The Mint: Good morning, Waqar. Welcome and thank you very much for giving some time to talk to The Mint Magazine.
Waqar Rizvi: Thank you very much for having me, Henry. It’s really good to be here.
The Mint: I understand you’re in Pakistan at the moment, so you’ve got the cricket and the flooding.
Waqar Rizvi: Indeed, indeed, indeed. Endless the debate between which was more important.
The Mint: Well, certainly when I was getting up this morning listening to the radio, cricket seemed to dominate.
Waqar Rizvi: Yes, indeed.
The Mint: I was sort of interested to start the conversation exploring the issue of what the dominating narratives are on the media and whose voice gets heard and to get your reflections as someone who’s worked in the global media for some time as to how those decisions are made and what stories tend to come up top.
Waqar Rizvi: We all tend to, within global media, follow specific patterns of what makes news. We sort of take our lead in a sense from the Global North and what we would call in larger terms the mainstream media. And so even the Global South for a very large extent will follow that, obviously not when it comes to more domestic issues or more local issues depending on if you’re talking about smaller media outlets.
But we all seem to be stuck in that pattern, where if for example we’re being told that the protests in Iran are the most important thing right now in the world, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is important. And I’m not saying that those things are not important, I’m just saying that the way we list them as priority in our minds and the way we list them in our headlines is also very telling. Where instead of speaking about, for example, how a woman was killed by US forces during, I believe it was drills in Iraq, that there was a woman killed close to Abu Ghraib, if I’m not mistaken, prison in Iraq, just recently [inaudible 00:02:15] versus of course a woman killed in Iran. And again, it’s not a question of which is right and which is wrong, obviously both things are wrong, but it’s just a question of what prioritises within our minds as well. And we sort just go along with that and even the Global South because we take our cues from the Global North and mainstream media in those regards.
The Mint: And when you’re saying mainstream media, what sort of outlets are you thinking about and are you talking particularly about English language media? Is that a sort of dominance?
Waqar Rizvi: Yeah. I mean obviously because I’ve always worked with an English language media, then that’s what I can give an example of or as an example. And I know that Arabic language media can be quite different. For example, Al Jazeera Arabic, which is the king within the Arabic language media. It acts in a very different fashion and prioritises different things naturally, so for Arab language speakers.
But within English language media because that is for better or worse what most people in the world speak, that is what I base myself on. So channels like CNN, BBC, Sky News even possibly within that. And then print outlets such as New York Times, Washington Post and others, Wall Street Journal for example. Those sorts of outlets and just the way that they, again, like I said, prioritise news stories, even within Pakistan by the way. And a lot of the reporters, I don’t want to pick on the reporters specifically, but there is an interesting pattern in how they even, and the wording and the terminology that they may use sometimes when it comes to even Pakistan or other countries within the region where they maybe based.
The Mint: Why would Global South media feel they need to take back to the starting point?
Waqar Rizvi: Because we’re trying to compete in the same space is essentially the honest truth. And for a lot of us, especially those of us who have a history of colonisation, we sort of have this inferiority complex. I’m sitting in Pakistan right now and even though I grew up in Canada in both places in fact, we have this sort of inferiority complex where we sort look to the crown and the royal family to sort of … or we did at one point in time in our histories, look to them for guidance on what to do or what is right and wrong. They were sort of our moral compass.
And that has remained within our minds. And I think that that sort of just carries through. So if for example CNN is telling us that, listen, this is the most important story of the day, then one at this end also questions say maybe that is the most important story of the day. It doesn’t always work like that. I mean, I don’t want to generalise and say every single media outlet in Global South does that. But I would say that for a large part, we do tend to follow the same patterns in many, many ways or at the very least many times the same narratives on that issue.
The Mint: So yeah, what’s the difference between the patterns of what’s covered and the narratives? Can you give me example of what-
Waqar Rizvi: Sure.
The Mint: … are the difference between those two things?
Waqar Rizvi: Sure. I mean, let me do a bit of positive reinforcement for Global South as well. So for example, within the Global South, let me pick on for example the Queen’s death. We had the queen’s death and just the reactions that came out for that. Outlets like Al Jazeera English for example, which is based in Qatar in Doha. They did wall to wall coverage for the queen’s death. I mean, they followed her coffin wherever it was going within the country, very respectfully.
But at the same time they did then end up at some point in time doing shows and or having guests from within the UK and colonialism experts who were more critical of the monarchy and the royal family. That was a bit more removed from possibly what we would expect within the mainstream, where the mainstream had decided this is not the time to speak about colonisation or colonialism because in their point of view, this is disrespectful to the queen and monarchy.
But for an outlet like Al Jazeera, which I mean, mind you, I still have my criticisms of the way they did it nevertheless, credit words that they did at least bring on people which I feel were critical and did it in still a respectful fashion. Those are positives. I think that there is light at the end of the tunnel in that sense if we continue to follow that path of trying to figure out our independent paths within media.
