Wednesday, November 30, 2011

News After It Happens

Apparently some erstwhile DawnNews staffers are mighty miffed that we haven't given the sudden closure of Express 24/7 early this morning the same sort of coverage that we once gave to DawnNews' woes (when it existed as an English channel). They might be upset for their own personal reasons but it really was neither completely unexpected nor will it have the same repercussions on the group or on the media market.


There is no doubt that we did not have the story before it happened, but then neither did most of the staff at Express 24/7. Consider the following tweets from some staffers:

@Rabail26: Express 24/7 is closing down & I'm jobless, so I guess its time to edit the twitter bio. #tweetingtodistractingself

@mirza9: Not sure about the details of the channel closing down. I just found out in an e-mail. #Express24/7RIP

@mirza9: So should I text message my mom and tell her so she doesn't find out when she wakes up at 530AM and checks my twitter feed?

@mirza9: wow the channel has already stopped running news. Only promos running now. That was quick. Express 24/7 quick death.

@ahmedjung: no one has any idea about what's next and it's funny that even the HR claims that they didn't know about this!

@ahmedjung: lhr office staff told me that the drivers didn't pick the English morning shift staff! Even drivers knew before us

@ayza_omar: Executive producer EN24/7 giving his final speech. Said he didn't hav a clue till 2am.V went off air at 1am.Says its good we didn't

@ayza_omar: All will get their November salaries immediately. One month salary for every year worked will be compensation.

I suppose you could congratulate the Lakhanis on a secret well kept. However, there are two things to consider here:

1. There was never any financial sense in running Express 24/7, not especially after the ignominious backtracking of DawnNews from being 'Pakistan's first English language channel' into an Urdu channel and the still-birth of Geo English had made the business feasibility abundantly clear. The only people really watching Express 24/7 were diplomats who did not know Urdu at all and wanted to keep abreast of what Pakistani media was covering (here's a thought: perhaps they should have been asked to fund the channel). The fact that it continued to exist for almost three years was primarily because the media house's owners made it a matter of prestige and ego. The claim by the owners that the closure was a result of "a dismal economic climate" is thus slightly disingenuous. It was always a losing proposition and it was only a matter of time that the plug was pulled. Mr Sultan Lakhani, the CEO, is however, spot on in his further explanation:

"Unlike other countries where niche channels can survive and even prosper through subscription and where there are multiple distribution platforms such as DTH, in Pakistan niche channels are wholly dependent on advertising. This system works well for mass market channels like our sister channel Express News but does not work effectively for niche channels which cater to a smaller audience.”

Express 24/7 Lahore staffers pose for a group photo (Photo: Khurram Husain)

2. While one sympathises with those of the staff who will not be "accomodated" in the media house's other ventures (and there are likely to be a substantial part of the 100-odd staff) as promised by the CEO, we would like to remind readers of what we had written back in 2009 about the way Mr Lakhani often does business. Although we had recounted this anecdote in reference to the launch of Express Tribune (which is in no danger at the moment) and not Express 24/7, it may seem very prescient to some recently laid-off staffers of the channel:

"All those being recruited may want to ask one simple question of Mr Lakhani: what about Business Today? Some of you may remember that that paper, also owned by Sultan Lakhani, was shut down one fine day at 5 pm with Mr Lakhani coming in and telling the newsroom that the paper would not be publishing the next day and that everyone should henceforth go home. They may want to ensure that this is not the fate awaiting them one fine day down the road..."

Perhaps the only funny thing about this whole episode is that, as of now - some 24 hours after it officially went off air - Express 24/7 continues to run promos detailing itself as 'Pakistan's only English news channel', and proclaiming 'Bringing you the news is our only business' and 'News as it happens', even as there is no news now available on the channel. Only the travel and personality fillers it had developed running incessantly...

...Which leads one to question whether the slot is being saved for the intended launch in January or February of the planned Express Entertainment channel. Incidentally, Dunya too is set to launch its own entertainment channel around the same time, which may give an indication of how the scales have tipped in Pakistan's media market. Suddenly, entertainment is once again being seen as a revenue earner after a long run wherein news and political talk shows were the only game in town.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Open Letter to PTA

Now that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has unfortunately allegedly indefinitely deferred its proposed ban on scurrilous words and phrases such as 'fingerfood', 'harder', 'deeper', 'Randhwa' [widower] and 'Carrom board', I believe it is time to step back, take a deep breath and re-evaluate, without all the deafening media hysteria, the fine, fine work being carried out by the telecom regulator. And yes, appreciate its commitment to promoting the country's progress in spheres that, in all honesty, is not its responsibility but which it takes on purely as a matter of conscientious citizenship. It is time for those of us whose voices were drowned out by the cacophony of knee-jerk anarchic reactionary-ism to step forward and bring a semblance of thoughtfulness back to public discourse.

