Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How One Channel Could Shake Up Pakistan's Media Scene

We don't usually write about entertainment channels of the sitcom / soaps / serials variety (as opposed to entertainment channels of the news / current affairs variety) but there's a new channel airing across Pakistan for about the last two months causing all sorts of waves that is interesting to us for a number of reasons.

 Urdu1's advertising blitz can be seen in magazines and on billboards

For one, Urdu1, as the channel is named, seems to have hooked a substantial number of viewers, which seems to be giving its big-name rivals in the television entertainment business all sorts of palpitations. No doubt a major part of the reason for its sudden popularity is the fact that it is broadcasting some of the most popular Indian soaps, whose ratings on the illegally (but widely) broadcast Indian entertainment channels such as Star Plus and Colors, put to shame ratings of all other Pakistani channels. It is technically able to do this because it is actually not a Pakistani channel (which are subject to far more restrictions regarding Indian content) but a 'foreign channel', based out of Dubai and only having 'landing rights' in Pakistan.

But it is also benefiting from the fact that it still broadcasts most of its programming without the massive commercial breaks that have become the characteristic of Pakistani entertainment channels and which have become the bane of viewers. Unlike Pakistani entertainment channels which offer up their programming in blocks of, often, seven minutes or less, and where an hour of programming can include 22 minutes or more of commercials (also violative of the terms of their licenses, which stipulate no more than three minutes of advertising after every 15 minutes of programming - this stipulation has been challenged by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association in the Sindh High Court where the case is pending), Urdu1 so far has been getting by with running ads mostly at the beginning and end of their content. Viewers, fed up with the extended and excessive commercial breaks on Pakistani channels, seem to have given their approval.

By far the most fascinating part of the programming on this new channel from a sociological point of view, however, is the inclusion of - and unexpected popularity of - some of its dubbed offerings. Urdu1 is also offering Latin American and Turkish soaps which, despite the fact that they contain non-desi actors whose voices have obviously been dubbed into Urdu, seem to have found wide acceptance among the usual female population that comprises the bulk of the viewers of such programming. So far, Pakistani channels have rarely ventured into the dubbing territory (although Geo Entertainment has shown a couple of dubbed films in the past) because it was generally believed that audiences did not like watching such dubs and could not identify with non-desi actors and that the viewership could not justify the costs of dubbing. It would be interesting to see when rival channels also begin to add similar programming. And we can bet it won't be long.

 'Forbidden Love': Turkish soap seems to be doing well with viewers

But Urdu1 is also making waves for other reasons. A conglomerate of its rivals, including Hum TV, Geo Entertainment, ARY Digital and Express Entertainment have filed a case in the Lahore High Court against the granting of 'landing rights' to the new channel (which basically allow it to be distributed legally within Pakistan), which was launched in Pakistan only in the second week of June. They have challenged the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to justify the grant of the license, which they claim is against PEMRA's own criteria for such licenses.

For one, these rivals argue that any foreign satellite channel must have been operative for at least three years before it can be considered for a 'landing rights' license , and that Urdu1 did not fulfill this criteria, having been launched (even by its own admission) "in the Middle East" only in June 2010. They also claim that foreign channels are, allegedly, not allowed to have more than 10-15% of their programming in Pakistani languages under PEMRA rules and thus Urdu1 falls afoul of this criteria as well. Urdu1's rivals may be technically right (we tried but could not locate these stipulations on the PEMRA site) but it should be fairly obvious from this petition that the big Pakistani entertainment channels are very apprehensive of what Urdu1's popularity could mean for their revenues. And let's be clear about one thing: their loud cries about 'foreign cultural content' and 'subversion of Pakistani culture' are only smokescreens for the real issue of revenue and profits.

There are a few points to consider here. A) I am no fan of the mind-numbing histrionics of Indian soaps, but is the "trade protection" being sought by Pakistani channels against Indian television content legitimate, especially when one considers that all of these same channels vie to run - and go out of their way to promote - Indian content such as awards shows and films when they can? B) Is Indian content the only issue? It was considered the main issue because of the supposed easy identification of Pakistani viewers with Indian storylines and actors, and the reason that nobody bothered that much about Western content, assuming it catered only to a small niche of viewers. How will that point-of-view fare with the popularity of dubbed non-Indian content as shown by Urdu1? To take the point further, is isolationism something to aspire towards? C) One can make legitimate arguments about the need for smaller trade / production entities to have benefits that level the playing field somewhat against larger entities that have the advantage of scale. But does that argument really hold for 'cultural products' in an increasingly globalized world where technology makes the cultural products of other nations easily accessible? After all, the 'protection' offered to the Pakistani film industry for over 40 years did not really help it to survive or become better did it? D) There is a fundamental issue at stake also about who benefits from such protection: does it actually benefit people it claims to serve or just a few corporates such as television channels, some big local production companies and their owners and investors? After all, all viewership surveys in Pakistan attest to the continuing popularity of Indian soaps despite their official prohibition and despite the rantings of the moral brigade. If viewers insist on watching shoddy melodramas and continue to find ways to do it, is it the job of government to deny them legitimate avenues to do so?

Finally, there is another significant aspect to Urdu1 which has piqued our interest. Its Pakistan license holder is a company called Horizon Media (Pvt) Ltd. which is fairly untraceable on the web. For a channel that supposedly launched "in the Middle East" (out of Dubai) in 2010, Urdu1 also has no website that we can locate. Its CEO is a man called Faraz Ansari, who used to be the former General Manager of Ten Sports and apparently worked for other media companies earlier as well.

However, we have learnt from very reliable sources that the real people behind the channel are three "heavyweight" legislators of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. In fact, we have been able to identify one of them: Ms Shazia Marri, now elected as a member of the National Assembly and former/ current minister for Information and Electric Power in Sindh province. Another may be current Sindh minorities minister Dr Mohan Lal, whose brother Mr Jai Prakash, a Shikarpur-based trader, is alleged to be the main financier of the venture.

 Shazia Marri: new media mogul?

What makes the whole venture more curious is that, according to our sources, Ms Marri has also been in long-running talks to buy an FM channel called Josh 99FM which operates out of Karachi, Lahore and Hyderabad and is "affiliated" with three other unnamed FM stations, claiming a total "potential" listenership of over 60 million people. Josh FM99's Chief Executive is Mr Sarmad Palijo, the younger brother of the sitting Sindh Culture and Tourism Minister Ms Sassui Palijo. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that those in the know claim the purchase negotiations have dragged on because of the involvement of Ms Faryal Talpur, another sitting PPP MNA and the sister of President Asif Zardari. Our sources claim they do not know what Ms Talpur's stakes are in the matter but that on more than one occasion, she intervened once the price had been tentatively agreed, to ask the parties to reconsider the price. According to our sources, one intervention was to urge a lowering of the price, another was to raise it, which may indicate that Ms Talpur had been requested to intervene by both sides at various times.

Is there a new media empire in the offing?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Revolt Against Mr Jeem

So, remember that we tweeted about the return of Mr Jeem (Jeem for Jaahil) Online, Aamir Liaquat, to Geo all the way back on June 20? We had also tweeted that our sources were telling us that the return had been pushed through on the insistence of CEO Mir Shakilur Rahman's mother, the family's matriarch to whom Mr Jeem had gone abegging, and whose diktat could simply not be refused by anyone in Geo. Not only was the disgraced televangelist brought back and offered his own show (for which Geo has been running teasers and quarter-page advertisements proclaiming 'Someone is Coming'), he was ushered into the position of Vice President of the entire Geo TV Network, Group Executive Director and Editor Religious Affairs.

