Media Criticism

Dawood Ahmed on Pakistani Coverage of Dr. Afridi

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, May 31, 2012, 7:19 AM

Dawood I. Ahmed, a lawyer and doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Law School, writes in with the following thoughts on Pakistani press coverage of the Shakil Afridi case:

The conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi has concocted up a bit of a heated debate in Pakistan--as with the Raymond Davis affair last year, this trial has aroused much patriotic sentiment across the country.

Both incidents concern individuals who were either covertly working for or helping the United States, a country that is viewed with deep suspicion and distrust by many Pakistanis. Both trials were conducted in an opaque manner, in a judicial forum that left ample opportunity for influence by the executive. And like before, many Pakistanis are now angry about United States interference in what many consider essentially a domestic and internal affair.

A major difference between the two cases, however, is that whilst there was little or no sympathy in Pakistan for Raymond Davis, there is sympathy amongst some for Dr. Shakil Afridi.

Many, however, are still puzzled by Dr. Afridi’s motives; was he a hero or simply stupid?  Did he not appreciate that he would get into very serious trouble with the Pakistani establishment if it were discovered that he had helped a foreign state. Arguably, to cross the establishment and yet be sentenced to “only” 33 years imprisonment seems like a walk in the park compared to what could have happened.

It is also true though that few Pakistanis actually care very seriously about the substantive content of the charges leveled against him: whether those be helping a militant group, treason, medical malpractice, running a fake vaccination program, helping the CIA, or what have you.

The real question, however, which people can’t seem to agree on really is whether, for Pakistan, was he a traitor, a hero, or someone in between?

To be sure, whilst Pakistanis are divided in their views, very few, it seems, share the generous portrayal of Dr. Shakil Afridi that Leon Panetta has drawn. For example, one of Pakistan’s most influential journalists, Talat Hussain, sums up general sentiments well, in an article (in an Urdu newspaper) titled “The Rights of an American Spy”:

The American anger at Dr. Afridi’s conviction is shocking.  A U.S. citizen who was spying for a foreign country would be punished much more severely than this. . . . What would the consequences for someone in America [have] been if he had run a fake vaccination program on behalf of Iran or China? Dr. Shakil Afridi did not just spy for another country but also risked the lives of Pakistani children by running a fake vaccination program. As a result, people are now not willing to take polio vaccinations. He has also put his profession into disrepute. The United States does not want its assets and spies around the world to feel insecure – it can abandon its allies and friends but not its spies. It rescued Raymond Davis and now surely, will rescue Dr. Shakil Afridi too.

Similarly, a blog post in an English language, somewhat liberal newspaper earlier this year called Dr. Afridi “the lowliest of traitors.”

There are, however, rival views: Najam Sethi, a very well respected journalist and editor of the weekly Friday Times argued in a talk show on a very popular TV channel, that rather than be punished, Dr. Afridi should be awarded a medal for helping find Osama Bin Laden. Another commentator has also questioned the conviction because it further embarrasses and isolates Pakistan internationally.

Another rather nuanced and balanced view is that he may be no hero, but he still deserves a fair trial. A lawyer wrote that whilst Dr. Afridi “may not deserve our respect . . . the laws of Pakistan certainly do”. Eminent Pakistani human rights lawyer, Asma Jehangir has also called for a fair trial. The Prime Minister has also pitched in arguing that at the very least, Dr Afridi should receive a fair, civil trial.