Investigative journalism worlds apart: the United States vs Pakistan

The United States, contrary to popular beliefs, has been cracking down on journalists. Physical assaults and arrests are almost becoming a norm, though it’s said to be getting better. The Trump government has carefully changed their traditional White House press conferences in a way that restricts the ability of journalists to ask questions of any nature.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has been doing much worse. The military has long been against independent journalists, more so since Imran Khan came to power. Pakistan already has quite the image regarding the safety of journalists. With 106 journalists having been killed in the last two years alone, investigative journalism is as risky as it gets in such a country.

Jim Schaefer is an investigative journalist based in Detroit and has spent most of his professional years writing and investigating for the Detroit Free Press. He gained an interest in journalism after starting off as a writer for his school newspaper. “At the time, you know, I was much better in writing than math, and it just sounded like something fun,” says Schaefer. Over the years, Schaefer went from reporting crimes and fires to the court system and eventually landed up writing and investigating.

Kaswar Klasra is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad and is a contributor to a couple of newspapers including South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, The Daily Mail, and India Today. While in college, Klasra was an avid reader of pieces by Nusrat Javed, Hamid Mir and Rauf Klasra, who were and still are prominent journalists in Pakistan. It is through these journalists that Kaswar slowly developed an interest in journalism. According to Kaswar, “I knew journalism is a very noble profession, and if journalists can play a role in the construction of society, then I should do so too.”

Ever since 2002, Schaefer and his partner had been looking into the former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, as he’d been living a life full of scandals and corruption. “We did investigative stories on him for about eight years before he went to jail because of our work. I thought his story was essential to investigate because he was stealing from the public, and so were some of his friends and relatives.”

We caught him in his tracks, and we wrote some stories that the FBI investigated after we published them. They found him to be criminal and ended up indicting him. He’s now serving 28 years in prison,” adds Schaefer.

Despite this, over his 30-year long career, Jim has never received any serious threat or ever felt as if his life was in harm’s way. “It surprises some people because they think the mayor should have sent people out to beat us up,” laughs Jim.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Klasra, who has been kidnapped 2–3 times over his 13-year long career for the stories he’s published. “I once wrote a piece about a militant organization who were notorious for sending their people to Kashmir in the name of Jihad, and I’d written the story for India Today. Not only was I subjected to immense pressure from the organization, but I was also eventually kidnapped by them since at the time, their presence was in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area where I was located as well.”

“I was lucky because my editors and influential friends who were journalists helped in diffusing the tension. I was released after my friends gave the militant group their word and told them I’d refrain from publishing such stories again,” says Kaswar.

“I’ve been lucky enough to come out alive in such situations, but unfortunately, lots of journalists in our country don’t have the same fate.”

Though Schaefer doesn’t feel like press freedom has necessarily declined in the States since Trump came to power, he does believe that the government has become a lot stingier when dealing with reporters. “His constant criticism of the media finds an audience with a lot of his supporters. But we’re still able to do our jobs, and I don’t really feel like there’s any regulation that’s come forth though he’s talking about enforcing those too. But, that would be such a change, a historical change in the freedom of the press that this country was founded on.”

“It’s a lot of talks, but I don’t see any of it as a genuine threat to the press freedom” he adds further.

What comes as a surprise to people within and outside of Pakistan is the regulations put in place by Imran Khan’s government since they came to power in 2018. Klasra believes that governments in countries like Pakistan need to understand the journalism plays a vital role in the smooth functioning of democracy. His view was that just as official institutions such as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) or other intelligence agencies provide reports to the government, journalists, in their own ways do the same.”

“We identify fraudulent departments, we identify where the embezzlement of funds takes place and then we report it through articles or on our news channels. But the government, for some reason, feels as if we’re exposing them because we’re against them, and as a result, they censor our work.”

Kaswar is also adamant with his belief in the press being freer during the previous government. “We had basic liberties, the government never created as many hurdles in our way. I hope what’s happening with the media during this government is only temporary, and that Prime Minister Imran Khan has better things planned for us because what’s happening now is a shame for us journalists.

A common ground both journalists stood on was regarding how expensive investigative journalism is proving to be. Schaefer is confident that investigative journalism isn’t dying; however, it is suffering. He said the reason it’s suffering is that it’s costly and newspapers are having a hard time making money off of journalism. “Advertising is dying slowly, so we’ve to find new ways of making money. I’m not fearful of it disappearing, I think it’ll always exist maybe just in a different form.”

Klasra, however, doesn’t see a promising future for investigative journalism in Pakistan at least. This, as per Klasra, is because publication houses don’t have a proper revenue model, and most of their funding comes from the government. “In that case, if you publish stories that expose the wrongdoings of the government, they can and will pull out the money they’ve provided.”

“In such circumstances, when newspapers aren’t in the position to pay their staff, then you definitely cannot expect such a field to prosper.

Towards the end, both Schaefer and Klasra expressed their views on journalism. “Yes. Do it. It’s awesome and also very important. You can actually have an impact on the world and the overall benefit to the community is so worth it,” says Schaefer. “It’s such a noble profession and such a great field.”

“Journalism is more of a passion than a job, and you don’t need a reason to follow your passion whole-heartedly,” Klasra concludes.