The teaser print ad for the return of Aamir Liaquat on Geo

Well, it seems a full blown revolt has now erupted within Geo's editorial management over this. Among the people said to be extremely unhappy with this turn of events are Managing Director Geo News Azhar Abbas, Director Content Development Muaaz Ghamdi and star anchors such as Sana Bucha (Lekin), Najam Sethi (Aapas Ki Baat) and Iftikhar Ahmed (Jawaabdeyh). Many others have also signed an internal petition being circulated against Mr Jeem's reappointment.

While it is not clear if anyone else has offered their resignations, Sana Bucha refused to conduct her programme on Friday and Saturday, leading to Meray Mutabiq's  Maria Memon being drafted in as a stop-gap arrangement, while the official explanation given was that Ms Bucha was busy in "personal engagements." Our sources tell us that Ms Bucha has indeed tendered her resignation at the return of the charlatan preacher and that the resignation has now been accepted. According to our sources, she had been explicitly promised that, if Mr Jeem were ever to return to Geo, she would be free to refuse to continue. Some sources claim she even had it written into her contract though we cannot verify this. If that is indeed true, that is forward-thinking the likes of which we have not heard of before in the Pakistani media. It remains to be seen if any of the others at Geo take a stand over this or whether Ms Bucha will become the revolt's sole sacrifice.

 Sana Bucha has resigned over Aamir Liaquat's reinduction

There are also some reports that she is already in talks with Dunya to take over the slot left vacant by the sacking of Mubasher Lucman over the Malik Riaz interview fiasco, who himself has now been picked up by ARY. If these reports are correct, it would be interesting to see Ms Bucha sharing channel space with Meher Bokhari, especially recalling that they are not on the best of terms to begin with. Suffice it to say, however, it seems no scandal is big enough - recall Aamir Liaquat's vitriolic and widely condemned religious zealotry and the expose of his personal hypocrisy, Lucman's and Bokhari's flouting of all professional ethics etc. - to make the media actually take stock of its blatant shortcomings and prevent it from hiring the same professionally disgraced people.

What is also quite clear is that Mr Jeem's return just before the advent of Ramzan has as much to do with an economic bottom line as pressure from the Rehman family matriarch. When he left Geo in 2010 for ARY, Geo attempted to fill his ubiquitous Ramzan programming with a slew of celebrity hosts (such as Junaid Jamshed and Reema) but ended up making far less money than they used to in previous 'holy months' when he fronted the programming.

And that's what the real 'Geo Asool' is all about. Money.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Just Some Of The King's Men and Women (Updated)

This has already taken social media and even many television stations by storm. I am placing this here mainly for the record.

Remember that 2-hour 'Dunya TV Special' yesterday where Meher Bokhari and Mubasher Lucman conducted a joint 'grilling' of property tycoon Malik Riaz, currently at the centre of what has been variously termed 'Bahriagate' and 'Familygate'? Well, here are the behind-the-scenes from that marathon that some conscientous soul at Dunya has put up on the net for all to see. You need to watch this if you haven't already, trust me. After this, only an idiot could possibly take Pakistan's 'investigative' television media seriously.

Part 1:

Part 2:

So, basically we find out the following things:

1. This was a total set-up of an interview, with planted questions.

2. Malik Riaz is not only told the questions before-hand, he is fed some of the answers too and prompted by the intrepid interviewers to say things he might have forgot to mention.

3. The Prime Minister's son Abdul Qadir Gilani is in the know and involved, as are the Sharif brothers in a slightly different way.

4. There are instructions from Dunya TV management 'not to interrupt' Malik Riaz, even if it means going over time. Obviously, Dunya TV is more beholden to him than anyone could have guessed.

5. There actually were plenty of ego-clashes between the Bokhari and Lucman, even more than what was visible on air yesterday, over how much time each was getting to ask their questions. At one point, Malik Riaz tries to placate them both by telling them that they should put aside their squabbles because this programme is a matter of life or death for him. Meher tells Lucman to "be professional." You are allowed to laugh.

6. Other than providing an unembarrassed and shameless platform to someone well known for buying off the media in the shape of a fake 'grilling', the main thrust of the interviewers is to clear their own names as people bought off by Malik Riaz by throwing up smokescreens of asking hard-hitting questions. "Do you want to clear our names here?" asks Bokhari of Lucman while trying to decide the schedule of questions.

I don't really think you're going to ever clear your names after this, Ms Bokhari and Mr Lucman. Same goes for Dunya TV and its politician owner Mian Aamir Mahmood for that matter.

: : : Update : : :

1. For those who cannot understand the Urdu, here is a good summary of the videos.

2. According to Dunya TV sources, Mubasher Lucman has either been 'suspended' or fired for saying during the show that he was being pressurised to do the show by Mian Aamir Mahmood and Malik Riaz.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Seeing Red (Updated)

The entire country seems to be seized with the issue of whether dual nationality holders should be allowed to hold public office in Pakistan. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case against four Peoples Party parliamentarians including the President's media adviser Farahnaz Ispahani, whose National Assembly membership has been temporarily suspended by the court on prima facie evidence that she is also an American citizen. The Punjab Assembly has tried to weasel its way out of the same criteria being applied to its members by saying it has no record of which of its members are dual nationality holders. I'm not here to discuss the merits and contradictions of this issue, so if you can please leave that outrage for another time...

What I'm really here to share, however, is an explosive little story that a little tweety bird with impeccable credentials has divulged to us (what, you think only Najam Sethi has mysterious chirryas?).

If you recall, a certain Interior Minister, is among those accused of holding dual British nationality. That he had taken British citizenship while in self-exile from the mid-90s till he returned in 2007 is not even denied by him. He recently made a statement in the Supreme Court (through his lawyer) that he had renounced his UK citizenship in April 2008, upon assuming office in Pakistan and had presented some documents attesting to his claim upon his recent return from a working visit to the UK. (Incidentally, the Supreme Court rejected the documents as insufficient proof of his renunciation.)

 Not quite green (or blue)

Guess what our tweety bird has told us? The colour of the passport the Interior Minister used to travel to the UK - just a few days ago - was distinctly not green or blue (the Pakistani official passport). Those who laid eyes on it say they saw a very British red. Unfortunately, we are not at liberty to reveal our source but what we will confirm clearly is that our tweety bird - which is more than 100 percent sure of its facts - is definitely not of the 'intelligence' variety.

It's one thing to be dheet and a liar. But this just sounds to us like the ultimate in pragmatic stupidity as well.

: : : UPDATE : : :

After this post was put up, a number of people wrote in on Twitter and in the comments to say that the Pakistani diplomatic passport is also red (or maroon) and that while senators and other government officials are issued a blue offical passport, all cabinet members (as the Interior Minister is) are issued a diplomatic passport. The implication was that perhaps our tweety bird had mistaken the colour of the diplomatic passport for the British passport. Senator Rehman Malik himself aslo tweeted that it had been "mischievously reported" that he had used a British passport whereas he had used only his "red diplomatic passport."