In this regard, I have taken the liberty of writing an open letter of appreciation to PTA, which I hope those amongst you who were equally troubled by the wild and libelous accusations against the regulator, will endorse...

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority

Dear Sir,

Let me place on record our deep and abiding appreciation of your much misunderstood initiative to purge our cell phones of words and phrases that rightfully should not ever be heard by unsuspecting ears, much less read by eyes that can burn holes inside innocent brains.

1. Your drive to return public discourse to civilized norms by removing the temptations of referring to gutter vocabulary like 'Athlete's Foot', 'Bewakoof', 'Breast', 'Cocktail', 'Creamy', 'Deposit', 'Dome', 'Evl', 'Femme', 'Four Twenty', 'Glazed Donut', 'Harder', 'Hole', 'Hostage', 'Idiot', 'Joint', 'K Mart', 'Kill', 'Looser', 'Lotion', 'Low Life', 'Mary Jane', 'Murder', 'Nimbu Sharbat', 'Oui', 'Phrase', 'Pussy Cat', 'Roach', 'Robber', 'Slant', 'Slime', 'Sniper', 'Spit', 'Stringer', 'Suicide', 'Tampon', 'Taxi', 'Trojan' and 'Trots' is very commendable. These words and phrases truly should remain where they belong, i.e. in the gutter.

2. But even more deserving of appreciation was your attempt to stand as a bulwark against the creeping Westernization of our culture by prohibiting references to NFL American 'football' players ('Rae Carruth', 'He Hate Me'; is Shahid Afridi not good enough for these degenerates?), American cable channels ('Showtime'; Hum TV zindabad!), American concepts of revenue generation ('Primetime'), West African nations ('Niger'; what have they ever done for us?), Anglo-American serial murderers ('Jack the Ripper', 'Dahmer'; the ignoring of our indigenous Javed Iqbals is shameful) and imported racist terms ('Nigga', 'Yellow Man', 'Polack'; when he have our own homegrown terms like 'choorrha', 'matarwa' and 'phheena', what is the need to look elsewhere?). In fact, you have also prophetically pointed out terms which we actually have no idea about ('Ingin', 'Giehn') but which we are sure are part of the same dirty conspiracy to subvert indigenous Pakistani culture.

3. As a special exception, we are also grateful that you have recognized the vulgarity introduced by 'Chunni'. Ms. Saigol, who presents herself as a doyenne of eastern culture, should immediately desist from using this diminutive form of her name, which in any case, does not befit the high prices she charges for her jewellery.

4. We are also extremely appreciative of your attempts to wipe out the scourge of cruelty against animals, who are, after all, God's beautiful creatures but cannot express themselves in the same ways that humans can. Thus we are happy that references to 'Flogging the Dolphin', 'Spanking the Monkey' and 'Axing the Weasel' have been made verboten. However, may we in all humility suggest that 'Choking the Snake', 'Corralling the Tadpoles', 'Draining the Monster', 'Flogging the Dog', Galloping the Antelope', 'Grappling the Gorilla', 'Hacking the Hog', 'Loping the Mule', 'Milking the Moose', 'Perling the Oyster', 'Petting the Lizard', 'Playing with the Spitting Llama', 'Pounding the Bald-headed Moose', 'Pumping the Python', 'Ramming the Ham', 'Roping the Pony', 'Shooting Flies', 'Slapping the Hamster', 'Snapping the Monkey', 'Stroking the One-Eyed Burping Gecko', 'Smacking the Bacon', 'Taunting the One-Eyed Weasel', 'Choking the Chicken' and 'Brushing the Beaver' are also worthy of your attention. Such inhumane treatment of poor, dumb animals should also be declared off-limits in your next iteration.

