy, real or imagined, in the Pakistani polity. Wrap all of this up in the burning blanket of insecurity – whether it is execution, extortion, wire tapping or being killed on the job by a suicide bomber because they were covering a Shia rally – and journalists remain this big, blinking, and rather high-profile target for anyone with a score to settle, a lesson to teach or a statement to make. Thus, contemporary Pakistani media is exciting and adventurous, but also an angry, difficult beast to master.
Pakistan continues to carry “the most dangerous country in the world for journalists” label – do you see this changing in the years to come?
For journalists, as well as for many others, there are two Pakistans: There’s one east of the Indus, spanned by the more developed and even industrial regions of the Punjab and Karachi, where most mainstream journalism networks are based and where journalists enjoy relatively greater access and safety. Then there’s the Pakistan which is west of the Indus, made up of Balochistan, the tribal areas, and the northwestern territories; areas which might as well be a different country when it comes to rules of engagement, access and safety standards for journalists.
Until this east versus west divide is breached by journalists without the political safety net of the state, they will be subjected to violence, especially when covering sensitive stories like the insurgencies in these areas as well as the counter-insurgent and counter-terror regimes set up by the state in those regions. Yes, there will be the occasional investigative reporter killed in the mainland because of a financial scam scoop he was working on, but that’s because the food-chain in the mainland has different players on the top, and they wear suits, not boots. Bottom line: the violence against journalists is correlated to the violence against its own people that the state is either involved in or is negligent about curbing. Until the state – especially its civil-military royalty – isn’t forced to bridge that gap, via pressure from a united regime of journalists, the electorate and civil society, the violence will ebb and flow.
What have been some of your most challenging assignments?
Working in Balochistan, that dark heart of Pakistan that is not documented enough, is challenging. Access is tough, even though I hail from there. But a different type of challenge came a few years ago when I did a documentary series on the military for Dawn that eventually got banned by the regulators because the Navy wasn’t too happy about how we reported on a battle that occurred in 1971. It sounds fickle, but that’s how tight things get when you report on the military. Regrettably, we suffered serious losses as a channel, and I eventually resigned because no one at DAWN went to bat against the authorities, nor could I get another go at programming, internally. Lesson learnt: While one believes that reporting on the military is not reporting for the military, convincing the authorities to buy into the importance of that fiat is, well, challenging.
In your candid piece for Pak Tea House you write: “Denial is the price of survival in Pakistani media.” Are you disillusioned with local media today, and, more importantly, your role in it?
Yes, of course I am, but local media remains really promising. It has empowered so many, like women and minorities, and countered terror and supported democracy in fundamental ways that cannot and may not ever be reversed. Darkly, it has also empowered establishments, new and old. But, besides what I wrote – and I hope people read it for it is, just an off-the-cuff think-piece that I typed out in a state of embarrassment and agony as the scandal was unfolding and my life was unraveling – it’s time we all have a serious re-think about what’s gone wrong in an industry which, just ten years ago, inspired international respect and local appreciation to the point of a craze, yet today stands politicized and associated widely with corruption, nepotism, misogyny and, most dangerously, conflicts of interest.
You had a brief stint with CNN in 2011, and you’re currently with NBC as a correspondent – do you have more freedom, vis-à-vis reportage and analysis as a journalist working for foreign media houses?
The standard systems are stronger and the editorial firewalls are harder when it comes to some international media. What’s frustrating, of course, is when an editor in London or New York or Atlanta doesn’t “get” what the story on the ground really means or how it is developing, and wants to keep up with the feeding frenzy just because some wire agency misreported it or some semi-relevant official tweeted it. Still, my bosses at NBC have been great about understanding this, and trust local experience and expertise when it matters. There’s a maturity out there in the NBC that we’d rather be a bit late, but we don’t ever want to be wrong about something. There are serious lessons for local media to learn from those standards. And yes, it’s frustrating when your editor calls you at two in the morning and says, “hey, good story, but this Shagufta that you quote, is he/she a man or a woman?” Still, I’m glad they make that call, because they want to get the context, even the gender right. That’s key, and local media, mostly, ignores that philosophy of detail as they play the first-to-break game, which clearly isn’t worth it.
What’s the future of journalism in Pakistan (especially after the Axact/BOL scandal)?
Even though they dejectedly admit that in Pakistani journalism cameras are insured but cameramen are not, reportage is going to be alive and well here. However, the industry will continue to be prone to cannibalism from within and capitalism from without. That means media houses will remain top heavy, at the expense of the lower cadres, because journalists will remain disorganized and misrepresented by vested bosses and corrupt unions. When journalists reorganize, then their paymasters will not only be forced to restructure and cede the invaluable editorial space back to journalists, but also implement essential welfare policies, like life and health insurance. And then, of course, there will be the continuous pressure from the state to report within the so-called “parameters of the national interest,” which I agree with, but with a caveat: that we all have a right to define the “national interest,” not just a couple of guys sitting at the top of the civil-military regime.
Run me by some of the highlights of your career – an interview conducted, an experience…
I made my bones interviewing presidents and generals when they were one and the same, but that’s from another era. A recent experience is when I became the first local journalist to walk through the Peshawar Army Public School after the December 16, 2014, massacre. I had a good 20 minutes alone in there, and as I walked through the whole scene – through the blood, the body parts, the smell of exploded arsenal, the calculator of a math whiz, the broken spectacles of a geeky kid with an eyeball still attached to them – I stopped believing in many things, especially the concept of justice.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on three books, and want to continue to cover more of South Asia and even the Middle East for NBC. But life’s not fun without the complications and the exposure of local media, so I’m thinking hard about what media house to go for next. A place that doesn’t sell fake degrees will be optimal, of course! I’m really keen on the Balochistan story, and see it developing seriously in the coming months. I’m planning on spending some good time there this year, digging around for something. I also want to do something serious for tackling the ever-controversial Blasphemy Law story. Also, I’m in talks with a major publication house for launching a magazine, and working on expanding the Bureau of Investigative Reporting, which I founded as a non-profit collective, which folks who can’t publish anywhere else, as often happens in Pakistan, can use as a platform to get their story out. I’m also planning on losing at least two of my four phones.
The Diplomat Magazine