The doubt is understandable since in my write-up I had only referred to the colour of the passport, even though our source had not based the information on simply that. Nevertheless we have re-checked with our source to make doubly sure and the tweety bird confirms that it was in fact a British passport, not a Pakistani diplomatic passport. We thus stand by our story.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Case of Shakil Afridi

The hue and cry over the 33-year sentence handed down to Dr Shakil Afridi, the doctor who may have aided the CIA in tracking down Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad is partly correct. Certainly, the fact that he was tried under the archaic Frontier Crimes Regulations, in secret, and without the chance to defend himself through a lawyer, makes the whole process highly suspect and against the basic principles of a fair trial. Valid questions have also been raised about the hollowness of some of the charges brought against him, including, apparently, 'waging war against Pakistan'.

Dr Shakil Afridi (Photo: Express)

However, some of the apoplectic reaction from members of civil society, which has condemned Dr Afridi being tried at all, is thoroughly misplaced. Some believe he did a great thing by helping rid Pakistan of the world's most dangerous terrorist and so should be thanked or awarded rather than prosecuted. Others have drawn comparisons between his swift trial and conviction and the lack of effective prosecution of real terrorists. Even journalist Najam Sethi, in his programme yesterday, questioned how what Dr Afridi did was any different from the Pakistani state's collaboration with the CIA in going after Al Qaeda's militants and stated that the Americans, after all, are Pakistan's professed strategic allies. All of these are false premises.

Let's be clear about one thing. No country in the world allows its citizens to freelance as spies for another country's agencies, whether friendly or hostile. Which is not to say that people do no do it, just that they know the risks of what can happen to them if they are caught. Forget being spies, the US has laws against its citizens even lobbying public opinion on behalf of foreign interests without revealing their connections. Remember the case of one Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai?  There have been a number of instances of American citizens being convicted of spying or passing information on to its greatest 'ally' Israel. Dr Shakil Afridi apparently confessed (this is a point that is yet to be proved in a fair trial) that he knowingly assisted the CIA in running a fake vaccinations programme set up to obtain DNA samples from the residents of the compound where bin Laden was eventually killed. No matter what one thinks of the outcome, Pakistan has every right to charge him for colluding with a foreign agency, and if the charges are proved in a fair trial, to convict him.

Yes, it's a real and terrible pity that the Pakistani state and Pakistani courts are criminally lax about the prosecution and conviction of far worse people than Dr Afridi, but this line of reasoning, while it scores political points, is really a false equivalence. By this reasoning, nobody should ever be tried for manslaughter in a road accident or theft or kidnapping or for any other everyday crime since they are far smaller crimes than those committed by those terrorists who have killed thousands and got away scot free. Similarly, with respect to Mr Sethi's point about whether what Dr Afridi did was any different from what the government of Pakistan has been doing for years, yes, there is a difference (whether one likes it or not) between a state sanctioned operation and a freelance operation. It is similar to the difference between the police having the right to use firearms versus ordinary citizens using firearms. But more importantly, if the state is violating the law - e.g. by extraditing people to a foreign entity without going through the due legal process - it is something that in and of itself needs to challenged; it still does not confer legitimacy to others who decide to violate the law.

The US Congress' hypocritical outrage over the treatment of Dr Afridi - er, Guantanamo, anyone? - really is not worth commenting over. They are simply looking to protect their asset, their employee.

In my personal opinion, whether Dr Afridi is charged with treason or not, what he certainly should have been charged with is intentional malpractice and stripped of his medical title for violating his Hippocratic Oath. First of all, he placed innocent children and families knowingly in harm's way by running a fake vaccination programme. As detailed by The Guardian's report linked to earlier:

"The doctor went to Abbottabad in March, saying he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers, who took part in the operation without knowing about the connection to Bin Laden. Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children. 
Afridi had posters for the vaccination programme put up around Abbottabad, featuring a vaccine made by Amson, a medicine manufacturer based on the outskirts of Islamabad. 
In March health workers administered the vaccine in a poor neighbourhood on the edge of Abbottabad called Nawa Sher. The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given in three doses, the second a month after the first. But in April, instead of administering the second dose in Nawa Sher, the doctor returned to Abbottabad and moved the nurses on to Bilal Town, the suburb where Bin Laden lived."

Secondly, he has endangered the lives of hundreds of thousands of other children in an area where there were already (unfounded) virulent suspicions about vaccination programmes. As the Associated Press reported soon after the programme was revealed:

"Pakistani health officials held meetings about the alleged CIA scheme on Tuesday and expressed concern that it could have a negative impact on immunization programs in other areas of the northwest, especially in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border, said a Pakistani official involved in polio eradication efforts… 
One of the Pakistani Taliban’s top commanders, Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, recently called on people in the northwest to avoid vaccines offered by the international community, claiming they were made with “extracts from bones and fat of an animal prohibited by God — the pig.”  
“Don’t fall prey to these infidel NGOs and this U.S.-allied government and its army,” said Mohammed over the illegal radio station he transmits from his sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan. Pakistani officials and their international partners have pushed back against these claims, but the CIA’s reported activities in the country may have made their job that much harder."

You can read more about what impact such kind of rumours have had on immunisation programmes in other places here, which also points out the following:

"[T]he allegation that a vaccine program was not what it seemed — that it was not only suspect, but justifiably suspect — has been very widely reported. This is awful. It plays, so precisely that it might have been scripted, into the most paranoid conspiracy theories about vaccines: that they are pointless, poisonous, covert shields for nefarious government agendas meant to do children harm. 
That is not speculation. The polio campaign has already seen this happen, based on just those kind of suspicions — not in a single poor slum in New Delhi, but across much of sub-Saharan Africa... 
The accusations that polio vaccination was a Potemkin cover for anti-Islamic activities almost ruined the international eradication of polio when they were false. Now, on the basis of the CIA’s alleged appalling ruse in Pakistan, they may be made again. And they will be much more believable, because this time they might be be true."

Finally, he has endangered the lives of his fellow - real - health workers. As noted here,

"InterAction, an alliance of 198 American NGOs, such as the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, CARE, ChildFund International, World Wildlife Fund, Plan International USA, Helen Keller International, Action Against Hunger and Relief International, said the CIA’s tactics also endangered the lives of foreign aid workers. “The CIA-led immunization campaign compromises the perception of U.S. NGOs as independent actors focused on a common good and casts suspicion on their humanitarian workers. The CIA’s actions may also jeopardize the lives of humanitarian aid workers in Pakistan.”"

The Guardian reported that Save the Children was forced to evacuate eight of its international workers last July over fears for their safety:

"A senior western official said Afridi told his wife he was working for Save the Children when he was in fact running the fake CIA programme. The allegation emerged during interrogation. 
A senior aid worker corroborated that account, saying Afridi may have mentioned Save the Children "during the early stages of his interrogation". Save the Children said it was horrified that Afridi had abused its name. "We are shocked by the allegations that our name has been falsely used in this way. Save the Children's work in Pakistan is helping the most vulnerable children and their families," said [SCF spokesperson Ishbel] Matheson."

