Here we have a truly tragic incident in Lahore, where a 36-year-old rickshaw driver, Akbar Ali, not only committed suicide, but poisoned almost his entire family as well. Two of his young daughters died with him, while his wife and another daughter are struggling for life in a hospital. One young son escaped the poisoning. The fact that a working man should feel despondent enough about his and his family's future to commit such a terrible act should definitely serve as a wake-up call for society on a number of fronts. Not least of them, about the state of mental health and the social fabric in the country: it is instructive to note that Akbar Ali had a number of siblings, relatives and neighbours, as well as elderly parents, none of whom apparently had a clue about the storm raging inside Akbar. And of course it should lead to circumspection about how economic hardship and the lack of social safety nets are affecting the poor.
Newsbeat's Meher Bokhari: empathy theatre
Instead we have Ms Meher Bokhari of Samaa TV's flagship current affairs programme Newsbeat, turning up from Akbar Ali's home with the young son draped over her arm, doing a show taglined "Ijtimayi Khudkushi... Budget Ke Munh Pe Tamancha" ['Collective Suicide...A Slap on the Face for the Budget']. Huh?? Is this all she could relate it to, the budget?!? Now don't get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that Samaa and Ms Bokhari wanted to give this incident due attention (even if I found the drama of doing a show in the midst of wailing family members and the melodrama of having the exhausted and no doubt traumatized son sleeping in Ms. Bokhari's lap rather unsettling and in poor taste). And expressing empathy with the bereaved family members is also commendable. But what exactly was the content of the show beyond superficial berating of officialdom?
It's the easiest thing in the world to attack governments and their wasteful expenditures. And heaven knows they richly deserve it. But when anchors focus on the current president and prime minister in very personal attacks, making it seem as if all was hunky dory in days gone by, you begin to get a whiff of either a political agenda or utter and complete naivete. Meher Bokhari's intro to the programme attacks Asif Zardari for not knowing the number of rooms in the presidency, Yousuf Raza Gilani for being overly concerned about his sartorial trimmings, and ministers for having too much security protocol, all in the service of showing how disconnected this government is from the people. But can she seriously claim any different under General Musharraf, for example? Unfortunately she probably thinks she is being a hard-nosed and edgy commentator. Geo has a lot to answer for.
When Ms Bokhari took on PPP Information Secretary Fauzia Wahab with a rambling and incendiary non-question, I felt sympathy for Ms Wahab, probably for the first time. You really have to see this performance theatre to understand what got my blood really boiling. The Fauzia Wahab portion begins around 6:36 in this clip:
Ms Bokhari seems insistent in linking the suicide to the presentation of the federal and provincial budgets. It sounds almost absurd, as if Akbar Ali waited to listen to the budget speeches before deciding his course of action.What possible evidence does she have to imply cause and effect? None. But no facts dare stand in the way of our intrepid analyst.
During the entire programme, Ms Bokhari also touts a figure of 7,000 suicides in Pakistan over the last two years (once again, decontextualized from the situation before the PPP government came into office). First of all, even though she claims this is "on the record data", the sources for her figure seem highly dubious. As this report from the Daily Times quoting an academic study says:
"There are no official data on suicide from
. Data on suicide is not included in the national annual mortality statistics. As a result, national rates on suicide are neither known nor reported to the WHO." Pakistan
This is not of course to say that suicide rates have not increased in the last few years (there is compelling anecdotal evidence to support this), just that there are no figures.
When Fauzia Wahab points out (though getting the mathematics horribly wrong) that Ms Bokhari's figure implies roughly 10 suicides a day (she thought it meant 1000 a day), Ms Bokhari immediately agrees to revise the figure down, falling back on the soft emotionalism of 'even 100 suicides is not okay.' This is journalism?
Even if we accept Ms Bokhari's figures of the number of suicides in Pakistan, how do we immediately connect all of them to economic despondency? Surely not every suicide in Pakistan is related to poverty. It would also be instructive to look at the global figures for suicide, which experts tell us has increased dramatically all over the world in last few decades. Incidentally, Japan and Korea, two of the most industrialized and prosperous countries in the world, have among the highest rates of suicide. What does that mean for Ms Bokhari's analysis?
Once again, I am in no way discounting the effect of increasing poverty (for which there are figures) and the increasing wealth gap (ditto) on the apparent rise in despondency in Pakistan. The point I am trying to make here is that serious issues, and particularly such tragic incidents, need to be dealt with in a more sober and thoughtful manner. By making easy and dubious political judgements, based on nothing but grandstanding, the media does no one any favours.
Oh, and someone should tell Ms Bokhari that shouting like Jasmin Manzoor - as she is increasingly wont to do on her show - does not make one a more credible journalist. Just irritatingly loud.