Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Discovery of Pakistan

First I would like to share with you all a letter we received from one of our readers, Saad Siddiqui, on August 7. It's written so well that I thought it best to just reproduce it here:

"Dear Cafe Pyala,
Last night -- for reasons I cannot explain to myself -- I found myself watching ARY News after 11PM. 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 midnight, 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.


Anonymous said...

Spot on. Realistic and extremely well-written!

karachikhatmal said...

very brave thing to say in face of the inevitable PC backlash, but it has to be said. every report anyone does on a social issue, the vox pop section involves people complaining about the hakoomat not doing anything.

after a while i made sure never to include a vox pop, mainly because even well meaning people are reduced to whining about the government in front of a camera. it may sound juvenile, but the point you raise about the media creating a nation of complainers is very valid, and disturbing. that said, most reporters edit out the decent vox pops, so we can't claim this to be representative.

Anonymous said...

why are not pyala's articles more shared on facebook???

Ahsan said...

Absolutely fantastic analysis of the current situation! The letter has actually spoken my heart out. I am dejected and dismayed to see this sort of media coverage that is not just inducing discouragement into the people of Pakistan but also sending negative vibes to the international doners resulting in a dried up response to the catastophy.
I not only doubt the credibility of people like Shahid Masood, Javed Chaudhry, Kamran Khan etc but now I also doubt their intentions. The most unfortunate outcome of the event could be a national inclination towards Army as the last resort only owing to the perception our media is successfully creating in the unfortunate naive minds, most of which were nutured during the Zia regime.

AA said...

Great post, xyz.

This kind of mindset is not limited to flood coverage alone though. I have specially felt a rise in whining, complaining, hating-the-country rhetoric in recent months, possibly led by the media. Hate to admit but the media in our country does have a pervading influence over the masses who have little or no critical thinking skills thanks to poor or no education. Floods have only exacerbated the situation.

I avoid watching flood coverage for more than a few minutes every day. It's demeaning to see hungry people falling over each other for food, scrambling to grab relief packages being thrown off helicopters - spare a thought for their self respect.

A course in ethics of approaching vulnerable populations is also not a bad idea. Relief camp administrators must have the powers and the willingness to stop media coverage at certain hours especially during food distribution and evenings. Vulnerable groups must be protected from humiliation.

How can we make this happen?

TLW said...

why are not pyala's articles more shared on facebook???

Maybe Cafe Pyala should look into that. Facebook seems to be a new virtual socials commons.

Two things I took away from this well written blog entry are the urban rural divide, and the excessive propensity for complaining. On the first one, I gotta agree, but you shouldn't be too discouraged. Remember, in 2004, the media in India called the May elections in favour of the BJP. They were left with egg all over their face as they realised that they represented an urban bias where the India shining propaganda had defeated competing ways of thought but the countryside felt differently.
Our country is proportionally the most urbanised of all in South Asia, with a third of the population being city based. So a rural perspective should be considered to news presentation/analysis.

As for the complaining issue, I'm of two minds about it. Firstly, I think there should be an airing of multiple points of view. If nothing else, it brings about some sort of tolerance for competing viewpoints in society. And since we're all doubtful how much influence parliament has on our own "deep state", it is quite possible that the way society's increasing religiosity affected the armed forces, maybe society's becoming more tolerant of dissent will also affect the armed forces personnel.

And the army is where the bad side of a sort of nihilistic complaining comes in. The best approximation to call it would be the verbalised angst of the non-voting middle classes. The Pakistan Army seems to be their preferred political party of choice (or some rightward variation of the PML-N), and as they staff and run most television news organisations, they seem to be running a political opposition operation rather than straight up news reporting, encouraging any characteristic that would demoralise the PPP, ANP and (possibly) MQM and anyone who associates with these parties. My guess is they feel politically helpless and they are trying to project it.

karachikhatmal said...


" The Pakistan Army ... staff(s) and run(s) most television news organisations, they seem to be running a political opposition operation rather than straight up news reporting, encouraging any characteristic that would demoralise the PPP, ANP and (possibly) MQM and anyone who associates with these parties. My guess is they feel politically helpless and they are trying to project it."

while i don't disagree with any of your points, i think you are missing out on something. people like me weren't part of the army's coitre of stalwarts, so its not like i was looking for complaining people all the time. instead, as soon as we would turn the camera on and ask people for their opinion, they would blame the government. there were a lot of times when if pressed, they would grudgingly concede their own failings, or those of their immediate patrons etc.

but you rarely have time for that when you are seeking to gather vox pops (shots of the 'common man' voicing his opinion)

again i am not denying that 'journalists' chop and change soundbites to suit their own agenda, but still there is a case of people blaming the government in order to hide their own shortcomings.

(i am also not talking about these complaining comments in the context of the floods)

TLW said...

when if pressed, they would grudgingly concede their own failings, or those of their immediate patrons

Personally, I'm always for letting people complain. Pakistanis always have been complaining since time immemorial. My take which sort of dovetails with yours, is that Pakistanis stick purely to complaining, they don`t seem to move beyond it. Like political organisation, or taking responsibility for some part of their problem. Maybe journalists can start adding questions of personal responsibility of the people being interviewed to their list of questions. Pyala`s part about editing "inflammatory but often vague rhetoric" might come into this. However, here's the thing; we have a flood with millions of victims, many of the people who got effected were living in risky areas. The poor population of these areas had sky rocketed. Why were they living there? Why were there so many of them? Why don't we have the money to spend for things that could have changed or controlled them? Who prioritises the expenses? Do we have any control beyond parliament on these people who decide our expenditures? How do we change these peoples minds? If parliament is not completely able to rein in these people, maybe the vox pop of people complaining can have some effect on them.