So, yes, demand a fair trial for Shakil Afridi by all means. This is his and all of our right. But let's not build a mercenary rogue into a hero. And I for one would not in the least shed tears if, at the end of an open and fair trial, he were to be convicted not of treason but of unabashed medical malpractice. After all, even the mobster Al Capone was convicted only for tax evasion, wasn't he?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Absurdity, Thy Name Is...

Must Pakistan - or perhaps one should say specifically its government, its political leaders, its judiciary, its military and its bureaucrats - continue to make an ass of itself? Must it circumvent any attempt to make the world forget that we can be the most absurd cretins in the world?

Graphic by Nick Bilton (Source: New York Times)

Barely had the memory of the Lahore High Court-imposed Facebook ban faded from the collective global 'News of the Weird' consciousness that we were struck with the Twitter ban, which the Ministry of Information Technology people told us was because of "blasphemous and inflammatory content" on the site.

(Update: I had almost finished writing this post when news came in that the Twitter ban had been lifted but am posting this in any case in the off-chance that someone within the corridors of policy-making might read and prevent a recurrence of such ineptitude.) 

According to this Express Tribune story:

"Pakistan’s government had asked Twitter to stop a discussion on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which was considered derogatory, [PTA Chairman Dr Mohammad] Yaseen said, adding that “Twitter refused our request.”"

Now, you would have to be totally unaware of what Twitter is and how it works to think the above statement makes any sense whatsoever. Imagine, if you will, the government asking a cell phone company to stop people SMS-ing each other anything derogatory about the Prophet. The only way it would be possible for the cell phone company to enforce such a 'request' would be to either read each and every single SMS from the billions that go out from within its network or to simply ban any SMSes that used the word 'Prophet' or 'Muhammad' or 'Mohammad' or 'Mohd' or any other possible variation (and there would still be ways to circumvent it), which would of course block all Islamic SMSes as well. Any cell phone company would obviously 'refuse' the government's request, simply because it would not be possible to implement.

Of course I am not even touching upon the concept of 'free speech' (and which particularly protects 'speech' that one disagrees with or finds offensive) which is integral to rational societies and which would be another reason for Twitter to refuse to censor something even if it could. But this is a concept which is obviously is too lofty an argument for the cretins in officialdom to understand.

In any case, I am more than sure that there is not a single person within the so-called 'Ministry of Information Technology' who is on Twitter or even has a passing knowledge of it.

In all likelihood, given the storm of outrage and mocking it has unleashed, the ban will not last very long. But let's look at what this ban has actually achieved:

1. It has given free global publicity to offensive material that most people - including us - were not even aware of. 
2. It has shown that those in Pakistan who are supposed to manage information technology actually have no clue what they are in charge of. They are obviously also clueless about the ease with which such bans can be circumvented (it took us and others a total of five minutes to get around it.)
3. It has made Pakistan a target of mocking all around the world yet again as a country that cannot be rational, trust its citizens or tolerate any opinions that don't fit in with its own. 
4. It has made an issue out of a non-issue (most people were unaware of the material as pointed out above) and in that given oxygen to precisely those obscurantist elements who use these things to fan the flames of bigotry and intolerance, both within Pakistan and abroad. Note that there had been NO protests before the Ministry of Information Technology drew attention to this 'issue' but that with its ineptitude it has ensured that it is now on the radar for all rent-a-crowd mullahs and will embolden those racists who enjoy provoking all Muslims. 
5. It has shown that any flimsy excuse can be used to censor opinions, particularly political opinions, that the government of the day is uncomfortable with. Because at the end of the day, it's not alleged blasphemers and pornographers who suffer from Pakistani bans, but common people expressing their personal views, on Twitter, Facebook or on blogs, outside the more easily controlled corporate media.

Let me draw another analogy for our esteemed policy makers. If, on the street, someone were to go around particularly eavesdropping on conversations among random groups of people to check if anyone were using foul language so that he could berate them, or more closely, telling everyone to shut up because he had heard some people using foul language, we would consider such a person a lunatic. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the people at the Ministry of Information Technology have proved themselves to be, overzealous lunatics. It's about time bureaucrats realize that we cannot police the entire world and, more importantly, that there is no need to.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not Quite the Real Thing

A few days ago, there was a lavish launch in Karachi for Pakistani Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's new documentary project, a series of 6 short documentaries on Pakistanis who are doing interesting and remarkable things in their communities. Those who attended say the first of these documentaries, about a woman who runs a school for gifted children in Lyari, was also screened to much praise but that there was surprisingly no mention of the fact that Ms Obaid-Chinoy's production house, SOCFilms, had received almost $900,000 from the US government to undertake this (and perhaps another) project. (Also curious is the fact that the data for the two grants on the US government's publicly accessible website on government spending has seemingly disappeared though it was seen and tweeted about by many a few months ago.)

In any case, the entity that was more than mentioned and praised for its generosity towards the project was the multinational Coca Cola Company which will be putting the whole project on 16 (!) television channels and advertising it, basically flooding the media as they do with their Coke Studio project. In fact, the entire launch ceremony at a high-end private club was also organized by the corporate, including springing for a well-stocked high tea for the attendees and a give-away high-gloss hardcover coffee table book, and their marketing director apparently spoke at length about his philosophy and hopes about Pakistan.

Now I should point out that I think it's a great thing that a corporate entity is actually putting money into something other than just glitzy fashion shows, expensive ads and 'club nights' for the elite and certainly the much-neglected genre of documentaries is worthy of such support. Not having seen the documentaries themselves, I am not going to talk about them. But I did get my hands on the coffee table book handed out at the launch and this is what I really want to talk about here. Especially because it provides a little window into why those who oppose the corporate/ multinational approach to 'culture' (or what Naomi Klein referred to as the corporatization of culture) have a point.

The book is titled '101 Reasons To Believe In A Better Pakistan' to go with Coke's current 'Ho Yaqeen Tau...' (If You Have Faith) tagline. The idea, apparently, is to re-invigorate dwindling faith in the country among its upper class readers. And this is the cover (the dimensions are a bit off, it's actually a 11"x11" square book, but it was too big to scan in its entirety):

Screw the subconscious, go for the jugular

Yes, apparently, this is a book of belief in, optimism about and hope for Pakistan. But can you really blame the sponsor for, ever so subtly, reminding people who paid for it? In any case, what could possibly encapsulate the idea of belief in Pakistan better than a bottle of sugared and carbonated water?

You open the book. The first page consists of those six youngsters you can see through the cut-out of the bottle on the cover, looking up with hope at... the Coke logo. You turn the page. You confront a "Manifesto!" Let's just say it's not quite the Communist Manifesto, with lines such as "Today I will believe... In bigger, stronger, happier as a we / In sunshine and joyrides, how the best is yet to be." And: "Today I will believe... How the touch of a friend breaks through the dreary." You might be thinking 'sophomoric', but let's not be down on the Revolution.

On the opposite page, the publication information informs us that "The Editor does not share the opinions sustained [sic] in the signed articles; their authors exclusively respond for [sic] them." There is no mention of who the Editor is, perhaps because anonymity allows him / her to have a chance of being hired by anyone to ever edit again. Or perhaps revolutionary propagandists just need to keep a low profile.

