Why you should care

Pakistan’s instability is a global security threat. The media there is one of the few institutions holding the nation together.

The story that changed Najia Ashar’s life wasn’t even one she had reported.

Home after a long shift at the studios of Geo News, in Karachi, the news anchor tuned into the nighttime news — and learned that her colleague, Wali Khan Babar, had been shot to death on the city streets. He’d been threatened before for covering Karachi’s dirty politics, bribery and land grabs, and yet Ashar never fathomed losing one of her own. Just hours before, Babar’s voice had come through her earpiece, amiable as usual, as she sat at the anchor’s desk.

I think Najia stands out because she’s on Geo. It’s kind of like being the Diane Sawyer of the country.

— Terry Anzur, international news consultant

The murder was three years ago and thousands of miles from the peaceful Stanford University lounge where Ashar sits now, clad in black leggings and a red T-shirt and wearing just a dab of makeup, but when she talks about it, her voice goes soft and her eyes shift down. It’s a big reason the 36-year-old is using her high profile in Pakistani media to advocate for press safety. As a Knight Journalism Fellow, she is researching how technology can protect journalists in Pakistan. It’s not just about saving a profession: Defending the media means defending the nation’s fragile democracy, observers say.

Geo TV is one of the more highly regarded TV outlets in Pakistan’s unruly media scene, and over the past decade, Ashar has become one of Pakistan’s most prominent faces. Though in-studio anchor is something of a glamour job, Ashar isn’t sitting on a pedestal. Terry Anzur, an international news consultant who conducted media training sessions in several Pakistani cities last year, says Ashar is clearly a leading voice for journalists, particularly women. “I think Najia stands out because she’s on Geo,” Anzur tells OZY. “It’s kind of like being the Diane Sawyer of the country.”

To be sure, the bar in Pakistan is not high. A lack of objectivity and heavy-handed ownership have led to uneven reporting, says Shabbir Cheema, a Pakistan native and fellow at the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu. And yet, in an otherwise lackluster civil society, the media stands out. A decade after liberalization, Pakistan went from having one state-run television channel to more than 80 stations in a whole jumble of languages, and news programming is especially popular (imagine CNN’s Crossfire on steroids, in Urdu). “I think Pakistan is still together and still viable largely because of the role its media has played,” says Bob Dietz, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “As flawed as it is, it’s been this democratic force.”

The same hard-charging attitude that has won Pakistani news reporters a national following has also made them targets. In the intensely competitive market, every reporter vies to be the first to the scene of the latest suicide bomb, only to fall victim to second or third blasts. Taking on the powers that be — whether shadowy intelligence services, corrupt businessmen or a panoply of terrorist groups — can get you shot, like Babar. There is little security training for reporters, and rarely is anyone brought to justice for attacking journalists. In fact, the March 2014 conviction of six men in Babar’s murder was the first time anyone was held accountable for killing a Pakistani reporter.

The turning point for Ashar was a 2013 reporting trip to the United States, sponsored by the East-West Center. At the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, she watched aspiring journos experiment with drones as a reporting tool — a novel proposition in a country where remotely piloted aircraft are considered nothing but “a killing machine,” as she puts it. She returned to Karachi and wrote an article — her first piece of written journalism — about using drones to cover bomb blasts in Pakistan. Instead of sending a cameraman, send in the drone to take the images, she wrote. “When the security has searched that area, after that you can send your reporters.” A series of other articles and engagements followed, and now Ashar finds herself in leafy Palo Alto, California, developing an easy-to-understand online safety training regimen for reporters in Pakistan.

For Ashar, it’s been an unlikely journey. Many of Pakistan’s top journalists come from society’s elite; she grew up lower-middle class, no running water, in a small village outside Karachi, and had little exposure beyond her own neighborhood. As a child, she was quiet but intensely curious — “There was a conversation in my head all the time” — and she was determined to explore. She became the first in her family to finish high school and enroll in college. Studying international relations, she says, was like “the doors were opening.” Now she’s part of a profession that’s striving to open those same doors for more people across Pakistan, despite the challenges.

An impossible endeavor? Advocates still hold out hope. Dietz believes better reporting practices and security will happen only if “someone comes along and sets a higher standard.” It’s not clear what impact Ashar’s efforts will have. Dietz, for example, notes that cameramen will always prize the on-the-ground shot over aerial footage from a drone. But she’s clearly aiming to be a problem-solver, to be that someone raising the bar.

This OZY encore was originally published Jan. 7, 2015.

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