Helping minorities find a voice in Pakistani media

In May 2019 a middle-aged woman quietly left Pakistan, finding sanctuary in faraway Canada and reuniting with her family after nearly a decade. This was the culmination of an astonishing story of human tragedy and ultimate redemption – a story that raises troubling questions about the promises of equality and protection a state makes to its citizens. It is also a story about the overbearing role of religion in public policy that discriminates against and marginalizes religious minorities and a criminal justice system that eats up large parts of the lives of the dispossessed by delaying justice. Finally it is also a story on how the media often fail public interests by being indifferent in giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.

The woman was Asia Bibi [pronounced ‘aseeya beebee’], a Christian who was charged in 2009 with speaking ill of Islam’s holiest personages after a brief altercation with some of her neighbors. She was put in jail under the country’s blasphemy law, one of the harshest such laws in the world, which prescribes the death penalty for insulting Islam. The law is often used against religious minorities in Pakistan – and Muslims – to settle personal scores.

Asia Bibi was acquitted by The Supreme court and found asylum abroad. For her it would have been too dangerous to stay, what with the presence of extremist religious groups and a state with a poor track record of protecting against religious violence. And a media unable to sustain a rights-based discourse that can help educate the people about the rights of minorities and de-demonize them.

A provincial governor and a federal minister were killed for speaking in defense of Asia Bibi and calling for reforms to the blasphemy law.    

Minorities poorly served by media

Pakistan is a country in transition. National elections were held in 2018 after five years with a rare transfer of power from one civilian dispensation to another. A national census was held for the first time in nearly two decades in 2017 that put the total population at 207.6 million of which Muslims constitute 96.47% while 7.33 million non-Muslim religious minorities are just 3.53% of the total. The overall population of religious minorities has declined since the preceding census. Meanwhile, the country’s media landscape has transformed in recent years from a mostly state-controlled regime to a thriving private industry. Online spaces have grown with online-only news media and use of social media expanding rapidly. The general media narratives are shifting from an elitist obsession around power politics to a discourse centered on human rights.

And yet Pakistan’s diverse array of religious minorities, which is small percentage-wise but which runs into millions, is finding itself grossly under-represented and misrepresented and stereotyped. A media content analysis study of Pakistan’s television, radio, print and online media conducted in the fall of 2018 by a non-government local group, the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) and supported by IMS, reveals that Pakistan’s religious minorities are not a major beneficiary of the transforming media landscape.

Titled Narratives of Marginalization – Reporting Religious Minorities in Pakistani Media, the groundbreaking study reveal that the overall media coverage of religious minorities in quantum terms is generally low and the most widely available media – TV and radio – carry very little or no coverage at all. Hindus and Christian communities are the focus of almost all of what little coverage of minorities is available, while other minorities such as Ahmedis, Buddhists, Kailash, Sikhs, etc., get almost no coverage.

The study also researched how the religious minorities are represented in the media. Here, key findings reveal that minorities in qualitative terms is generally stereotypical linked to sensitive themes such as blasphemy and conversion to Islam. Minorities are generally described in a victimhood framework. Most coverage fail to include their views, opinions or perspectives, rendering them voiceless on their own cause. The findings reflect the characteristics of the media coverage of the 9-year trial of Asia Bibi – while her accusers were given coverage, she or her family and supporters were virtually blacked out by the media. 

Time for change

With support from the Norwegian government IMS and its partners are acting on the recommendations of the study by:

  • Raising public awareness about news diversity landscape of Pakistani media and its challenges through a series of public awareness dialogues involving media, representative associations of religious minorities, civil society, political parties and academia.
  • Sensitizing and training the media on journalistic pluralisms through more nuanced coverage of the minorities through a series of discussions within the media industry, especially with media managers, news directors, reporting sections and news desks, on findings of this study and ways to expand coverage of RMs and make that coverage sensitive and representatives of their rights and perspectives.
  • Promoting interface between representatives of religious minorities and media through a series of orientation workshops on effective communications and outreach in the context of freedom of expression and right to information and addressing the gaps on views, opinions and perspectives of minorities in media narratives.
  • Conducting further research on challenges to freedom of expression online faced by religious minorities as well as the challenges of managing media owned and operated by the country’s religious minorities and facilitating networking among them around professionalism issues.