5. Your efforts to expand the horizons of sometimes parochial Pakistanis have been met with little understanding and typical obstinacy but we would like you to know that we are all for the inclusion of other Asian languages in your lists even if they may not be understood by the majority of Pakistanis. Terms such as 'Mayyaada', 'Deli Mali Guti', 'Kute Liche Ho Chublo', 'Meli Mali Guta', 'Monney Podey', 'Peasah Nah Mahr', 'Aayush', 'Lun Chung', 'Kamche', 'Chafu Gaan', 'Pim Pim' 'Havesh', 'Ranayadha', 'Gui Jo Tung', 'Pelay Ka Dala Ona Mandam', 'Lavander', 'Chinaal' and 'Mangachinamun' may not make much sense to most. But that's only until they, intrigued, make the effort to learn new languages. We understand your contribution to advancing the cause of education in this country.

6. We would also like to commend your team for attempting to ban perversions such as 'unfuckable' and 'No Sex'. As we all know, there is no such thing as the former and the latter is simply a conspiracy to deny the future might of Pakistani multitudes.

7. Few have understood or appreciated your single-handed, and may we add brilliant, ploy to change the worldwide image of Pakistan as a country constantly associated with terrorism, militancy, lack of governance and tinpot military dictatorships. But we, Chairman sahib, understand it well and give you a standing ovation for this. If any proof is needed for doubters, you should tell them to watch the following clip:

Tell them, sir, to point out another instance where the mention of Pakistan brought a smile on the lips of Americans. Tell them to point out when was the last time they heard something about Pakistan in the foreign media and did not hear the adjectives 'double-dealing', 'disastrous', 'corruption-ridden' or 'crumbling' also mentioned. Bravo, sir, bravo! It takes real brilliance for such ingeniousness and insight into media handling.

P.S.: You should however write to Rachel Maddow and correct her disinformation. People should know that it is not 'Monkey Crotch' that is banned but 'Crotch Monkey' and that there's a difference. She should also be told that 'Butt' by itself is not forbidden (we are not so naive!), only 22 variations of when it is combined with other words.

8. We could go on but finally, sir, we wish to give you plaudits for raising the morale of the civil servants who work under you. Months of bureaucratic work must have seemed like one big festive party to your staff which no doubt transformed a government job from a daily grind into something to look forward to every day. We have mental imagery of your staff spending raucous days surfing porn sites to gather the search 'tags' that contributed to your lists, long sessions of camaraderie wherein staff recollected and explained obscure swear-words from their own adolescence to include in the non-English compilations, mirth and giggling previously unheard of in dour government offices and possibly copious amounts of consumption as well. A happy government office is a sign of a happy country. This is an atmosphere that should be encouraged and continued and we are happy to note that PTA has pointed out that the process will not stop here and pledged to continue updating the lists. However, just as a note of caution, you should possibly do regular tests on the quality of dope being supplied to the PTA offices. You would not want any unforeseen medical emergencies to come in the way of the good and important work you are doing.

We hope the recent misinformed hullabaloo over your endeavours is resolved soon and that you can continue raising the stature of Pakistan.

With the best of regards,


Team Cafe Pyala

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You Are Not The Story

I have been meaning to write about a clip from the DawnNews show Kab Tak titled 'Hasool-e-Insaaf Ki Jidojehd' (The Struggle for Justice) that aired last month but is only now doing the social media rounds. The clip features an angry broadcast journalist, Sophia Jamal, confronting the alleged rapist of a 6-year-old girl outside the court and screaming at him, in the process throwing any pretense of an unbiased, objective voice out the window.

I was, fortunately for my own mental health (considering I would have had to watch it over and over again to formulate comments), beaten to it by Nadia Zaffar. Ms. Zaffar, who is a former DawnNews staffer, does an excellent job of using it as a case study establishing "yays and nays for journalists." Her take on it should be mandatory reading for newsrooms across Pakistan:

