SALMAN MASOOD

Kati Marton, who last week led a delegation of Committee to Protect Journalists during a visit to Pakistan, says she found Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif eager to turn the page not only in his efforts to revive the country’s sagging economy but also in its dismal treatment of journalists.

“Pakistan’s image has suffered grievously because of its treatment of journalists,” Ms. Marton said in an interview in Islamabad last week. “With a new government, there is an opportunity for a fresh start.”

Ms. Marton said she was encouraged by the response of her meeting with Prime Minister Sharif that that took place last Wednesday. “It was a breakthrough, unprecedented in its tone and substance,” she stressed.

Much of it owed, she alluded, to the enduring legacy of Richard Holbrooke, who was the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan till his sudden death in Dec. 2010.

Ms. Marton, who is the widow of Mr. Holbrooke, said she found a “great connection” with Mr. Sharif because of her husband.

“I very much felt Richard’s presence in the room. I felt that the breakthroughs we were able to achieve were really Richard’s,” Ms. Marton said, her eyes welling up with tears.

She said Mr. Sharif came well prepared and briefed for the meeting and realises the importance of good press for the economic reforms agenda that he wants to pursue.

“I think he is well aware of all the doom and gloom reported in the United States about Pakistan and that Americans are essentially fed up with Pakistan,” she said.

“There was no defensiveness, no push back. He agreed with my assessment that it (mistreatment of journalists) was a blot on Pakistan’s image.”

During the meeting Mr. Sharif pressed on the information minister to sort out the delays in visas to foreign journalists, which has been a cause of continuous grievance by foreign news media outlets.

“He got quite emotional and he said we want people to come and he turned to information minister and said ‘Get on that tomorrow, speed up the visas’,” Ms. Marton said referring to Mr. Sharif.

Ms. Marton, who is an author and journalist, said Mr. Sharif talked about his time in prison and exile.

“He talked about how he suffered in prison. He started talking what that was like for him and that exile was very very painful for him too.”

“I’d like to think that this is a man who has evolved with the years and we’d like to give him a fair shot at demonstrating that indeed he has,” she said.

Prime Minister Sharif had faced criticism during his last stint in power for the heavy-handed manner in which some of his officials dealt with journalists. Several prominent journalists were picked up and detained as a rebuke to their critical reporting of the then government.

Ms. Marton said Mr. Sharif also assured her that he would make safety of journalists one of the priorities in his peace talks with the Taliban.

She said she was hopeful that Mr. Sharif will deliver on his promises and assurances.

“We are skeptics. We will continue to observe and monitor to what extent he lives up to these pledges,” she said.

The skepticism is not unwarranted.

Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous places for journalists. Reporters face an array of threats, emanating from diverse power players and vested interest groups. State institutions, political mafias, criminal gangs, religious militants and different pressure groups have all contributed to making the working environment hostile and perilous for journalists in Pakistan. How far Prime Minster Sharif delivers on his promises remains to be seen.

–The writer is Resident Editor, The Nation in Islamabad.