The rest of the book consists of full page images of various 'Reasons to Believe in a Better Pakistan' numbered through (what else?) Coke bottle images, interspersed with 11 short profiles (without bylines, so much for the "signed articles") of 'inspiring' people such as a surgeon, a youth activist, two school administrators, a teacher, a driver, a healthcare administrator, a disabilities campaigner, a tailor, an orphanage caretaker and a food kitchen administrator.

The layout of the profiles cannot be termed inspired

The profiles make up 11 of the 101 reasons. Fair enough (though laid out as they are with boring mugshots of these people, and headlines such as "Mohammad Jawaid: Worker at Pleasures Tailors" they don't really draw you in to read them). 'But what are the 90 other reasons?' you may ask. Well, they can broadly be divided into a number of sub-groups.

1. The 'Perfectly Understandable Cliche' Group

This is a surprisingly small bunch and includes a total of 8 reasons, which are: "#14: Pakistan has the world's 7th largest pool of scientists and engineers"; "#22: The largest volunteer ambulance organization in the world belongs to Pakistan - founded by Sattar Edhi"; "#29: Pakistan has the largest Wimax network in the world"; "#34: Pakistan has the world's 2nd largest salt mine in the world - the Khewra mines"; "#47: Gwadar, situated in Pakistan, is the world's largest deep sea port"; "#52: Pakistan has Asia's largest bird sanctuary at Haleji Lake"; "#65: Pakistan has the world's 5th largest coal reserves"; and "#91: Above 70% of the world's football production is carried out in Pakistan."

Unfortunately Coke could not find a single image of the largest volunteer ambulance service in the world, or of Abdus Sattar Edhi

2. The 'Not Sure Why This Should Make Us Believe In A Better Pakistan' Group

This slightly larger group includes reasons such as  "#9: Pakistan is the world's 9th largest English speaking country", "#19: Pakistan's K2 is the 2nd highest mountain peak in the world"; "#42: Asia's highest railway station, Kan Mehtarzai, is located 2,240 meters above sea level near Quetta"; "#57: Thar Desert is one of the largest deserts in the world"; "#70: More than 60 languages are spoken in Pakistan"; "#75: Pakistan's Karakoram Highway is the highest paved road in the world"; "#85: Pakistan's Faisal Mosque is the world's 6th and Asia's largest mosque"; "#95: Pakistan's Nanga Parbat is the 9th highest peak in the world"; and "#98: Pakistan has the world's highest polo ground at Shandur, Pakistan."

Hokay, good times here we come

3. The 'Let's Quote Important People Even Though They May Not Have Actually Said Anything Related to Pakistan' Group

This very small group includes quotable quotes from luminaries such as Che Guevara ("The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love"), Dr Martin Luther King, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sophocles and Allama Mohammad Iqbal.

Reasons #31, #67 and #49, apparently

Make your own deductions how these quotes can be considered reasons to believe in the future of Pakistan.

4. The 'Take Completely Irrelevant Stuff Off The Net' Group

The biggest group, by far, apparently came about through the mindless extraction of global statistics and factoids from the internet. Some examples:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Reason #74 to Believe in a Better Pakistan

Imagine, a billion mothers, baking chocolate cakes for Pakistan! Oh wait...

Good thing only Pakistanis have 3 or 4 friends

Small problem: none of these 6000 'laughter clubs' are in Pakistan (but Coke is trying)

5. The 'So Clueless It's Kind of Offensive' Group

This includes some banal generalizations that one can easily poke holes in. Such as...

Tell that to the 40% of the population below the poverty line or to the world's second highest percentage of children out of school


Leaving aside the specific relevance to Pakistan of this global figure, this still leaves only 5.4 billion people without access to drinkable water doesn't it?


Except Ahmadis. Or Christians and Hindus. Or Shias. Or the Baloch

6. The 'WTF Does This Even Mean?' Group

Another major subset of the reasons to believe in a better Pakistan consists of the following classics... which can only be put down to the fact that perhaps Coke still contains the substance it was named after. Consider the following samples:

If that isn't a reason to believe in your country, don't know what is


Just do it! Sorry, wrong brand...


This is Reason #32: Apprarently so self-explanatory that it's not even numbered; Maybe it means that unlike white foreigners, Pakistanis don't throw naked kids up in the air in public? - Win!

And my personal favourite reason for believing in a better Pakistan...

They should have stopped right here, what further proof do you need to believe?

And finally, for those who looked at the cover, the little coke numbering bottles and still didn't get the real reason for believing in Pakistan, there is...

7. The 'In Case You Thought There Weren't Enough References to Coke' Group

Reasons such as:

Reason #5

Reason #101

At a very conservative estimate, this revolutionary manifesto of hope and optimism would have cost Coke about 1.5 million to 2 million rupees to produce if they printed only 1000 copies. Knowing how corporate budgets work, in all likelihood it probably cost far, far more. But the fact that they could have utilized that money better is not even the issue (certainly it is a tiny fraction of the kind of monies spent by Coke on other kinds of advertising). What really is the issue is:

1) How multinationals seem utterly divorced from the real issues (cultural and otherwise) of the countries they operate in;
2) Why 'culture' can only be addressed by corporates as a series of banal cliches or, as in this case, by dishing out senseless tripe, never ever anything remotely controversial or contested as real culture often is; and
3) What makes a corporate entity believe it can unashamedly make itself the focus of the 'cultural expression' it is ostensibly setting out to 'support' and why we have stopped publicly even questioning that.

Surely, if really Ho Yaqeen Tau...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I Opened The News, And It Was Yellow

When you have four stories on one patently manufactured 'issue' carried by a newspaper in five days, you can safely consider it an object lesson in how to conduct a witch-hunt.

The News' City pages May 3, 2012

In the first story, titled 'City's elite schools say no to national anthem' published in the city pages of The News on May 3, 2012, reporter Sidrah Roghay wrote that several "elite" schools in Karachi had discontinued the tradition of singing the Pakistani national anthem during morning assembly "calling it a waste of time and energy."

She went on to imply that "regulatory authorities" were complicit in this "dismal" state of affairs, because of the schools' "influence and connections." The schools, we were told, catered mostly to the "elite, upper-middle class and middle class families." The battle lines between 'us' and 'them' being drawn, Ms Roghay and the city editor (who presumably helped commission this near flawless incitement to class resentment and hyper-patriotism), went on to helpfully pin the tail on the donkey. With a staple gun.

A vice principal of Bayview High School was quoted as saying the national anthem was sung only once a week because "it takes too long, and wastes time that can be used in the class constructively."

The reader's take home is, this person, this school, thinks singing the national anthem is a waste of time.

An anonymous school head is then quoted mouthing the words to really get the dander up of all Pakistani and linguistic patriots:
“I do not ask students to sing the national anthem: firstly, because it is in Urdu; secondly, I do not believe in national cohesion. What purpose does the national anthem serve? Students should be engaged in more meaningful activities.”

The reader's take home is, what a jerk!

Further on, for those horses who are reluctant to drink:
"The principal’s obvious disdain for the national language and anthem underlines the fundamental crisis of Pakistan’s education system which remains divided not just on the [sic] class basis, but also on the [sic] ideological grounds."

And in the rub down stage, we have quotes from a collection of impressively titled talking heads that subtly conflate the frequency with which a student sings the national anthem with the depth of their patriotism.