The Mint: And is that something that’s happening now that might not have happened 20 years ago? Do you think the voices in Global South have more confidence? They still may be still less confidence compared to the Global North, but it’s sort of going in the direction of more confidence?
Waqar Rizvi: Yes, for sure. And I think that there’s a number of reasons for that, right? The internet has helped a lot. We are ever more connected to each other around the world and we’re able to converse privately and/or via tweets or whatever we may choose to converse with somebody across the world. And I think that that has opened up a lot of minds as well on the Global South and has made us realise that, hey, we’re just as human and we have just as many rights as somebody sitting in the West or Global North.
And there’s also then the question of education where a lot of people have gone out of these countries, studied in the Global North or in Western countries and they have come back to their countries with those ideas of freedom of speech, with those ideas of, hey, I can speak my mind and I don’t need to be apologetic about it.
For example, if I want to speak about the colonisation of my country, I can do it and not feel ashamed or afraid. I remember I did a show just this past week in fact or recently about colonialism and I actually had a couple of messages from relatives saying, “Are you sure this was a good idea? Weren’t you scared doing it?” And this is an independent Pakistan. We’ve been independent since 1947, but still there are people who are afraid of it. But yeah, I mean I believe that there is, on a very large part, a lot of progress in that regard where I think we are on the right path.
The Mint: And just going back to the issue of the floods in Pakistan, which have got on to the mainstream media to some extent, haven’t they? And one of your ministers has been quoted, hasn’t she? And written certainly I’ve seen it. How big a deal is that in Pakistan?
Waqar Rizvi: It’s a huge deal. I mean a third of the country at least is underwater and is flooded still. And we have about 33 million displaced, that number probably is a lower estimate. And yeah, Sherry Rehman, who is the minister for climate change in Pakistan, she’s being very vocal about the fact that Pakistan emits less than 1% of emissions globally. And at the same time it’s going through a lot of consequences of what industrialised nations have done in fact to our global climate. That’s not to say that Pakistan does not have responsibility in this regard. I don’t want to completely give carte blanche or let the government off scot free.
But nevertheless, when we talk about things like reparations, which Sherry Rehman has saying that the Global North and/or western countries and/or industrialised countries, however we want to term them, that they are responsible for these emissions. The fact that we are having these reigns and the fact that 7,000 of our glaciers are currently melting in this country.
I mean rains is one thing, that’s why we’ve had this flooding this year. The monsoon rains have been extreme, but then once the glaciers and that flooding also gets to a certain point, then that’s going to be a whole other ball game on top of monsoon rains, which are a year to occurrence anyhow.
I mean there’s a lot to say there. Certainly economically this is devastating too because the people that are most affected as unfortunately there always are in such situations are the most poor and the bread basket of the country essentially in many regards where a lot of farmland, a lot of fishermen have been affected that will affect us this coming winter. What are we going to do for crops? There may very well be shortages of key items in this country as well. And sure we are getting coverage in global media, even a lot of foreign correspondence are coming here and doing their due diligence where they’re travelling to those flood affected areas.
But when it really comes down to it and when the cameras move away, who’s going to continue to stay here and ensure that those people are housed or who is going to help us pump that water out of those areas? Those are things that we as a country cannot do alone completely simply because we do not have the financial means to do that all.
The Mint: And this sort of coming back to the narratives of course, there’s one narrative says, tough luck. Life’s hard in place like Pakistan. Yet again they’ve been hit by disaster or they’re reaching your pocket, as opposed to the we are responsible, they’re suffering from the Global North activities the way they’re organising their economies and so on. Which is the narrative of responsibility getting much airspace. I mean I know here in the left wing press it gets a bit, but would you say more broadly?
Waqar Rizvi: Yes and no. I think that there is definitely a lot of conversation about the fact that this is a global issue. Global climate change is we’re all interconnected basically. And we realise this during the pandemic too. I mean that was a realisation of many people’s part that we are all very interconnected regardless of whether we’re in the developing world or the developed world, saving with climate change.
I believe that yes, even mainstream media credit words do have spoken about this many, many times. But are they then willing to take that next step and then talk about things like reparations or talk about not aid, but actual debt relief? Pakistan currently has a very large amount of debt. I mean, estimates say that by the end of this year we owe around 38 billion dollars approximately to pay back to respective lenders. So not just the likes of the IMF but also the Chinese and others.
We need debt relief, especially at a time when we have been flooded, especially at a time when we’ve taken on now another IMF loan. And we are, as we’ve already spoken of going through consequences of others actions in many regards. I think that those sorts of, when we’re talking about the actual policies and what this then means, that’s less spoken up because again it’s not fun, it’s not sensationalist, it doesn’t make headlines, it’s sort of a topic which would turn many people off.
