Islamabad: The revelation that two Pakistani journalists filing reports home from Washington are quietly drawing their salaries from US State Department funding through a non-profit intermediary has raised questions of transparency and also highlighted the sophisticated nature of America’s efforts to shape its image abroad.
Though the journalists- Huma Imtiaz of Express News and Awais Saleem of Dunya News- have worked under the auspices of the America Abroad Media (AAM) since February, the non-profit intermediary only made their links to the news organisations known on their website on Wednesday after being contacted by The Christian Science Monitor.
The amount currently allocated for the project is some USD 2 million over two years from the public diplomacy funds allocated by the State Department, according to State Department officials in Washington familiar with the project, the report said.
That includes salaries for the two and a bureau for both Pakistani TV channels, the report added.
However, neither of the two media organisations discloses that on their websites or in the reports filed by their correspondents that their reporters are paid by the AAM, the report said, adding that this lack of transparency by the two Pakistani organisations could heighten Pakistani mistrust of the US government, which is seen as having an undue level of influence in their country’s affairs.
“If an American journalist working as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan was paid in a similar manner, would it be morally or professionally acceptable for his news organisation or audience?” questioned Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s prestigious English-language Herald magazine.
AAM president Aaron Lobel said that the timing of the AAM’s website disclosure – after contact from the Monitor – was a coincidence, and that the update had been planned for “several months”.
“I understand the fears that define the joint ventures that comprise the US-Pakistan relationship. [But] we are very proud we have a good relationship with Dunya and Express. It allows Pakistani journalists to cover the US with a Pakistani perspective. I haven`t encountered any Pakistani channel that doesn`t want to work with us,” he said, adding that the AAM is hopeful of partnering with more Pakistani channels in the future.
Both Pakistani reporters cover a wide variety of stories, some related to the US government and others not, the report said, adding that AAM’s ombudsman, Jeffery Dvorkin, insists there is no US government involvement with content production.
But the lack of transparency, particularly by the Pakistani news organisations, raises ethical issues for all parties involved, said Richard Wald, a journalism ethics professor at Columbia University in New York City.
“The essential question here is not who pays, but who knows who pays… In a correct world, if there were such a situation, people should make the connection clear – not simply to the editors and management of the Pakistani papers – but to the receivers of the information so they can judge it on their own,” Professor Wald said.
According to the report, a State Department official countered that both the US government and AAM “encourage” the channels to make their ties clear, adding, “We’re very proud of this program.”
But eight months into the program, officials from AAM had not reached out to the channels regarding disclosure, the report noted.
Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert and assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, said it is important to remember that the US government is operating in an environment of misinformation, where anti-American stories in Pakistan seeded by the Pakistani security establishment are commonplace.
“Is anyone calling them out on this? The Pakistani press is the freest press that money can buy,” she says, adding: “The larger story is the Pakistani media is up for sale to as many people want to buy it. This fiction is that the country is really benefiting from some independent media. The US government wants to get into this game to counter this ISI [Inter Services Intelligence] propaganda,” she said.