Representations of Aafia Siddiqui in Media

Aafia SiddiquiA recent article in the American newspaper New York Times about the case of Aafia Siddiqui offers an informative and instructive look at the way that stories can be reported differently in our domestic media than they are in the rest of the world.

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The article, by reporters Salman Masood and Carlotta Gall, discusses how it is that there can be two very different perceptions of Aafia in the US – where she is seen as a militant threat – and at home – where she is largely seen as a victim of oppression. As is well known, Aafia has become something of a martyr in local discussions, with the ruling political party (PPP) providing millions of dollars in legal assistance and the government raising the issue of her release with American officials and diplomats.

The broad outpouring has forced the government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, to publicly assure Ms. Siddiqui’s supporters that it will continue its legal assistance, which has amounted to $2 million already.

Pakistan’s government has also raised her case with American officials, most recently in February during a visit by Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to the region.

“The prime minister has suggested to visiting American delegations that releasing Aafia Siddiqui unconditionally would greatly improve the image of the Americans in the public’s eyes,” a close aide to Mr. Gilani said.

But the Americans obviously have a very different perspective. After all, Aafia was recently convicted by a New York court of trying to kill American military officers in Afghanistan. How can there be so big a difference in opinion? Well, some say that the way media has treated the case in Pakistan has done more to create an icon than to report facts.

All of this has taken place with little national soul-searching about the contradictory and frequently damning circumstances surrounding Ms. Siddiqui, who is suspected of having had links to Al Qaeda and the banned jihadi group Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Instead, the Pakistani news media have broadly portrayed her trial as a “farce” and an example of the injustices meted out to Muslims by the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. She was convicted on Feb. 3 on seven counts, including attempted murder of American officials.

“People here have very little knowledge of who she is and what she did other than she is a Pakistani woman, so the reaction is much more knee-jerk Pakistani nationalism,” said Samina Ahmed, a director in Pakistan with the International Crisis Group, a policy advocacy organization.

This ‘iconization’ of Aafia is not lost on all Pakistanis, however. Raafia Zakaria, a columnist for Dawn, explains why it has been so easy for this representation of Aafia as oppressed victim of American conspiracy to take hold in the media.

There is no doubt that the case of an ultraconservative, educated middle-class Pakistani woman who shunned the ways of the West and defied America has resonated with the Pakistani public.

“The iconization of Aafia Siddiqui as an emblem of Pakistani womanhood represents the kind of female rebel acceptable in a rapidly Islamizing Pakistani society,” said Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for Dawn, the leading English daily newspaper.

“Leaving a husband for a second marriage, traveling alone, even putting your children in harm’s way, all acts that would be otherwise reviled, became acceptable when they are done with the ultimate aim of defying the United States,” she said.

It is not for this blog to pass judgment on the guilt of Aafia Siddiqui. Even if I was inclined to do so, I do not have access to all of the facts, and my own opinions are heavily influenced by the way that the information that I do have has been packaged and presented to me by the TV shows I watch and the newspapers and blogs that I read.

The case of Aafia Siddiqui is complicated without any help from media opinion makers. Even government officials who have access to more facts than reporters and the public have disagreements.

Last month, the Pakistani minister of state for foreign affairs, Nawabzada Malik Amad Khan, said the evidence against Ms. Siddiqui was insubstantial, local news reports said. But senior Pakistani officials acknowledged that it was almost impossible to defend her in a court of law.

Some of this confusion in a case as complex as that of Aafia Siddiqui is unavoidable. But we, as journalists, must do our best not to add to the confusion, but to cut through the speculation and innuendo to report only the facts. I worry that too often, Pakistani journalist are avoiding reporting anything unpleasant. But our job is to give people the facts only so that they can make up their own minds and hopefully come to the right decision – not necessarily the decision that is easiest or most convenient.

The building of icons and journalism are two different things. Media owes Pakistan the truth.

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