Ask why didn't folks move out when the warnings became serious, edit the parts out that grumble about Islamic Revolution, but let the people incharge know that they have to be on the ball.

XYZ said...

@Anon415: Thank you.

@karachikhatmal: It's interesting how vox pops are generally used: to reinforce the basic thrust of the story as conceived by the reporter from his or her own 'gut' feeling. The formula for a 'balanced sample' is two for your point of view, one against (though local channels usually do not even bother with such a 'balance'). Not using them at all, however, may be a bit harsh - since they do add some human 'colour' to sometimes dry stories but I agree with you that people often react in the way they assume is expected of them. A similar situation arises with the language the 'common man' uses - they'll be speaking quite normally to you but as soon as they are on camera, the convoluted phrasing reminiscent of PTV Khabarnamas comes out. People just assume this is how they are meant to speak for television.

Of course, it can also be argued that people also assume the media has a certain power and access to the establishment / officialdom that they lack and use it to get their grievances across. But given some of the silly nature of complaints and the unanimous and over-the-top blaming of whatever government's in power, I suspect the motives are often more 'doing what is expected' than anything else.

But part of the problem with vox pops is also of course, as you mention, that they are done in a hurry. Often, in fact, cameramen are sent out to get them on their own while the reporter stays behind and works in the studio. The solution to this I think you touch upon yourself - probing a little bit with the questions, rephrasing questions in the face of cliched answers, etc.

But none of it takes away the need for the desk - the editors - to exercise editorial control and sift out the crap. Isn't that's what the editors are supposed to be doing: editing?

XYZ said...

@Anon803: I really don't know why Cafe Pyala posts are not shared more on Facebook... I guess people share what they want to share.

We do have a marginal presence on Facebook (under the name CPM Pyala) now but managing all these things is a time-consuming job and we already have our hands full with the blog and now Twitter. Will see if we can set up a 'fan' page though.

Meanwhile, I hope you have noticed that we do allow sharing on Facebook right from the blog itself. There's a box under every post that allows this directly.

We should probably put these administrative things up as a post.

@Ahsan: Had tried to steer clear from imputing motives to channels in this particular case. You could be right but I think we sometimes also forget the rapid and unplanned way this media boom has come about with staffers receiving little to no training.

@AA: Thanks. You say: "Relief camp administrators must have the powers and the willingness to stop media coverage at certain hours especially during food distribution and evenings. Vulnerable groups must be protected from humiliation."

While I sympathize with your point, let's also see the pitfalls in enforcing such measures. They could be used to hide mismanagement and corruption as well. Plus trying to control an indignant television media is probably an even more difficult than trying to control the desperate and hungry. I think the solution will have to come from educating the media itself rather than imposing restrictions on their work.

XYZ said...

@TLW: Some thought provoking ideas in your two comments.

On the rural-urban divide, you may be right that things will sort themselves out. But I'm not entirely sure: keep in mind the general urban (mis)perception that people in the rural areas do not think for themselves during elections and are forced to follow their local landlord. This is patently false even if you take a look at election results but that has not changed this prevalent line of thinking in the media.

On the issue of 'complaints culture', I'm not sure I agree with you. On the one hand, what we often see is not 'let a thousand flowers bloom' and a 'toleration of dissent' but almost a hegemony of one (often knee-jerk)point of view. Secondly, are you implying that the army and it's proxies feel politically helpless? Nothing that I see makes me come to that conclusion. I also do not make the case that all complaining should be edited out. Far from it. You are right that valid grievances should find space in the media to keep officials / elected reps on the ball. My only beef is with superfluous complaints than confuse the issue for general viewers trying to get a grip on what is actually going on and for the officials / elected reps who end up getting caught in silly diversions rather than dealing with the crux of the matter.

Btw I agree that all the points you raise about identifying the larger issues are things that the media should be raising.

Vanguard said...

A timely and excellent post and excellent discussion in comments section.

Anonymous said...

i am no fan of the media but just to give the flip side of the argument, may be the media is (consciously or unconsciously)showing all this misery and suffering (in light of the above discussion, may be in an exaggerated way) just to rally support and help gather more funds for the flood relief along with creating awareness in the world about this disaster. It is no hidden truth that the world has been really slow to respond to the pakistan flood crisis due to the whole transparency and the lack of credibility of the govt run flood relief efforts. So projecting all this suffering may actually help in a more urgent and stronger response from the world community to help pakistan in this hour of dire need. We all know that the magnitude of this catastrophe was such that even much more prosperous countries than pakistan would also have have been in need of all the aid that they can get their hands on.
Yes they shouldnt be barging in the relief camps in the middle of the night to with the camera to show victims misery). But showing a balanced view of the magnitude of the disaster and suffering should help pakistan get more attention from the international community to help it cope better with this catastrophe.

Tehseen baweja said...

Spot on, as somebody said. The national sentiment has become one of helplessness and dependence.

I am not saying immense resources are not needed to cope up with the calamity but are we doing at least as much as we can.

Like you said, the disaster is unbearable, but looking forward to a monetary compensation for every incident is setting a bad precedent. said...

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