Because again, as you said, it’s not a question of just saying the Pakistan government is all innocent in this regard. Many people would see that as sort of giving carte blanche or letting the Pakistan government off scot free. But it’s not about that. It’s about saying, “Yes, we also need to change our policies at this end for sure vis-à-vis factories, vis-à-vis standards of emissions, all of the above.
But at the same time, we’re not responsible for all this, so we need that help, we need the rest of the world to also act, because this is actually for all of us. Even as António Guterres said, the UN Secretary General, “Today it’s Pakistan, tomorrow it made very well be other countries in the region and/or the world.” I mean we saw Europe and the heat wave this year too.
The Mint: And are other countries in the Global South picking up on this issue do you think? I mean, obviously we’ve got COP27 approaching in Egypt. How much of a voice do you think there is going to be and do you think it may get onto the agenda in a way it failed to at COP26?
Waqar Rizvi: From what I know at COP26, Bangladesh for example, and as you may know about Bangladesh, Bangladesh is a very low lying country. It’s for many, many years being a country that has regularly been flooded because of that, because it’s very, very close to sea level. And in fact I have family members who grew up in Bangladesh, even in their childhoods, they remember that there would always be flooding.
Bangladesh last year at COP26 actually tried to bring up the issue of reparations and other such issues but was blocked by many of the Western countries. Will we do better this year? We may. I mean, I’m hoping that the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis can come together, for example, because they both are so now affected by flooding. And Pakistan this may very well now become unfortunately a regular thing according to some estimates.
I’m hoping that there’s more unity because without that unity of the Global South on this issue, for just one country to say so in the face of the entire power and influence of the Global North is probably pointless. But until there is unity in that regard from the Global South, I don’t think we’re going to actually make too much headway.
The Mint: And I wonder, one of the things people are talking about now is that we’re moving into what might call sort of a new Cold War or certainly a sort of polarisation of power with obviously the China/US split, but then Russia becoming maybe the energy supplier of China and Southeast Asia and then being a question of pressure, whose side are you on? And maybe supply chains becoming sort of people identifying their supply chains and trying to make sure that they’re only from friendly countries.
And I wonder how that’s going to play out. I mean I know India is slightly sitting in between the two blocks maybe because it gets a lot of its arms from Russia, but it obviously has close economic and cultural ties to the US and so on. Those dynamics, how do you think they’re going to feed into the position of the Global South to get its voice heard and acted on?
Waqar Rizvi: It’s really interesting. I think that when we talk about the Russians and the Chinese and the way that they have reached out diplomatically over these years within the Global South, so I’m speaking about the Middle East and South Asia more so because I can relate to those regions most.
I think that Russians and Chinese have been very smart, where their diplomatic relations with the above are not necessarily always based on, hey, we agree with everything you do and we need to agree with everything you do. It’s about national interests both ways, so it’s a give and take relationship in many regards and we’re not going to interfere in your affairs as long as you don’t interfere in our affairs.
And so the biggest example of that was when Russia started invading Ukraine, there was a lot of pressure at the United Nations on Middle Eastern countries specifically, but even on the likes of Pakistan and India in fact to vote along the lines of United States to condemn Russia and that did not happen because again the Russians were smart over these years and they quietly build up these relations, which was very different again from the American approach or the Western approach, which as you alluded to just a moment ago, is a lot about, hey, if your values align with our values, then we’ll come into an alliance with you, be it economic, political, whatever. I mean the many facets of alliances.
The Russians in that regard I mean smart, the countries in this region and the Global South are also now smart where they know that to protect their own interests, they need in some ways balanced relations with both sides. So even for Pakistan, the relations with Russia are okay. I mean they’re not bad and we have not condemned Russia outright because again we can’t, we have relations with the Russians, there is a bit of a give and take relationship there. With the Chinese, we have very deep relations because we have an entire economic corridor. We have a lot of the BRI infrastructure being built in this country. Roads that the Chinese have built in the North. Good infrastructure for us for our future, possibly very positive projects.
I mean when the Americans come in, they expect us to sort of bow down, but the Russians and Chinese don’t always expect that. It’s sort of like, hey, what can we do to make it easier for us to then get what we want to? And that’s a very different way of approaching things I think.
The Mint: Could that mean that the sort of Western alliance such as it is will have to work harder. It might begin to realise that, hey, we need these friends, we need Pakistan, we need India on board, so forth. And actually that means we’re going to have to actually meet some of the demands such as maybe reparations or more help actually coming up with the money rather than just pledging it?
