"Dear Cafe Pyala,
Last night -- for reasons I cannot explain to myself -- I found myself watching ARY News after . They were airing a live celebrity charity drive for the floods in KP, and had Shahid Masood on location in Nowshera. He was standing at a school where he could not get over the fact that the road behind him was precisely where [Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain] of KP lost his son. Anyway, the school was being used as a shelter for families, and Masood walked up to the principal of the school who seemed to be in charge. He said "Salam" and was greeted back with a "Aap ke aanay ka maqsad kya hai?" [What is the purpose of your coming here?] in a very indignant tone. That part threw Shahid Masood off so bad that he couldn't recover for the next hour or so, and went on to give everyone a textbook lesson on how NOT to report events/disasters affecting vulnerable populations. Examples include:
1. Bursting into a classroom full of families trying to sleep (it was almost midnight) with his camera/light crew while the women hastily tried to cover themselves; keep in mind that he had earlier reported the school as housing families while single mard hazraat [men] without families slept outdoors.
2. Rifling through possessions of the displaced people and commenting on their lives with his own presumptions.
3. Saying "Yeh dekhein in logon ke paas kapray bhi nahin hain!" [Look, these people do not even have clothes!] and then having his camera crew zoom in to a child asleep shirtless on the floor.
All this at around , and on repeat for many other classrooms in the building. Some very distressing scenes included women trying to get away from the light and trying to find their chaadars."
But the buffoonery of Dr S&M is not what I want to discuss today and, to tell the truth, his stupidities are not really a representative sample of the coverage of the floods we have been seeing on television on most channels. In fact, despite hiccups here and there, the coverage has been a vast improvement over the follies of the early earthquake coverage in 2005.
The scale of the devastation is almost unbelievable (Photo: Saood Rehman /EPA)
I have been wondering if it is even appropriate to be discussing problems with the media coverage of the floods at this time, given the scale of the on-going disaster and the generally commendable and all out efforts that channels have poured into raising awareness among the wider public about its impact. But I came to the conclusion that we would be remiss in not pointing out the issues at least in the spirit of constructive criticism. Particularly because some of the problems are getting more acute with the passage of time.
Consider the following instances of reportage to which I am a witness myself (in the interest of making this not about particular channels but about the larger issue, I am not indentifying the channels):
1. Flood affectees in Sindh complain to reporter about timings of food service (apparently 2pm for lunch, 11pm for dinner) and menu (only rice, no roti).
2. Flood affectees being sheltered in a proper school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) complain about the stoppage of supply of pre-cooked food by the government, which has happened after authorities provided basic essentials like rice, lentils, oil etc to them so that families can cook food for themselves.
3. Flood affectees in Matta (Swat) who seem to have adequate food and shelter complain about menhgayi (inflation).
4. Flood affectees in a camp in Punjab complain that while they have received shelter and food, they haven't got monetary compensation yet.
5. Flood affectees in KP complain about the lack of reconstruction activities and demand they begin immediately.
6. Everyone complains about ministers not having visited them.
Now, I know things are extremely difficult, in some cases desperate, for those displaced by the floods - and hell, these floods have wreaked destruction on an unprecedented scale - but is our media making us into a nation of complainers and dependents? I mean, I have yet to see any coverage of the public - and I'm not talking of just these floods - where the presence of the camera and mike does not elicit a litany of random complaints. Please don't take this the wrong way: I know people have genuine grievances and in no way am I trying to belittle the tragedy that people are going through right now. But looking at the above cited instances, you have to wonder if the spectacle of people complaining is not, directly or indirectly, being encouraged by the presence of the media, irrespective of whether the complaints themselves make any sense.
Desperate flood affectees clamber for food in Nowshera (Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP-Getty)
With respect to the above, for example:
1) I mean, yes times are hard, relief workers are scrambling to meet the swell of demand, and there are even affectees who are not getting any food at all. Is a slight delay in the timing of food provision and the menu really the most pressing issue at the moment?
2) Isn't officials providing basic food items to the families so they can cook their own food a far better solution than providing bacteria-laden precooked food that has probably had to travel for miles in the heat? Why must both be provided?
3) Yes, inflation is a major issue. But it's not just flood affectees who are having to deal with it. This is hardly a tale of woe that the channel was hoping to show. Incidentally, it almost seemed that in the absence of dire examples of flood-related displacement problems, the people being interviewed felt it incumbent on themselves to complain about something.
4) Here's another instance of jumping the gun. Thanks to the media, we have come to expect that if your house has been swept away in the morning, you should have a compensation cheque in your hand by the evening. Often, the money assumes far more importance than everything else, including basic survival.
