Examining the Media War on Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Insights From Ayesha Jehangir

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Examining the Media War on Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Insights From Ayesha Jehangir

“There is a constant attack on Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with narratives portraying Afghan refugees as enemies of the state, a security threat, burden, or in other stereotypical ways.”

Examining the Media War on Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Insights From Ayesha Jehangir

Afghan refugees settle in a camp near the Torkham Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Torkham, Afghanistan, Nov. 4, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

In her new book, “Afghan Refugees, Pakistani Media and the State: The Missing Peace” (Routledge, 2024), Ayesha Jehangir explores how Pakistani media have covered Afghan refugees, drawing on the frameworks of “peace journalism.” Jehangir, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney, finds that stereotypical narratives portraying Afghan refugees as “threats” and “burdens” are “almost a standard practice in daily reporting.”

Before joining academia, Jehangir worked as a journalist in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany, and Australia. In the following interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Jehangir discusses the dynamics driving the Pakistani media’s “war” on Afghan refugees, how the framing of news can be weaponized, and the work of peace journalism to  amplify the voices of marginalized communities. 

You claim in your book that the Pakistani media is at war with Afghan refugees. Can you explain why?

There is a constant attack on Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with narratives portraying Afghan refugees as enemies of the state, a security threat, burden, or in other stereotypical ways. This remains almost a standard practice in daily reporting. Afghan refugees have been politicized and oppressed, pushed to the margins, and denied participation in activities or access to education. According to international refugee law, refugees have certain rights, and depriving them of these rights constitutes oppression.

This situation began in the late 1990s but intensified when Afghan refugees were used as collateral in Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. in their “war on terror,” which started with the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Since then, Afghan refugees have been dragged into someone else’s war and politics, leading me to argue that the Pakistani media is at war with Afghan refugees.

Given the division between the civil and military establishments in Pakistan, how has this politicization influenced the media’s role? How have these two entities impacted media narratives? 

It’s well-known that, for the most part, the Pakistani civil government acts as a puppet while the real power lies with the military establishment. The military establishment and intelligence agencies are the strongest institutions and set certain topics as off-limits for journalists.

As a former journalist in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, I’ve seen that journalists are restricted from covering certain topics. The military and intelligence agencies dictate how certain topics should be reported, connecting them to national security. This perceived national security threat is created to control public opinion.

In media framing studies, framing refers to how information is presented in a certain light. In Pakistan, framing of political issues is built by the government, political elites, the military establishment, and intelligence agencies. Journalists are not allowed to exercise their own judgment or responsibility on sensitive topics, which include forced repatriation of Afghan refugees, the rights of the Baloch people, or the relationship with India.

This politicization also poses a threat to journalists’ safety and job security.

Afghan refugees are often used by the military establishment as a bargaining chip against Afghanistan. This was evident in the recent wave of Afghan refugees following the Taliban takeover in August 2021. The refugees have also been exploited to push the Afghan authorities, especially during the presidency of Ashraf Ghani.

How does this politicization of media and media framing threaten press freedom in Pakistan?

To understand the role of framing in media, we need to consider its stages. Framing involves how an issue is presented to the public. There are three stages: frame building, which is controlled by political actors who choose how a policy or image is presented; framing, which is concerned with the journalist’s role in implementing this agenda, such as incorporating dehumanizing elements, to speak of how Afghan refugees are presented in the media; and finally framing effects, which show how the public is influenced by this framing over time.

Framing doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a long-term process. When a narrative is repeatedly presented to the public as a reality, it becomes ingrained in people’s minds and accepted as the truth. I talk about power-proposed and power-constructed “truth” in my book in detail. The media’s role is crucial in this, as it shapes public perception and controls the agenda. In Pakistani media, certain issues, like Afghan refugees, the issue of missing people in Balochistan province, and relations with India are heavily framed by political elites and the military establishment. My research suggests that between 60 and 80 percent of framing is directed by these elites.

What is peace journalism, and how can it amplify the voices of marginalized communities, such as Afghan refugees? 

Let’s delve into peace journalism, a concept initially coined by Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung in the 1970s. Peace journalism revolves around prioritizing peace over conflict in reporting. It aims to elevate the voices of ordinary people, shifting focus from elite narratives prevalent in Western media. By doing so, it confronts propaganda with truth, advocating for the public interest rather than political agendas.

This form of journalism challenges the misconception that the absence of war equates to peace. It distinguishes between negative peace, characterized by the absence of violence, and positive peace, which entails justice, happiness, and social well-being. Peace journalism thus redefines the role of journalists, urging them to serve the public rather than perpetuate the status quo.

In conflict zones, peace journalism encourages critical thinking and context-driven reporting. It fosters deliberation among audiences, urging them to question and analyze information rather than passively consuming it. This approach requires journalists to conduct thorough research and provide nuanced perspectives, moving beyond simplistic narratives.

Moreover, peace journalism emphasizes empathy and action. It acknowledges the distinction between sympathy, which arises from shared experiences, and empathy, which motivates action and advocacy. By amplifying the voices of the marginalized and oppressed, peace journalism empowers communities to shape their narratives and advocate for change.

Regarding empathy versus sympathy in the media, and the concept of objectivity, do they not contradict each other?

Yeah, it’s interesting because this debate is happening in most of the Western media right now, especially regarding the coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza. One critique of peace journalism is that it advocates for peace. That is true, because it advocates for the end of war, for the ordinary to be listened to, and for ethical and active listening. It does not want you to watch a documentary or read a piece of news and then dismiss it.

Objectivity is a relative term, particularly in conflict zones. Peace journalism does not ask journalists to throw away objectivity and become activists. Activism is separate from journalism. Peace journalism reminds journalists to be objective but also subjective towards the truth, especially when human suffering is involved.

Peace journalism is not ordinary journalism. It’s about peace, war, conflict, and human suffering. Being 100 percent objective in peace journalism means not questioning the status quo. Journalism started with small journals quietly printed by certain groups or members of the community to inform the public about the misuse of power by some groups in society. With time, journalism became a money-making business and with it came this idea of staying objective.

While a journalist should be objective and not take sides, particularly in war and conflict reporting, peace journalism is not for everyone. It requires journalists to side with the truth no matter what. Peace journalism does not expect journalists to become activists, but it does require clarity on which side journalists are standing on. 

Peace journalism ensures that the roles of victim and perpetrator are not casually thrown around. Definitions of journalism created by the Global North or colonial media should not be applied to journalism in the Global South. The changing media landscape, with the rise of social media and digital platforms, necessitates a reevaluation of traditional notions of objectivity. It’s crucial to adapt how we practice journalism in different contexts.

In your book, you reflected on the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August 2021. How is the media in Pakistan currently reporting on Afghanistan? Can you briefly share your observations?

The narrative remains consistent, but due to the region’s politics, agendas fluctuate. From my limited research over the past year, it’s evident that journalists have restricted access. When Afghan refugees were sent to the Torkham border, near the Durand Line, in late 2023 after the new wave of forced repatriations began, journalists were not permitted beyond a certain point. They couldn’t even engage with the refugees directly.

Consequently, the images we see are mostly from social media, posing a significant challenge for peace journalism, but also a possibility to remediate information from one platform to another. In my ongoing research, I’m exploring ways to enhance accessibility, with drone technology being one potential solution. However, most journalists cannot afford such technology.