What does Washington do when a recent Pew Global Attitudes poll shows that only 12 percent of Pakistanis interviewed responded “favorable” when asked, “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of the U.S.?”
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs Voice of America, gave its response on Aug. 10. The BBG issued a solicitation notice that said it was seeking a contractor with Pakistan television connections (actually, it said in bureaucratic lingo that it “requires a contractor to have an established footprint in Pakistan’s television market”).
The contractor would be paid to produce jointly with VOA, or just transmit over a Pakistan TV channel, a BBG-produced program in Urdu (the country’s national language) that “shall conceptually focus on current political and international issues pertaining to U.S.-Pakistan relations.”
There would be hosts in Washington and the broadcaster’s studio in Pakistan, who would moderate. Editorial control “shall be jointly held and parties will agree to content prior to each broadcast airing,” according to the solicitation.
Both the VOA editors and the broadcaster’s producers are to collaborate in getting guests in Washington and Pakistan “equivalent in status” and “encourage and facilitate” debates as well as questions and comments when there is a live studio audience.
Why does the BBG believe that Washington-approved editorial content, in Urdu and balanced as it may be, would be accepted on Pakistani TV? After all, these days that’s where regular news and highly influential talk show hosts tend to be ultranationalistic and feed the flames of anti-Western hysteria.
Experience may be the reason, since two comparable efforts are already underway in Pakistan.
For more than a year, the VOA has paid to have a similar, 50-minute English-language program running two nights a week on Express 24/7, an all-news Pakistani cable channel. “The Platform” airs on Mondays and Tuesdays with a VOA anchor in Washington and a Pakistani Express host in that company’s studios in Lahore or Islamabad. Its moderators and guests engage in questions and debates on current news events, at times with participation from members of a live Pakistani audience.
“The Platform” reaches 0.2 percent of Pakistan’s population, according to a VOA July 2010 survey, or roughly 374,000 people. It also runs with subtitles on Express 24/7’s Urdu cable channel, one of Pakistan’s leading news outlets.
More to the point, there has been a VOA-produced, Urdu-language news element placed four nights a week since 2005 on Geo-TV, Pakistan’s most popular television channel. According to the July 2010 survey, VOA’s TV programming in Urdu reached almost 7 million people. However, Geo’s news programs thrive on sensationalist breaking news and often carry anti-American rumors and conspiracy theories.
For example, in 2009 when the Senate was debating a bill proposing $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan over five years, Geo TV talk shows featured speakers saying things like the legislation was a cover for funding U.S. private security companies such as DynCorp and Xe Services, the former Blackwater. When U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, most TV anchors referred to him as a terrorist — but Hamid Mir, Geo-TV’s best-known host, described him as a martyr.
In November 2008, U.S. embassy personnel in Islamabad cabled Washington that they believed “it is time to terminate the BBG contract to disseminate VOA programming through the ‘Geo-TV Network.’ Post recommends finding a more balanced and responsible partner with whom to deal for our media program contracts in Pakistan.”
The VOA contract with Geo-TV is scheduled to end this November, according to Letitia King, a BBG spokeswoman. The proposed Urdu program will replace it, but Geo-TV’s bid would be considered if it decides to compete for the contract, King said.
How much money VOA paid Geo-TV to transmit its news segment is described as proprietary information, but it is well known in Pakistan that the United States pays Pakistani media companies.
In March, for example, Pakistani blogger Farrukh Siddiqui questioned how much the United States had paid to both Geo-TV and Express 24/7 over the years, saying it was “critically important” to establish their independent credentials. “The history of collaboration between the agencies of the U.S. government and some ‘independent’ Pakistani media organizations is old,” he wrote.
Pakistan has a rough-and-tumble media world, so it was no surprise that the first commentor on Siddiqui’s blog wrote: “Gee . . . so this is what ISI [the Pakistan security service] has asked you to [do] now? . . . Oh I forgot, can you yourself declare how much you are earning by being ISI/Army mouthpiece in this forum? Why don’t you declare stuff yourself first before going after Geo/Express?”
The Pakistan army’s public relations arm, the Inter-Services Public Relations, monitors the country’s print and television channels, according to Huma Yusuf, a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and, for the past year, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
In an article titled “Conspiracy Fever: The U.S., Pakistan and its Media,” in the August issue of Survival magazine, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Yusuf wrote that Pakistan’s government “invests over 30 percent of the public advertising budget in private television channels. When displeased with media outlets, the government pulls advertising, forcing channels to either toe the official line or face bankruptcy.”
Yusuf concludes,“The United States emerges as the safest target for media investigation and commentary because private channels continue to rely for revenue on the Pakistan government.”
If that is correct, no matter how much Washington pays Pakistan media companies to place programs, the chance of those programs changing public opinion toward the United States appears not worth whatever the cost may be.