After the first article, there was radio silence for a day as the article did the rounds, eliciting the predictable outraged how dare these people think the national anthem should not be sung! from people who either a) read it; b) read about it on someone's Facebook wall or Twitter feed; or c) heard about it during a lull in conversation at a gathering (such as the provincial assembly).

The News' City pages May 5, 2012

Then, on Saturday May 5th, The News carried two follow up stories. The first, titled 'Elite schools' defiance over national anthem stirs debate in PA' by reporter Imtiaz Ali, began with a paragraph saying that Sindh Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq had taken serious notice of the paper's report that some of the "elite" schools in Karachi had "banned" the singing of the national anthem.

The minister went on to express his "displeasure" at the schools, and said that such an attitude "made a joke of national identity."

Three schools were named in a sentence that said they had either "totally scrapped the tradition of singing the national anthem or do it only once a week." No further details were provided about which of them had done the former or the latter. No details at all were provided about the frequency of the singing of the national anthem in government schools, madrassas, or the private school equivalent of an alternative to an "elite" school. But...
"The report came as a shock for many senior educationists, parents and students. They expressed concern over the banning of the national anthem at these institutions, which follow the Cambridge system of education, and asked the government to intervene. The minister said the Directorate of Private Schools had been directed to take strict action against these schools, saying that they considered themselves above the law."

An MQM minister is then reported to have suggested that the Sindh Assembly pass a resolution making the singing of the national anthem mandatory at all schools, including the ones "affiliated with a foreign system of education."

The third story, titled 'Schools served with notices' detailed how the Directorate of Private School Institution Sindh (DPIS) had on Friday sent notices to some of the leading private schools which had "barred" the singing of national anthem at their morning assemblies. The heads of the schools mentioned in the initial report - bar one - and some others that traditionally come under the 'elite' banner, met with the DPIS:

"Representatives of most of these schools said that they follow the tradition of national anthem at their assemblies. Meanwhile, Khalid Shah, chairman All Pakistan Private Schools Management Associations Sindh, promised an inquiry regarding the issue, saying that the registration of those schools, which refuse to follow the tradition [italics added] of national anthem, would be cancelled."

Two days later, on Monday May 7th, a further story appeared by Fasahat Mohiuddin under the subheading "Discarding the National Anthem", detailing how various political parties had jumped into the fray and wanted urgent "action against the schools." The PPP minister for local bodies, Agha Siraj Durrani said "Our party will never allow such practice to go unchecked." The MQM's Coordination Committee's Waseem Aftab said his party "strongly condemned the act of dropping the national anthem by a handful of elite schools." The PMLN Sindh President Ghous Ali Shah "demanded action" and "asked for an 'investigation' of how these institutions had been allowed to get away with it for such a long time." The PMLQ's Halim Adil Sheikh "demanded that the government should penalise all such schools." The Jamaat-e-Islami, the Sunni Tehrik and Jafferia Alliance reps expressed similar shock and outrage. The reporter noted:

"There appears a strong, but rare consensus among all the political and religious parties that some of those private schools, which teach the Cambridge system of education, should not be allowed to flout the country's traditions."

The News' City pages May 7, 2012

I do not wish to get into the issue of whether singing the national anthem makes someone more or less patriotic (though many of the people dubbed threats to Pakistan by the same political parties mentioned above sing the anthem the loudest). Or whether making a herd of sleepy kids mouth lyrics they often don't understand five times a week instead of once a week is the most productive use of their time in school. Let's just say I too have been moved by the melody of the Land of the Pure, and I too understand why Sesame Street has a character dubbed a grouch. But I do want to comment on the kind of yellow journalism that characterizes these reports:

1) The facts are that the national anthem is sung and taught at all schools in Pakistan, just not always every single day. After these loaded stories, a lot of people now think the anthem is not sung at all. But far more importantly, in a country where the illiteracy rate is easily above 50%,  where the vast majority of children drop out of school before reaching the 6th grade, where there are more children out of school than the entire population of Australia, where 50% of children between the ages of 6-16 who are in school cannot read a single sentence in any language, where less than 1.5% of the GDP is allocated to education (and even that is not fully spent), where just 39% of schools have electricity connections, and where  the average teacher is missing from school one day every week, THIS is what The News believes is the most pressing issue to take up and run as a campaign?!? (For more shocking figures see Education Emergency.)

2) Note the subtle, intelligent manipulation of language in such propaganda, which is perhaps the only time you see subtle, intelligent manipulation of anything in newsprint these days. The four stories consistently claim the anthem has been 'banned' or 'barred' or 'dropped' or 'scrapped' or 'discarded' in the schools they name, and perhaps others, and that is blatantly false, even going by the stories themselves. You'd have to be a real idiot to 'ban' the national anthem anywhere in Pakistan (and how would that even work?). Furthermore, the fact that a parliamentarian floated a resolution calling for the singing of the national anthem to be made mandatory in schools clearly establishes that there exists no such law in the first place. Even if a school head (from Mars) decided a full assembly with the raising of the flag and the national anthem was best done once a week, he/she would not be breaking any laws. Most people keep referring to the "tradition" of singing the anthem, which also shows there is no law mandating the singing of the anthem. (Incidentally it's also a tradition in Pakistan to provide bad education but nobody wants to harp on that.) Yet, note, in story two, we have a reference to how the 'elite' schools considered themselves "above the law." The editors of The News probably also don't even know that parliamentary resolutions are not laws and are not binding. Then, there is the consistent raising of the 'elite' flag, and the equation of private schools with the elite. Had the reporters and editors of The News done a little bit of real research, they would know that more than half of all urban children in Pakistan attend private schools.

3) The statement most guaranteed to raise hackles, "I do not believe in national cohesion", is attributed to an 'anonymous' source. We have no way of knowing if this is actually a real quote or a bit of spice thrown in by the reporter. If someone is unwilling to own up to what is clearly a provocative statement, why include it? What's next for The News' city pages? "A non-Muslim, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 'I do not believe Muhammed was the last prophet"? Why cross the line between reportage and sensationalism? This bring me to…

4) Motive. What beef does The News, or the editors who have okayed these stories (reasonable to assume since more than one reporter has been assigned this particular story) have with these particular schools? Until they can provide us with more fire than smoke, we're going to have to assume this was simply a case of a child or relative refused admittance or employment.

And we're not going to talk about where Mir Shakilur Rehman's children went to school and college.

I shudder to think what all this says about the issues that will power upcoming electoral pleas. The city pages, more than the oped pages (and definitely more than the lifestyle pages) often act as remoras to the sharks apt to surface in the speeches of the coming year. The rhetoric employed in this campaign against certain private schools "which follow the Cambridge system of education" (note the frequency with which two pop up in the first three stories) is reminiscent of that employed by Imran Khan in his magnum opus I Know What You Did Last Summer (But Let's Not Talk About What I Did Because That's So Last Summer). Now that we have decided we don't like America, are we going to be told we don't like anything foreign at all? Shall we be asked to say goodbye to pants, guitars and any kind of learning focussed on inculcating critical thinking rather than rote learning? If we refuse, will we be told we are not Pakistani enough?

 I hope not. Because I have always hated the Indian toilet.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Of Governance Scandals And Clean Hands

We are sometimes accused by partisan supporters of opposition political parties of being soft on or for not being more vehement about denouncing the alleged corruption or misgovernance of the currently ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). While I could point to dozens of examples to dispute these claims, I would like to explain, once again, a couple of things.

