Journalism Education in the Pakistani Borderlands (Chronicle of Higher Ed)

(Islamabad, January 22, 2012) Students brave roadside bombs and Taliban threats while on class assignments. Professors are kidnapped and killed. Campus radio stations get regular visits from military intelligence.

Welcome to journalism education in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

“Nine-eleven was a boon to us,” says a lecturer at one of the universities there, a few dozen miles from the Afghan border. “We are a backward area, so there were no opportunities for journalists. Now all the world wants reporters here.”

The region is off-limits to most outsiders, so students find themselves reporting for Pakistani and Western news organizations even before they graduate. But some learn the hardest lessons of journalism early. Two died when their vehicle hit a land mine while on assignment for a regional radio station; another was killed in a Peshawar bomb blast.

“We need to include conflict-safety training in our curriculum,” says a professor who teaches at one of four journalism programs in the KPK/FATA, the frontier region of Pakistan (the acronym stands for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas). The area is home to the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups, and is regularly a target of American drones and Pakistani army attacks. For their security, none of the faculty members are quoted by name in this essay.

The programs at Gomal University, Hazara University, Kohat University of Science & Technology, and the University of Peshawar are receiving assistance from international donors. The goal is to bolster journalism education and, through campus radio stations at the universities, help bridge the sectarian divide in the region and provide an alternative to the so-called Mullah Radio stations broadcasting from across the border in Afghanistan. “Peace journalism” isn’t just a theoretical concept here.

I was recently asked to work with faculty from those programs to adapt their curricula to journalism’s digital future. For a dean who spends much of his time anticipating the next budget cut, it has been a vivid reminder of what we take for granted.

At one point, I casually flipped open my iPad and clicked on the map app so my Pakistani counterpart could show me exactly where his campus was located. His jaw dropped. “I have never seen such a thing,” he gasped. “We don’t have computers and you have this!”

My meetings took place here in Pakistan’s heavily fortified capital, Islamabad. The hotel where we met, the Marriott, has been hit by car bombs three times; at least 50 people were killed in the most recent attack, in 2008. Traveling to the tribal areas where the campuses are located was not an option.

But violence is just part of life for these journalism professors. Not long ago, a student at one of the campuses asked to be excused from an exam because his brother had been killed in a suicide bombing. The faculty expressed sympathy, until they learned that the brother was the suicide bomber.

Kidnapped administrators from two of the universities are in Taliban hands. Faculty members are intimidated by students with the ability to make good on their threats. At one university, students occupied an office to have a place to entertain friends. There was nothing anyone could do; their families had militant ties. At another, a professor was shot outside his office. The reason: He was a member of the Shiite branch of Islam.

Then there is the more prosaic issue of facilities. All four campuses have recently been given computer labs by an international aid project. “Previously we were teaching online journalism without computers,” says a member of the Kohat University faculty. A lack of funds plagues all the programs: Two of them still can’t afford to publish student newspapers. One professor paid the cost of repairing the radio station’s transmitter from his own pocket; another has the program’s monthly charge for telephone and Internet access deducted from his salary. These are people making a few hundred dollars a month.

For the first year of the journalism program at Hazara University, the program’s founder held classes in an open field because the entire campus had been destroyed in the 2005 earthquake. He now has one classroom, but some courses still take place in the open air. To practice newspaper production and layout, the students cut pictures out of old magazines and paste them on colored paper. “It gives them the idea,” he sheepishly explains. The professor is a veteran journalist; he switched to academe after he was captured by the Taliban and threatened with death.

The dedication of such educators is inspiring. So is their hunger to improve themselves and their programs. As in many parts of the developing world, Pakistani journalism schools are heavy on theory and light on practice. “I always refused to hire new reporters who had journalism degrees, because it was easier to start with someone who knew nothing about journalism than someone who had been taught incorrectly,” says Syed Javed Nazir, a former editor of Pakistan’s Frontier Post. At the four universities I have been working with, even those entrenched in that old system say they are ready for a change. “We need our faculty to adapt to these new approaches,” argues a senior professor at the University of Peshawar.

Women play a high-profile role in Pakistani journalism. Many anchors and talk-show hosts are women, as is the new Pakistani ambassador to the United States, herself a former journalist. And despite the conservative culture of the tribal areas in which they are located, all four campuses have female students and faculty members, including the chair of one of the journalism departments. Internships are one concession to local sensibilities; female students are encouraged to do their internships in the campus radio stations if their families do not want them traveling to the cities, as is often the case.

Prior to my trip, eight faculty members from the universities visited my college at Washington State University. “I would love to work around the clock,” said one of the group, with a look of wonder on his face when I asked if he was finding the visit useful. “This is a golden opportunity. A lot of investment was made.”

Standard practices in U.S. journalism classes left the group fascinated. “Having public officials come into the classroom to discuss with students, or having guest lecturers talk via Skype—these are things we do not do, but they are more important than theory,” said another visitor.

Change is not something that comes easily in academe, whatever the country. Altering even a single class can be fraught with peril. And as someone with long experience in the developing world, I understand that, when it comes to journalism, one size does not fit all cultures. Yet with several of the Pakistani programs, we literally ripped apart and rebuilt the entire curriculum in a matter of hours. “This is major surgery,” said one chair, nodding with approval.

Just as the universities are trying to adjust to the digital age, so too are their students adapting to the new realities of Pakistan’s political and social landscape. “Our students are aggressive and violent, but they love the media,” explained a professor from a particularly troubled campus. “They used to be powerful through the jirga [tribal council], but now the majority opt for media because it is the place where they can have power and the ability to criticize. It is our responsibility to cool them down to act like gentlemen; media is for gentlemen.”

That’s a small step in a larger effort to deradicalize young people. But it’s also a lesson as applicable in the United States as the badlands of the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. He is the author, most recently, of The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil (I.B. Tauris, 2011).

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