5) Reconstruction?? Hello, the flood waters have not even receded yet, the monsoon is still very much on and isn't the first order of business rescue and relief?
6) Ok so people want to see their representatives sharing their grief and the response of those elected has been largely abysmal, but is it even logistically possible for ministers, MNAs and MPAs to meet each and every displaced person? I am in no way trying to defend the lethargic response of government officials but won't channels always be able to find people who have not seen their elected representatives? And why is visiting the affected more important than ensuring the provision of services to them?
The problem of this kind of coverage partly has to do with the inability of television reporters to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. To provide the sort of contextual filter that print reporters often can. And also perhaps the unwillingness of channels to dilute sympathy-inducing reports or to waste footage that they have spent a lot of money to gather. But not every complaint is worthy of being aired. And the danger is that the airing of such obviously naive / superfluous complaints and resentments nurtures a babble that obscures the real issues.
Here, for example, is an excellent report from Dawn which provides a much needed layer of complexity to explain why many relief activities come to naught. Here is another which helps explain how unscrupulous elements can make it difficult for aid to reach those most in need.
But there is another problem which is something that channels must grapple with. And that is the naivete of city-based reporters covering rural or semi-rural environments. Simply put, many television reporters seem ill-equipped to understand the reality of much of rural Pakistan, which leads not only to certain idealistic assumptions, but also to an inability to separate fact from fiction.
Do city-based reporters even understand rural realities? (Photo: Khalid Tanveer / AP)
I have seen a number of reports covering the flooding of the 'kacha' (riverine) areas of Sindh that have never bothered to contextualize the fact that the kacha areas suffer flooding almost every monsoon season. The people who dwell there know this and expect it but the reports treated the flooding as if it were the first time the residents were being driven out of their homes. There is also no context provided about why so many more people are affected in the kacha / sailabi areas than in the past, how our hydrology works have actually shrunk river widths so that previously riverine areas are being mistakenly used for permanent settlements or how laws against permanent dwellings in these areas are no longer enforced thanks to a breakdown in state power.
Another anchor-turned-reporter expressed his shock that a local councillor in the Punjab had stated that the health and sanitation conditions of the communities in his rural area were nothing great to begin with. Now, one may genuinely be shocked at the conditions most of Pakistan lives in, but technically what the councillor said was not incorrect and has a direct bearing on what relief efforts can practically hope to provide. But somehow, the impression one comes away with from many of the reports is that without provision of bottled mineral water and top-of-the-line medical facilities, all is lost. Incidentally, this anchor-turned-reporter added that the unnamed councillor had also said that it was 'no big deal if the communities drowned.' I seriously doubt any official could have said this and it seems to me this was an exaggeration the reporter tacked on to bolster his indignation. If the councillor did actually say this, the reporter should have named him specifically. If he didn't say it, the reporter's inflammatory exaggeration is, of course, deplorable.
Another reporter summed up her report from a relief camp by beseeching the government to provide "secure houses with food" to the flood affectees rather than the tents currently made available. Does the reporter have any idea about housing in general in Pakistan? Or about economics and social indicators in the country? Or about the requirements of such a large-scale relief operation? It's one thing to express sympathy for the displaced and homeless. But can we at least stop living in la-la land?
'Hukoomat kuchh nahin kar rahi' (Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP-Getty)
It is a similar issue with the media quickly jumping on the Kalabagh Dam bandwagon at the prompting of certain quarters within the Punjab. Leave alone the inter-provincial issues of trust (which Umair Javed tackles in his blog here), this campaign - which claims to offer a solution - obscures the larger institutional issues that have resulted in this disaster, the lack of thoughtful planning, the lack of on-ground enforcement of existing precautions, the inability of the state to even work existing infrastructure, and the perennial habit of misdiagnosing problems leading to faulty solutions. Mushtaq Gadi had an excellent piece on this very issue in Dawn.
To sum up, these floods are indeed a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions which is going to have long-lasting effects on the entire country. And the tragic tales of death, displacement, disease and loss of livelihood certainly need to be told by the media so that other people, both within and outside the country, are made aware of the exact nature of the crises Pakistan is confronted with. But at the same time, the electronic media also needs to be a little more circumspect about how it reports what it reports and whether what it is reporting is actually adding to the sum of viewers' knowledge or simply confusing issues. A crash course about Pakistani rural realities for urban reporters may also not be a bad idea. At the very least, however, it needs to exercise more editorial control so that the information it is so commendably providing has a context and clarifies what needs to be done, rather than lead to a dispirited population and inflammatory but often vague rhetoric.