Magagnini Explores Media as a Force for Social Change in Pakistan

“One of the cool things about being a journalist is that you never know what is going to happen,” said Steve Magagnini, lecturer in the University Writing Program and senior writer for the Sacramento Bee. In January and February, the veteran reporter found himself traveling to the largest cities in Pakistan as part of a journalist exchange program coordinated by the International Center for Journalists. The program immerses journalists from Pakistan and the United States in each other’s newsrooms and cultures in order to promote better understanding between the two nations.

On Tuesday, April 17, Magagnini shared his experiences in Pakistan with a group of UC Davis students, faculty, and staff. In an informal and richly illustrated talk, Magagnini discussed the insight he gained regarding the role Pakistan’s rapidly expanding media might play in a nation facing serious social and political challenges.

In the cities of Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore, Magagnini visited dozens of newsrooms and met hundreds of journalists. He explained that in the last 5-7 years, an explosion of new radio and television channels is reaching ever-expanding numbers of the population.

With a literacy rate just over 50%, television and radio are important news outlets. Private television channels have become particularly influential. Though the government maintains a small number of television channels, official channels are vastly outweighed by private channels supported by advertising from mobile communications companies and United States business interests.

In this burgeoning environment, television media may play an increasingly important role. From tabloid elements to serious reporting, said Magagnini, “The good, bad, and ugly of the media plays out in TV journalism.”

The strong investigative reporting culture has done a great deal to expose corruption and major political issues. One report uncovered a major scandal involving disappearing NATO cargo containers, many of which contained weapons. Another report exposed the involvement of Ray Davis, a CIA affiliate in Pakistan, in the killing of two Pakistani men.

Reporting is also beginning to influence the status of women. Magagnini was careful to explain that, although Americans may often assume that Pakistani women are universally oppressed, many Pakistani women occupy prominent business and governmental positions in cities such as Lahore and Islamabad. In many communities, however, particularly in the countryside, women are far less free. A series of prominent news features has highlighted issues such as forced marriages and brutal acid attacks against women. The story of Fakhra Younus, a young woman whose estranged husband burned her face with acid, drew widespread attention and highlighted the plight of many women.

Alongside these contributions, corruption has marred the media itself. A prominent television journalist was discovered to have fabricated evidence for a news story, while other journalists have accepted lavish gifts from the government.

Reporting in Pakistan remains a relatively risky business. In theory, freedom of the press exists, but Magagnini noted that 42 journalists have been killed since 1992, 16 in the last year alone. Many of the journalists he met had received threats, and some had hired private security. Speaking out against governmental policies can be especially dangerous. The governor of the state of Punjab was murdered by his own bodyguards after criticizing a popular blasphemy law on television. In the face of such risks, Magagnini explained, many journalists are undeterred. Much of the press expresses overt criticism of the government.

The journalists that Magagnini encountered “see media as power brokers between a powerful judiciary and a powerful military government.”

Magagnini argued that the television media is already playing a large role in upcoming elections. Pakistan is poised for some major social changes. A majority of the voters in Pakistan are under the age of 25, and many are women. The messages conveyed by the media they consume may do much to shape the future of Pakistan.


Photo credit: Steve Magagnini, Sacramento Bee