The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: Pakistan’s Urdu media reacts

At a time when pressure is piling up on the Obama administration to re-examine its relationship with (and aid to) Pakistan, the post-Osama narrative in the popular Pakistani Urdu press reflects some of the far more complex socio-political challenges facing Pakistan, challenges which will impact the country’s engagement with the rest of the world. While ...

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

At a time when pressure is piling up on the Obama administration to re-examine its relationship with (and aid to) Pakistan, the post-Osama narrative in the popular Pakistani Urdu press reflects some of the far more complex socio-political challenges facing Pakistan, challenges which will impact the country’s engagement with the rest of the world. While the commentary and analysis in the English-language media has been quite similar to that of the rest of the world, the reactions and comments in the Urdu press are quite different in tone and content, focusing consistently on the importance of upholding Pakistani pride and sovereignty.

Pakistan’s readership pattern of English and Urdu publications represents the divided structure of the country, whose middle class is quite small, while much of the rest of the country is divided between a small Anglophone elite and the majority, who speak regional languages but read Urdu newspapers. The English media has a small following, whereas Urdu media has a far wider spread in terms of circulation. To give an example, according to one estimate, Dawn, the largest circulating English language newspaper, sells 138,000 copies per day. The leading Urdu newspaper, Jang, sells more than 800,000 copies per day.

Ever since President Obama announced the elimination of Osama Bin Laden in the Hindku-speaking Abbottabad area of Khyber-Puktunkhwa province (KP), Pakistan’s English-language media has been flooded with reactions asking the Pakistani establishment to explain to the nation how the terrorist leader went unnoticed for all of these years. (It is important to distinguish the Pashtun belt from the Hindku-speaking belt of Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Hindku-speaking areas are culturally more akin to the adjoining Punjab province or even Pothwari-speaking parts of Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir than to the Pashtun belt.)

On May 5, an editorial in Pakistan’s leading Urdu newspaper Jang expressed disbelief in the claim of the Pakistani military that it failed to detect an American helicopter which flew deep into its territory for nearly an hour. It added "the Pakistani establishment should stop keeping the masses in darkness." This mistrust of Pakistan’s elite reflects what has been a common thread in the post-bin Laden coverage, the idea that Pakistan’s political elites need to be more transparent about their business and the running of the country.

Besides giving coverage to various protests against the infringement on Pakistani sovereignty, the Pakistani Urdu media has also been highlighting the meetings of opposition leaders called to discuss the raid. Nawai Waqt, one of Pakistan’s leading Urdu newspapers, in its May 11 edition prominently displayed on the front-page the meeting of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) in which party leader Nawaz Sharif stated that the entire Pakistani nation is in a state of Iztrab (sadness) over the perceived loss of Pakistani sovereignty, and demanded an independent probe as to how this sovereignty was violated.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s speech to parliament last week has also been a subject of criticism in the Urdu press. Jang, in its May 11 editorial, attacked Gilani for speaking in English, saying such a speech was mainly intended "to address America. [Gilani] spoke in a language which cannot be understood by the majority of the Pakistani masses." The editorial also lambasted American ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter for his statement, where he asked the Pakistani state to decide whether America alone will hunt down the remaining leadership of al-Qaeda present in Pakistan or if Pakistan will cooperate with America, terming the statement an assault on Pakistani self-pride. The editorial also criticized former Pakistani dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf for initiating a practice of allowing American troops a free hand in Pakistan, and it asked the present government to accept the opposition’s demand to hold an independent enquiry into the incident and approach the international court of justice for the perceived violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

But the overwhelming idea emerging from the Urdu-language press is that the Pakistani state should stand up against the pressures of the outside world, in this context specifically the West.

The May 5th editorial of the Jang complemented China, "for daring to stand against the Western forces" and stated that "China is the only hope for countries like Pakistan." Pakistan and China have had a close relationship since the 1960s, and China is often referred to by the Pakistani state as an "all weather friend." Just a few days after the publication of the editorial, Gilani announced a four-day visit to China. In fact, a day after the publication of the editorial, Gilani in his address to parliament while both condemned the action of the United States in violating Pakistani sovereignty and hailed China as Pakistan’s "all weather friend."

Additionally, the Urdu press has hit out at accusations that Pakistan has not taken sufficient action against terrorism. The May 6th editorial of the Jang argued that "America should stop criticizing the Pakistani institutions as it is a known fact that Pakistan’s contribution to the war against terrorism is next to none." It went on to say that "the West wants to enjoy the fruits of war against terrorism and also criticize Pakistan." The editorial asked the West to share the blame for failure of intelligence over Osama’s abode. It warned that "if Pakistan’s national interest is ignored then the consequences will be catastrophic for the rest of the world."

An article published in the May 6th edition of Nawai Waqt was far more critical of American policy, without any mention of the dangers of rising extremism in Pakistan. The author took the position that "Pakistan should shun its ties with America and instead bond with Allah." The article hailed bin Laden as the "hero of the Muslims" and asked "the world community to reflect on the root causes for the emergence of personalities like Osama." The paper has an estimated circulation of 500,000, far greater than any English newspaper.

Even the latest spate of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has not fundamentally altered this position, but has instead resulted in a state of helplessness and confusion among the Pakistani masses. In a column published in the May 14 edition of Nawai Waqt, the writer laments that Pakistani masses are becoming targets from all sides, and that there is no one to listen to their concerns. The writer still condemns America, though, saying that even after the Pakistani political elite has surrendered itself before America like slaves, America continues to violate Pakistani  sovereignty with impunity. 

The Nawai Waqt editorial published in today’s edition, which commented on U.S.-Pakistan relations in the context of Senator John Kerry’s visit and the heated parliamentary meeting held on Friday to discuss the bin Laden raid, was even more combative. The editorial asked Pakistan’s rulers to give a fitting reply to Americans if they continued to behave like enemies. The editorial warned Pakistanis that the enemies of the countries have their eyes on Pakistan’s atomic program, which according to the author, "is the main asset of Pakistan as our rivals had marched ahead in conventional warfare in which we cannot compete." The author argued that all efforts should be made to secure these assets, especially against future incursions by the United States or others.

It is difficult to gauge how accurately the commentary and analysis in the Urdu press reflects popular sentiment on various issues in Pakistan, including U.S.-Pakistan relations. But the Urdu media’s influence on the majority of Pakistan’s literate population is quite real and its role in shaping future debate, especially about the bin Laden killing, cannot be underestimated.

Luv Puri is a political analyst, who has written two books on South Asian political and  security issues. His book Across the Line of Control based on field work in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir will be published by C. HURST & CO. (PUBLISHERS) LTD in July, 2011.

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