Waqar Rizvi: I think that yes. I think that the West has not completely woken up to that fact yet. I think that there’s still a bit of naivety on the West part in that regard. I’ll give you an example, so during the pandemic here at Pakistan, the Chinese were the first ones to swoop in and give the country a lot of vaccines. And they sort of just flooded us with vaccines, so Sinovac or Sinopharm which were the two main vaccinations of the Chinese that were out in the global markets.
And the Americans were sort of caught off guard where when it was just every Pakistani getting Sinovac or Sinopharm, the American embassy got worried to an extent where it started realising that, listen, if someone’s giving a country vaccinations, then obviously the people of that country will be thankful and will be grateful and that relationship then deepens, that’s just a natural fact of the world. And so the Americans then started realising, hey, maybe this whole vaccine hoarding policy was not actually a good idea. Maybe we should be been looking into sharing-
The Mint: America first. I mean, reverberations of America first, isn’t it?
Waqar Rizvi: Exactly. And so now I mean all this time later, sure, we have Pfizer now within the market, and even myself, I’ve been boosted by Pfizer twice. But it took a while for the Americans to make that move. And now the Americans are making this and they have very good strong PR campaign even within Pakistan, through their embassies, social media outlets and social media platforms. They are speaking about, hey, we’ve been so generous to the Pakistani people, we’ve given all these Pfizer vaccines, but they lost that initial battle where it really counted. And that’s just a very small example.
I mean there are a lot more important examples which will come down the road. And as you said, reparations are a whole other ball game. I don’t even think that’s on their radar right now because right now everyone’s just obsessed with Russia, Ukraine, rightfully so, wrongfully so that can be debated, but nevertheless you need to also realise that the West may very well start losing more influence over the regions in the Global South if again it’s not smart about how it does outreach.
The Mint: But I suppose there’s also a price, isn’t there? To relationships with China, the non criticism, and so on. I suppose it’s sort of interesting to balance the influence of US channels, but there’s no requirement to follow them. Whereas if presumably Pakistan started being at all critical of Chinese actions or then the repercussions would be quite substantial.
Waqar Rizvi: Yeah, I mean, I should probably clarify, and you’re right to make that point because I think that the Russians and Chinese, we should be careful in the Global South to not allow one, for lack of a better word, coloniser or master, even if I may say that, to be replaced by another, because that just is not healthy for us. And so yes, the Russians and Chinese, especially the Chinese hate criticism and that would affect relations.
So in Pakistan, yes, right now in fact we have to be very careful within the country, within local national media, there’s very little criticism of the Chinese, so Xinjiang, the Uyghur issue or even other issues the Chinese maybe involved and in other places in the world which we should be criticising, which are genuine issues of human rights and/or other such issues. But we’ve sort of had to mute ourselves because again the Chinese have the upper hand right now, they’re the ones who can make the investments, they’re the ones who can build us the vital infrastructure. And of course they’re going to ask for carte blanche support in return.
The Mint: So trying to tread that line between keeping both on side, I mean, I suppose both sides big powers will say, “Either you’re with us or against us maybe.” And there could be some very difficult choices, couldn’t it?
Waqar Rizvi: Yes, it’s definitely not easy. I don’t think there is an easy way to make those decisions. I’ll be 100% honest with you. And I do not envy the position of the politicians in the Global South to be making those decisions. We’ve seen examples of that even in Sri Lanka where ports are under Chinese control or in other places where the Global South as well, where there’s a lot of debate about these sorts of things in those countries as well.
Because then the Americans get angry and say, “Okay, then we’re not going to give you as much aid or we’re not going to help you as much economically either.” I don’t have the answer of how this can be balanced, but I think that yes, it’s something that needs to continue to be studied. Now obviously if both sides were to respect the fact that these are sovereign nations and allow them to then almost have those balanced relations, that would be very helpful. But I mean that’s a utopian idea I think at this time.
The Mint: But it seems that we are heading for some very interesting times where there are maybe opportunities for voices to get out there, but also substantial threat.
Waqar Rizvi: Yes, for sure. I think that there’s, especially with economic destabilisation, right? So for example, in Pakistan, our currency has moments of free fall. Subsidies are slowly being lifted, all of the above. And in a country which has many people who live right at the poverty line or under the poverty line, that can add a lot of upheaval and the possibility for a lot of crises within the country.
And then obviously others from the outside can swoop in and help. But again, they’re not doing it out of the kindness of their heart, they’re doing it because they want influence too. And so figuring out how we’re going to balance all of the above will create crises of our own. And then yes, at places like the United Nations or during times of war or otherwise, those are going to be tough decisions to make at that time.
The Mint: Well, thank you very much for those fascinating insights and I hope we can talk again maybe regularly and get updates because clearly a lot is going to be happening, history is moving fast.
Waqar Rizvi: Indeed. Well, thank you for having me Henry. I really enjoyed it.
The Mint: Thank you.
Waqar Rizvi: Thank you.