Firstly, we do not brook real corrupt practises, arrogance or misgovernance; our only problem is when either claims are made without substantial proof or when such allegations are made arbitrarily only against the PPP and without context, as if everyone else - from the military to the judiciary to other political parties - is innocent of any blame and everything was hunky dory aside from the times that the PPP has been in power. This is not to say that the PPP should not be hauled up for its sins, only to provide a more balanced perspective.

But even more importantly than this is the fact that in the context of a mainstream media that overwhelmingly targets the ruling party (usually because that is in the nature of the media and sometimes because of less salubrious vested reasons), it makes little sense for us to repeat the same charges. The mainstream media has far, far more resources and outreach than we do and, to be sure, it is perfectly justified in its criticisms when it investigates and exposes real corruption and misgovernance. Our role, as we see it on the other hand, is not to reinforce what the dominant narrative is, but to provide, hopefully, some perspective, sometimes corrections and an alternative narrative where required.

Punjab Laptop Scheme: note the personal publicity

In any case, with that bit of explanation out of the way (and there is a connection which I will come to later), let me get down to what this post really is about. Those who follow us on Twitter will know that we already expressed our opposition to the Punjab Goverment's laptop distribution scheme. Our main contention against the scheme was two-fold:

1. That this was a wasteful publicity stunt that, like the disastrous Sasti Roti scheme before it, would drain the public exchequer without addressing real issues and would divert resources that could be better utilized in more productive schemes with more long-term benefit. 
2. That if providing access to computers to students is the goal, giving away laptops to individual students is possibly one of the worst solutions possible. Laptops, by their very nature, are more fragile, less upgradable and more prone to breakage and theft.

Keep in mind that our critique did not revolve around the issues of corruption or maladministration of the scheme, only its conceptualisation.

However, yesterday, Dunya TV's Khari Baat Lucman Ke Saath programme carried a devastating expose of how this scheme has really been run. It is a shocking expose of a scandal that most mainstream media has chosen to ignore so far, probably because it is too busy with stories about Memogate and exposing the federal government's malfeasance in the NRO case. I managed to catch the programme on repeat today and really think everyone who was upset at our opposition to the scheme should take a look at. (Hasan Nisar doesn't really add much to the programme but I am including the whole programme here so that you can appreciate the solid work and research that went into it. Kudos to the young reporter Huzaifa Rehman Qureshi who did most of it and to Mubasher Lucman for carrying it.)

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

So basically, not only was there apparently huge financial bungling in the procurements of laptops and in the publicity of the scheme, many of those who benefited from the scheme were either PMLN supporters, mediocre students or affluent people who did not deserve to be subsidized by the state.

This laptop scheme was announced in November last year. It has taken the mainstream media six months to raise serious issues about it (even though there were various murmurings against it online for some time). Most of the time, we have been treated only with PR-type statements justifying it, such as this one  in The Daily Times claiming total transparency in the scheme with no counter narrative or actual investigation of the claims. At the same time, the Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, is given ample (and often uncritical) coverage in the media vowing to ensure "good governance" and proclaiming that he will "hang the looters of the national wealth (i.e. PPP leaders) publicly."

Coming back to what I began with, can you imagine had such a scandal involved the PPP, that the media would have waited even a moment to pounce on it? Had the PPP been bestowing largesse to its jiyalas, to failed students and making money off it too, would Geo, to cite just one example, have waited six months to run exposes on it? Isn't it about time one questioned why certain people get a much easier ride from the media's vigilant watchdogs than others?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Yes, Television Was Sometimes Awful But Was Social Media Any Better?

Almost two years ago, I wrote this piece and this piece about reporting on the Air Blue aircraft crash in Islamabad. The tragic crash of Bhoja Air flight from Karachi to Islamabad yesterday and its attendant coverage has compelled me to sit at my keyboard yet again. But whereas my initial disgust with some of the reporting on television was the initial motivation for writing a few words, the subsequent speculation and shoot-everything-in-sight diatribes on social media deserve an equal evaluation.

Bhoja Air crash (Photos via Dawn)

More on the latter later in the post, however. First, let's look at where television coverage went right and where wrong (contrary to the outrage being expressed on social media, all of it was not dire). Generally, most channels did NOT show bodies or limbs. I flipped through most of the major channels during the initial coverage, once reporters and cameramen had reached the site of the crash, and none of them were deliberately showing gore. I have heard that Samaa breached this agreed upon rule during its coverage (I did not personally see it) and, if so, viewers should definitely haul them up for it. Generally, however, good sense dictated the on-site footage, with some minor slip-ups that occurred because of the live nature of the coverage but which were corrected immediately.

Most channels did go over the top in the intrusive way they covered the grieving families and friends of those who had lost their lives in the crash, with one channel's reporter even shoving a mike in the face of a wailing relative and most running footage of distraught people in a loop. This kind of insensitive and senseless reportage (what exactly is a grieving relative going to say that will add to the sum of our knowledge?) needs to be checked and the privacy and dignity of those affected by a tragic event needs to be respected by the media. Ditto for the silly and offensive animations that we have objected to earlier as well that are based on pure speculation (one had a plane nose-diving while ARY even ran a clip from a Hollywood film!)  and only serve to mislead viewers and perhaps cause agony for those affected.

However, those on social media who were of the opinion that there should be absolutely no coverage of those affected and that no such intrusion occurs anywhere else in the world are living in some sort of make-believe world. I'm sorry but, to a certain extent, this is the nature of the medium that television is, it gravitates towards dramatic visuals and I have personally seen Western reporters be equally insensitive and intrusive as well as plenty of footage on Western channels that covers grieving relatives. Instead of talking about having channels shut down over their coverage (on what basis one is still not quite sure) or hauled up and fined, it would be far more productive to build consensus on where the ethical line actually is. A good point to start, as someone pointed out, is for channels and reporters to put themselves in the shoes of those grieving. If one of their own family members had suffered such a tragedy, would they want their and their family's grief to be broadcast in close-up and in a loop to the whole world? Would they want to be asked what they are feeling? Pressure should be built on channel heads and news editors to sit down together - as they did in the case of coverage of people killed - and work out a framework of guidelines on how grief is to be shown, also keeping in mind that overly dramatic scenes of grief are not healthy viewing particularly for children who sometimes can catch them inadvertently.

Where most channels really slipped up, however, in my opinion, was, as in the case of the Air Blue crash, in their knowledge of basic scientific principles and facts and in their propensity to conjecture for no worthwhile reason or on the basis of any real facts. Thus two channels, including Dunya, initially kept insisting that the plane was a Russian aircraft (ostensibly implying poor quality construction) even while others had already pointed that it was an American Boeing. One channel, Express, initially announced that a military helicopter had gone down with soldiers on board (before reversing their 'breaking news') and ARY ran a lengthy clip of a local on site who claimed that the crash was probably caused by aerial firing 'as he had always feared and filed a court petition about'. Other 'eye-witnesses' variously claimed the plane had split up in the air or had been struck by lightning or that its engine was on fire. In most cases, the problem with unsubstantiated stories finding their way on to television news has to do with the 'breaking news' disease, the desire to be the first with the 'news' as part of ratings wars. But news editors should also know by now that 'eye-witness' accounts in such cases are notoriously contradictory and should at least be moderated by an editorial narrative. Wild claims such as that of aerial firing by the conjecturing 'eye-witness' only add to viewers' confusion and really should not be part of the narrative in the first place. I suppose when anchors have seemingly never even heard the term 'cloudburst', they latch on to whatever is easiest for them to grasp, whether it is relevant or not.

