TULSA - In August, KRMG anchor/reporter Russell Mills received an email from Program Director Levi May, telling him to look into an opportunity to travel to Pakistan with a delegation of journalists from Oklahoma and Missouri.
Mills made contact with Joe Foote, Dean Emeritus of the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma and applied to be a member of that delegation.
“Honestly, I didn’t consider it as any more than a remote possibility,” Mills says. “So it came as something of a shock when about a month later, I got an email congratulating me on being accepted for the program.”
Seventy Urdu-speaking journalists from Pakistan had visited the US as part of the program, and it was time to reciprocate.
After a mad scramble to obtain a valid birth certificate, passport, and visa - a process completed in just over a week - Mills boarded a flight December 2nd for a journey to south Asia.
Besides the university and the US State Department, the trip was under the auspices of a Pakistani organization called “Uks.”
As explained on its website, “The word 'Uks' is an Urdu term meaning 'reflection.' At Uks, our team of professional media persons and research staff aims to promote the reflection of a neutral, balanced and unbiased approach to women and women's issues within, and through the media. The Center has already won the support of many journalists, human rights and women's rights activists, academics and other like-minded groups.”
And Monday, December 18th, Uks celebrated its 20th anniversary.
In that 20 years, Pakistan has seen sweeping changes, especially when it comes to mass media.
Until 2002, the only radio and television outlets were run by the state.
With the issuance of broadcast licenses to privately-owned entities, there has been an explosion in media, and for a country that didn’t even have a TV station until 1964, that has led to some uphill battles regarding regulation, professional ethics, and responsible journalism.
While reporters actually enjoy a great deal of latitude in what they cover and how they cover it, they also face the possibility of censorship, from both the military and civil government.
There are also strict blasphemy laws, which can and do complicate the process of reporting.
Finally, journalists face the very real danger of coming under physical attack.
In 2014 alone, at least 14 journalists were killed on the job in Pakistan.
Mills was struck by a monument erected in memory of slain journalists which sits on the grounds of the National Press Club in Islamabad.
“As far as I know, it’s one of a kind. It was a very emotional moment for me, standing there thinking about the people who continue to die for a concept we take for granted in the states - free speech,” Mills said.
And even day-to-day coverage of politics and current events can pose major challenges for groups like Uks.
Founder and Managing Director Tasneem Ahmar says even with the larger, national networks the reporting on women and women’s issues can be shockingly shallow.
She related how after recent elections, the reporting on female parliamentarians focused on how they dressed, and what kind of designer bags they carried - certainly not the kind of coverage their male counterparts received.
“There are a lot of contradictions in Pakistan,” she told Mills. “One one side we’ve had the first woman Prime Minister, a lot of women working in fields which - once I went to the US, and they were amazed to learn that we had women commercial pilots, we had women fighter pilots. So we have all these contradictions. And at the same time we have also have women who get murdered in the name of honor, women who aren’t allowed to step out of their houses. So it’s a combination of progress and regression.”
Pakistan, Mills says, is certainly a land of contradictions and surprises.
In the coming weeks, he will continue to write about his experiences, and how the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan touches several vital areas of our nation’s foreign policy.
Consider, for example, that its neighbors include Afghanistan, Iran, and China - as well as its perennial enemy, India.
And Pakistan is a nuclear nation, which is carefully and thoroughly reassessing its relationship with the U.S.