Pakistani journalist revisits famous documentary

By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

Syed Irfan Ashraf has experienced war firsthand — and lived to tell the tale.

Ashraf, a doctoral candidate in mass communication, will present a screening and critique of his 2009 New York Times documentary “Class Dismissed: The Death of Female Education” at 5 p.m. on Thursday in the Lesar Law School Auditorium. As co-producer, Ashraf worked with foreign correspondent Adam B. Ellick to share the story of Malala Yousafzai — the young Pakistani girl who became the focal point of international attention during the height of military conflict in Swat Valley.

In 2012 Yousafzai survived being shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for voicing her belief that women in Pakistan should be allowed an education. In 2014, 17-year-old Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner for her contribution to the resistance of Taliban’s suppression of female education in Pakistan.

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“Malala became a beacon for us,” Ashraf said.

But Ashraf said Yousafzai is just part of a large and complex story – the beginning of which has been long overlooked by prominent media outlets reporting from the sidelines. While he is happy to see her personal success, Ashraf said he wishes she would be recognized as something other than a martyr.

“This is a limited approach — very imperial approach — to the third-world problems,” Ashraf said.

Ashraf was an associate professor of journalism at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan before reporting for DAWN, a national Pakistani publication, and as a “fixer” for The New York Times. Peshawar was “an island of peace in a sea of terror,” Ashraf said, and coverage of Swat was coming from large media outlets in urban centers hundreds of miles away from the center of conflict.

“I was finding myself a very misfit teacher, teaching journalism to students who were asking questions I didn’t know the answer to,” he said. “I thought, ‘I am unable to do journalism as long as I’m not understanding what is happening around me.'”

Since 2002, 49,000 people have died in Pakistan and the U.S. has sent more than $30 billion in aid to help dethrone the Taliban. But the decades-long history of Taliban influence in Pakistan began with U.S. and Saudi support of resistance groups against the Soviets during the Cold War.

Ashraf said while neutrality and objectivity are cornerstones of modern journalism, the coverage by international media outlets was not sufficient. For him, the issue hit home.  

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“I was not neutral. My family was burning; everything was burning in front of me,” Ashraf said.

The final cut of “Class Dismissed: The Death of Female Education” was edited for publication in New York. Ashraf said he thinks the film gives the impression that the war is a local problem, and grants no connection to the larger issues at play.

“It is a half-truth in that way,” he said.

By focusing primarily on Yousafzai, Ashraf said the documentary did not properly acknowledge the struggles the rest of the community endured.

“Ignoring the local [scenario] has consequences particularly in communitarian societies where resistance itself is communitarian and collective, not individual,” he said.

Ashraf still feels guilty for what happened to Yousafzai in 2012. He was in SIUC’s New Media Lab when he heard she was shot, and he will not soon forget the words a friend of his used: “Because of you, the girl is killed.”

But he said these are the same risks many Pakistani people took to fight the oppression, and many did not survive.

There was a good chance, Ashraf said, he could have been killed by the Taliban for the work he was doing in Swat. Nevertheless, Ashraf does not regard himself as a brave journalist.

Ashraf said he was afraid the whole time.

Bill Lukitsch can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @Bill_LukitschDE. 

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