Tackling Tough Subjects-and Getting Results-in Pakistan

Jul 292009

Guided by Knight Fellow Adnan Adil Zaidi, reporters at Pakistan’s third-largest broadcaster produced accounts of a polluted canal and of the illegal sale of human organs that spurred the nation’s president and its highest-ranking judge to demand action.

In one piece, ARY News reporter Rasheed Channa showed how drainage from leather tanneries and plastics factories into the Phuleli Canal – the main source of drinking water and irrigation for one million Pakistanis – was making people sick. “Perhaps for the first time, a national news channel filmed footage of the polluted canal and talked to people affected by its water,” Zaidi said. After the report aired, President Asif Ali Zardari ordered construction of a treatment plant to capture industrial pollutants before they reach the canal in southern Sindh Province.

Another ARY News story covered the illegal marketing of human transplant organs. Reporter Mian Aslam interviewed several Punjab villagers who said poverty drove them to sell their kidneys. Afterward, Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, took the judicial initiative to open a case and summon the records of hospitals reportedly involved in organ trading. That case is pending.

“My coaching has increased the coverage of human issues that were low on the priority list of a newsroom obsessed with politics and official statements,” said Zaidi, who worked with ARY News, Knight’s host in Karachi. “Other broadcasters still devote little time to issues of social interest and day-to-day life such as the environment, health, education and transport,” he said.

As the network ramps up its hard-hitting coverage of social issues, Zaidi helped the broadcaster modernize its news facilities. He persuaded the company to buy 12 live telecast trucks, enabling it to produce more coverage of events throughout the country. In May, he advised ARY News on how to redesign its newscast. Instead of one person reading news for hours in front of a pale yellow screen, the program now has two news anchors, a lively, colorful set, and a background screen running video and graphics through the broadcasts.

He also created the only contemporary broadcast manual written in Urdu. He originally wrote the 100-plus-page instructions on reporting, filming, production and ethics for the ARY News staff in August 2008. More than 2,000 copies now have been distributed to working journalists, press clubs and universities throughout Pakistan. In March, Zaidi published a Sindhi-language version of the manual.

ARY News also has begun telling the big stories of violence in Pakistan through the lives of individual people. In one account last summer, ARY reported that a young man had been taken from his home by national security agents and held without charges, one of hundreds of “missing persons” cases that reach Pakistan’s courts each year. This one had a happy ending, Zaidi said. Shortly after the broadcast, the man was released.

Zaidi, a longtime news reporter and political analyst in Pakistan, is a former reporter for the BBC Urdu Service, online and radio, and a senior correspondent for Geo Television Network in Karachi. He was the first Knight International Fellow from Pakistan.