"You are not the judge: As a reporter, please try to refrain from passing out judgments on people facing charges. Let the process of law and justice take its course without handing out opinions of what you think happened. Every man is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Tell us what happened, what the man said, what the facts are, don’t tell us what you think happened, you are not that important and we are not very interested. 
You are not the police, moral or otherwise: You are not out in the field to tell people the consequences of their actions. Don’t tell them they are going to hell, don’t tell them their children are going to suffer a terrible fate and definitely don’t tell them that they deserve to die. These instructions seem to be too obvious to discuss, but as in instances like these we are unpleasantly surprised. As a reporter I want to know what the law says about such cases, what punishment can this man possibly get if convicted, and what are the statistics for child rape cases in the area. 
Let others talk: It might come as a surprise but the point of journalism is all about letting the people in the story talk. Please don’t show us a four and half minute piece with two words from someone other than you. Its a simple idea but one that many Pakistani journalists seem to forget. Brace yourself and let the people tell the story. The real job of a journalist is to ask tough questions. And yes, wait for the answers. 
Keep your notions and beliefs to yourself: In a country ruled by majorities, Pakistanis easily forget and discount all other cultures, beliefs, religions and ideas when they start talking. As a journalist you not only have to remember to talk to all sides of the story, you must also make sure that you keep your personal assumptions out of your questioning. Don’t assume what a person believes and to whom he is answerable. Don’t threaten him with religious consequences that might not even be his own. 
Also, while the rape of a six-year old girl is immensely disturbing, there is no way the rape of an adult woman will be less so. In this piece the reporter not only passes judgment, threatens and talks incessantly, she also says to the man facing charges whether he couldn’t find an older woman. That, is unacceptable. As a reporter, please be aware of each word that comes out of your mouth. That’s your job. 
Stay calm: Don’t make the story about your voice and your pain. The story is about the six-year-old girl, it is about her parents and it is about the society they are in. It is definitely not about how hurt you are about this, how angry this makes you and as a reporter there must be a concerted effort on your part to make sure this is not about you. Yelling and screaming just cheapens the story, reduces it to a street brawl, and the people in your story deserve more."

have three further comments:

1) Were the producers asleep? If they were, has anybody bothered to wake them up and ask them if they'd like a longer nap, perhaps at home? Bad journalism that makes it to publication or broadcast reflects bad organizational structure and bad organizational culture. Ultimately, the people most responsible for both should be the people at the top. At the very least, people at the helm should develop compulsory handbooks laying out guidelines for their staff. Channel heads have in the past come together to arrive at consensus about e.g. the depiction of dead bodies on television after public outcry. There is no reason why they cannot be proactive rather than reactive and develop broader journalistic ethics guidelines as well that their staff can refer to on a regular basis.

2) Anchor Sophia Jamal's complete ceding of all moral authority to The Almighty (there is only one God, and He apparently watches DawnNews) and her implicit sense of 'aik mussalman ki haisiat say' superiority is to me a cause for great concern. Quite apart from the fact that, as Ms. Zaffar points out, personal beliefs have no place in what should be fact based coverage of a legal case, or even no place in any 'objective' journalism, the 'we are special' mindset her rant exposes is not so different from the one she claims the man she is shrieking at inhabits. Also, whatever some of us might privately feel about madrassahs and beards, inflammatory - as opposed to objective and informed - comments about either in public achieve nothing except establishing our own prejudice. All madrassahs are not breeding grounds or safehouses for pedophiles, as implied. Gandalf and Che Guevara had beards too. Enough said.

3) This clip also underscores, for me, another aspect of journalism in Pakistan that has not been adequately observed or addressed, i.e. the toll ceaseless exposure to the harshest of realities takes on the psyches of those who must observe them. Every day, in every way, they come face to face with humanity's most coarse and brutal aspects. Some of them learn to develop a thick skin. Some of them can't. Kab Tak's anchor, who I have seen on other episodes be about as animated as a painted teapot, seems to have finally cracked. She probably deserves censure for overstepping the line, but she (and a whole lot of other anchors) probably also deserves counseling for PTSD.

Just in case you harboured the illusion that it's only Dawn News and young anchors like Sophia Jamal that need such counselling and guidelines, here's a clip of veteran television host Jasmine Manzur from November 10 on Samaa, going hammer and tongs at the self-confessed necrophiliac recently caught in Karachi. The clip amply demonstrates how, faced with an admittedly gut-wrenching and frustrating situation, television reporters can literally snap. Compare the low-key interview of the policeman in the beginning with the final (and pointless) scream-fest that kicks in around 12:45...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On Hyperbole

"Laal’s new and most revolutionary video to date. Please paste to your profile to spread awareness against religious extremism."

Thus spake the Twitter-feed of Laal the band’s lead singer, guitarist-songwriter-Marxist-academic-revolutionary Dr. Taimur Rahman, announcing the upload of the band’s latest track onto YouTube.

