by Melissa Brunner
His first day in the WIBW-TV newsroom, Ahmed Ali was visiting with me at my desk when an Army major from Fort Riley walked up, hand extended, smile on his face, to say hello.
Ahmed knew then he was not in Pakistan anymore! In his country, he says, law enforcement and military members would never pay a friendly visit to a media organization. Not only that, "they act civil here," Ahmed observed.
That is just one of the impressions Ahmed told me he'll take home with him after spending the past three weeks in our newsroom as part of the International Center for Journalists' U.S.-Pakistan Exchange Program. While he has learned about us, I've found it equally interesting to learn from him about the different challenges he faces in his homeland.
Ahmed is a reporter and current affairs program host for a regional network based in Karachi. Karachi is in the Sindh province, which Ahmed explains is the source of more than 75 percent of the nation's oil, gas and other natural resources. Despite that, he says, most of the Sindhi people live below the poverty level and the wealth goes to people in other provinces.
Ahmed puts it bluntly when asked about how most media functions in Pakistan. "Our media is biased. It is not fair," he told me. For example, he told me about a "Freedom Rally" held in March. A pro-SIndh political group rallied for the rights of the Sindhi people and freedom from Pakistan. The crowd was estimated in the millions, and, while Americans saw it on CNN, Ahmed says the national media in Pakistan did not mention it. Millions of people in one place you would think would be worth some attention, he said, but the rally was against the state, its law enforcement, injustice and killings. The burned bodies of two party leaders were found days before the rally took place.
Amnesty International lists Pakistan among the most dangerous countries for journalists. It has documented 34 cases since 2008 of journalists being killed for their work. In only one case was the perpetrator brought to justice. Ahmed knows these risks firsthand. He says he did a program on genocide committed by law enforcement officers, interviewing a man who was protesting it, even uncovering a grave with 172 bodies. Afterward, he says he received a phone call from their national security agency, Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, threatening his life. Similarly, after a show he did on the Taliban killing law enforcement and journalists, the fax machine buzzed with a threatening message from the group.
In that respect, Ahmed says, American journalists at our local level have a somewhat easier job. He was impressed when I showed him a web site that publicly lists court activity. In his country, he says, they cannot freely enter state offices. Here, he visited the Statehouse (where the Governor took time to pose for a photo with him) and city hall - he even went along to the Shawnee County jail, where they willingly showed him the cells and explained their operations.
What isn't so easy about our jobs at the local level, he observed, is how much we multi-task. Ahmed says he was surprised to see how often the same person drives to the story, takes the video of the story, asks the questions of the people at the story, then comes back and edits the story. While media people in the U.S. see this as a standard development in our multi-platform world, in Pakistan, Ahmed says a reporter will just be the reporter, the editor will be a different person, and so on.
"I have seen here, without any discrimination or caring about your positions, you should do every job," he said.
Ahmed also told me he was impressed by the very local focus of our local newsroom. He said his country does have many service organizations working in their cities, but they generally would not be covered by the media. He found it unique to see things like road construction projects and the zoo and a Habitat for Humanity project on the news.
"These activities are very impressive," he said. "You are involved in the community here. It's very inspiring."
His newsroom experience aside, Ahmed said he was inspired by all the space that surrounds us. The word he kept using to describe the streets relatively uncrowded by traffic and the trees and grass and parks was "peaceful." One of our photographers took him to the family farm in western Kansas and Ahmed posted, "grass everywhere!" Later, he reflected on riding horses across plowed fields, "I felt so FREE!"
Ahmed is going to spend some time in larger cities before heading back to Pakistan - and we've assured him that he may encounter a different lifestyle there than he has enjoyed in Topeka, but the core of what he encounters will not change and, for me, it is a good reminder of what makes our nation great. We can question public leaders and public policy without fear of physical harm. We have laws that entitle us to know certain information that would remain secret in Ahmed's homeland. While I might get impatient when an official doesn't call me back within an hour, Ahmed will likely never get that call returned in his country.
Ahmed has said this is an experience he will never forget. I believe we all got something from him as well. For me, it was a reminder that freedom of the press is not just a nice phrase, it is a responsbility to ensure that the freedom is not wasted - that we are fulfilling a role to ask questions, to inform the public and to shine a light where it is needed most, even if what we see isn't always so pretty. It's only when people see it that they can do something to change it.