Pakistan: reporting the student ‘terror trail’

Zubeida Mustafa examines the Pakistani media’s response to the arrests of eleven Pakistani students now facing deportation from the UK

At a time when the media in Pakistan has its hands full with a heated controversy raging on the government’s peace deal with the Taliban in Swat, it is unsurprising that the arrest of eleven Pakistani students in the UK has not received as much publicity in the media as it would have in normal times. The story was splashed on the front pages of the newspapers and reported widely on television when the young men were taken into custody on 8 April. But  only sporadic reports have since appeared on  developments.

Has the media lost interest because, a week after the arrests, the British police have failed to find any incriminating evidence? Until some substantive progress is made, it would be difficult to get the newspapers and television channels to take it up in a big way. They feel there are so many other grave issues of life and death to address on a priority basis that the fate of the suspected students is not a matter to create an uproar. Besides, journalists who are by and large mindful of the wave of anti-American popular sentiments in Pakistan –– thanks to Guantanamo and Iraq –– are more objective in their reporting on terrorism where Britain is concerned.

In the sparse coverage blame was equally apportioned on the two sides. There is acute public awareness in Pakistan of the dangers  terrorists pose to human life. With suicide attacks taking place in the country practically on a daily basis and people being killed by the dozen it is also natural that terrorists do not have the sympathy of Pakistanis. Therefore the news of the arrest of the students in the UK was not something earthshaking. Globalisation has blurred boundaries, as is becoming increasingly clear after 9/11.

Media coverage also brought up the element of doubt that inevitably dogs such situations, especially now that there is talk of deporting the students because the police feel they may not be able to make a convincing case before a court of law. Why was consular access to the detained people denied to the Pakistan High Commission in London? Why was the Pakistan government’s previous offer of assistance with the background checks required in the visa process not accepted? Some reports of families proclaiming the innocence of their sons also made people think. But they were too few to stir anyone.

In the English language media, which addresses such issues seriously and has a better tradition of in-depth background investigation, there was absolutely no surprise. With the US having clamped down on student visas after 9/11, Britain has become a popular destination for students in pursuit of higher studies. But the regrettable part is that all those applying are not genuine students. Many are youth insearch of greener pastures who do not see much of a future for themselves in Pakistan. They spend nearly £20,000 on admission and first term fees, air tickets and initial boarding and lodging, then  find a job and drop out of college. Some use devious ways to remain on student visas.

Last year the UK issued 9,300 student visas to Pakistanis out of a total of 400,000 — quite an unbelievable figure given the state of education in Pakistan. One journalist who has been following the turn of events attributed this to the ‘crass commercialisation of education in UK and lax monitoring of dubious paper colleges and non-existent universities whose only concern is the money they charge as fees’.

Although there have been complaints about these fake institutions for long, it is only now that the British government has acted. When asked to register with the Border Agency for licenses to admit foreign students, the applications of 460 of 2100 institutions were turned down last month.

These bogus colleges have become a part of the immigration scam. So far the government had turned a blind eye to it as foreign students were injecting billions of pounds into the British economy every year. The flip side of a liberal student visa policy has now dawned on the British government. The alarm may prove to be a false one and a case of over-reaction by the police and the intelligence but the days of easy admission to British universities and easy visa processing are long past.

There might be embarrassment in store for the government after failing to find evidence or bring charges against those involved. But it seems the arrested students will be deported anyway. All this means is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.