The song, which features an anti-American/CIA/ISI visual collage, plus Comrade Taimur's delightfully uninhibited-by-hipness moves, and a chorus of "Dehshatgardi Murdabad" (Death to Terrorism), hasn’t received as much hype as some of their earlier offerings. One theory is that this is not because of its subject matter, or the moves (you know someone is committed to their cause when they even dance earnestly), but because it simply isn’t good music. (Though some people feel that a song that incorporates spitting out the words "Pitthoo", "Chamchay" and "Tattu" deserves the same special cult status reserved for e.g. films by Ed Wood.) Still, it has accumulated more than its fair share of ‘this rocks’ and ‘I love it’ and ‘brilliant!’ in the etherworld.

Another reason why Laal hasn’t received the adulation they usually receive from the proletariat might be that, in this month’s anthem for doomed youth by doomed youth race, they were pipped to the post by the Lahori trio, the delightfully named Beyghairat Brigade. Their debut single Aalu Anday – which an objective analysis suggests has no musical merit but does include references to nobel laureate Abdus Salam, a poke at hypocritical piety and a slew of made-for-T-shirts slogans – went viral, then epidemic.

Comments on online forums dubbed the trio the avatars of Hope, Future, Progress and Blaziken the Pokemon. NFP placed it in its proper socio-political context. The BBC translated it for white people. The Indian media checked it for skidmarks. In yesterday’s Dawn Huma Yusuf diluted an otherwise sensible take by waxing lyrical about its "bravery and brilliance." And a little while ago XYZ told me:

"Personally I also think you underestimate the Aalu Anday video's sociological/ cultural significance in an environment where "radical" is usually attached to musicians who attack thr US' policies or drones or terrorism (can we get any more safe consensus?). Whatever you may think of the quality of the music - which is no doubt basic - I think the real reason it struck a chord is because it's the first time any of the conspiracy theories / looney ideologies of the right were taken on in musical format on television and that too in a light satirical way rather than the hammer (and sickle) on the head style of Laal."

Which I took to mean: ‘Achha theek hai yaar logon nay yeh batain pehlay bhi boli hain but no one’s ever set it to music before. In 2011.’

It is these hyperbolic reactions, and not the songs themselves or the issues they inhabit, that I’ve been thinking about.

Sometimes I feel the bar has been set so low only pygmies can limbo safely beneath it.

Which brings me to the third subject of this post, Imran Khan. That’s right. Immy Bhai. Also known, since yesterday, as Yes We Khan, The Face Of Our Future, The Country’s New Beginning and Pakistan’s Last Hope.

Imran Khan's moment in Lahore yesterday

Now, you might be asking, what do revolutionary private dancers, satirical musical hobbyists and Imran Khan have in common?

One, good intentions, which, as some of you might have heard, are the Devil’s Envicrete. Two, a youthful embrace, which, as some of you might also have heard, might be wonderful at the time but really does not compare to the ministrations of a slightly more experienced lover.

For me, good intentions = good music does not compute, and good intentions = good leadership does not compute. So yes musical taste is subjective, and yes I’m happy that young people want to bring death to terrorists and impressionable young groupies to their rooms, but no I’m not going to call it ‘brilliant’ or ‘revolutionary’, I’m going to call it ‘clever’, ‘catchy’ and ‘common sense.’

Similarly, I don’t have to like Imran Khan to be impressed by his newfound street power. I don’t have to agree with his simplistic interpretations of complex realities to welcome the throwing of another cap into the political ring. I don’t have to have a bouffant to think he is right to demand politicians declare their real assets. But I’m not going to call it ‘a new beginning’ or ‘Pakistan’s Last Hope’. I’m going to say ‘show me your policies before I give you my vote’, ‘I’d be more optimistic if he’d suggested he was going to deal with extremism by following Bangladesh’s keep-religion-out-of-politics lead rather than praying on stage’ and ‘a flock of 300,000 sheep is still a flock of sheep.’

For this position, this notion of life in continuity instead of life just now, I might well be called a cynic. But I think there is a pattern here. Life has taught Pakistanis to diminish their expectations rather than maintain them, and our rush to embrace the mediocre as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, just because the young do, makes those of us who really should know better complicit in this sorry state of affairs.

So celebrate, by all means, good things like earnest young musicians, smartass kids and politicians finally being able to actualize their messianic fantasies. Just don’t act like it’s the second coming of Christ, fer Chrissake.