Incidentally, as pointed out by a journalist who emailed us, every channel also got one fact completely wrong: that this was Bhoja Air's 'inaugural' flight from Karachi to Islamabad. He pointed out that a friend of his had flown Bhoja on the same route three days earlier. However this wrong bit of information was apparently traced to Bhoja Air's own website. I have no idea why Bhoja would claim this was an inaugural flight when it was not. One suggestion was that, perhaps this was the first afternoon flight on the route while the earlier flights were morning flights. Even in that case, the term 'inaugural' is a bit of an exaggeration.

Of course the default position of all channels is to try and find scapegoats. Everyone knew that the weather had suddenly taken a turn for the worst and freak acts of nature have in the past brought down planes in other places in the world - in fact, pilots who landed in Islamabad just a few minutes earlier confirmed that the weather had suddenly become very dangerous - yet most channels chose to attack the age of the aircraft, the skill of the pilot, the company's chequered history (it ceased operations in 2001 and only started up again a month and a half ago), Civil Aviation Authority's procedures and bizarrely even the government (in the case of Samaa). Geo's anchor, meanwhile, actually asked an astonished aviation expert if, 'had the pilot been more skilled, he could have brought the plane down low enough in the air for the passengers to jump out'. Really Junaid? Have you never travelled in a plane??!

The point is not that one or more of these factors could not have played a part in the tragedy. But that they were discussed ignoring the fact that even with the best and youngest of aircraft, the most skillful of pilots and the best of professional environments, accidents can and do happen with freak forces of nature. What purpose exactly is served, aside from filling up airtime space, from making conjectures whose actual answers will not be known until a proper inquiry is held? Or is creating pointless agitation among the public at large the job of news media? A debilitating lightning strike or devastating wind shear (as is now being discussed) could have solely been responsible without any of the factors being discussed coming into play.

Which brings me to the speculation that swamped Twitter and Facebook right after the crash. Truth be told, it was no better than the conjecture of the television anchors. One common refrain was the age of the aircraft that went down (more than 27 years according to this report in Dawn quoting, as if no old planes ever fly anywhere else in the world. In fact, as this answer points out, the average age of DC-9 aircraft operated by the US carrier NorthWest Airlines in 2005 was 34 years old! And that theoretically, depending on regular checks and maintenance, planes can continue to fly forever. (Here's some more info on life spans of aircraft in case you're interested.) In fact, the main reason fleets are replaced is because newer aircraft are more fuel efficient (but fleet replacement, as was blithely being suggested by certain people, obviously requires a lot of investment capital). Once again, the point is not that the age of the aircraft could definitely not have played a part in the tragedy. Only that picking on this one factor without any proof of it being a factor is as absurd as anything the channels were doing.

The other great target of social media activists seemed to be, as is always the case, Geo. I am hardly a defender of Geo's excesses, but as someone who watched most main channels' coverage of the incident, I can tell you that Geo was far more restrained than some of the others. By far the worst in terms of absolute absurdity were Express and ARY, mainly because there seemed to be no sensible editorial control and a surfeit of banal posturing from their reporters. As an example, in one segment on Express, the reporter held up a burnt out fire extinguisher because the anchor goaded him to get in amongst the debris and then spouted this gem: 'This cylinder is a fire extinguisher, used to extinguish fires, but when the plane caught fire, even this was no use.' He then went on to pick up another piece of debris, adding 'This used to be a part of the plane but after its destruction, it is no longer a part of the plane.'

So please, hold Geo's feet to the fire by all means, but let's not lose sight of the wood for the trees.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fashion Passions

Recently, the comedian and writer Sami Shah tweeted the following image, accompanying the visuals with the line 'My gift to anyone who tries telling you that fashion in Pakistan should be taken seriously' :

I know this snub has probably enraged all the fashionistas out there, especially those who never tire of telling us how fashionpromotesourculture, how fashioninvolvesbloodsweatandtears, how fashioncanincreaseourexports and how fashionisfightingtheTaliban. But I would submit there's another reason why fashion is not taken seriously by anyone outside the fashionistas' charmed circle or at least certainly not as seriously as they hope it is taken: fashion journalism.

I personally have nothing against fashion designers per se. Some of them can be quite creative at what they do, everyone's got to make a living somehow and most people wear clothes and like nice clothes, even when they can't afford them. It's the fact that commodotized fashion seems to have subsumed every other bit of 'culture' - rather like a giant amoeba plunking its big fat cellular arse over anything of nutrient value and phagocytosisizing it - in the social / cultural / entertainment pages of our newspapers and magazines that I have a problem with. When a society begins to think of good looking people walking up and down ramps as the height of a cultural event, that society's got a problem, Taliban or no Taliban.

Take a look at the pages of our newspapers and you would think there's no higher achievement than a lawn exhibition here or a trade show there (and by God! there are a lot of them) and no greater creativity than the shaping of eyebrows and application of eye-shadow. Forget the advertising onslaught that crowds out city horizons and media space, copious editorial verbiage is dedicated to dissecting the latest twist of a paisley, the half-an-inch raising of a hemline, the ideological differences between the Pakistan Fashion Week, the Fashion Pakistan Week, the Fashion Showcase and the Pakistan Fashion Design Council Week (which of course reminds one of this). But perhaps it might even be somewhat bearable if there was actually any 'dissection' at all. No, the default characteristic of most fashion writing in Pakistan is to 'extol', as if the amoeba's life depended on it, and the position of writers on fashion more akin to phagocytosisized groupies than dispassionate journalists.

Consider what appeared in today's Instep pages in The News for example (by no means the only instance or the only space where such writing appears)...

Here's a box item that pretty much tells us all we need to know in the headline: that designers Hassan Sheheryar Yasin (of HSY) and Shehla Chatoor won awards for their designing at two separate fashion weeks. But then continues for four paragraphs of waffle that includes the following bit of purple prose:

"It’s the glamour of high fashion, the need for something new and the innovation of these designers that has won over the hearts of the voting public. The influence of fashion is breaking borders within the Pakistani public’s mindset. The imposing fa├žade of designer fashion has been lifted and the opinion of the majority has softened the hard line which divided people’s views of fashion as elitist and unattainable. It’s the display of talent and the celebration of beautiful design which the public voted for by way of Shehla Chatoor and Hassan Sheheryar Yasin."

But for real overblown hype you must turn to the main article. A report on Day 4 of the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week, it is headlined, in faux deep analysis tone, 'Showmanship, the spirit of fashion and understanding the difference.' The article begins by gushing the following adjectives and phrases about HSY and his clothes: 'most magnificent', 'grand', 'divine', 'gorgeous', 'sexy' and concluding that 'the man is a wiz.'

And that's for a designer the writer claims was not as "exciting fashion-wise" as the others.

For the others and their shows, the following words and phrases are then deployed: 'king and queen', 'exquisitely tailored', 'gorgeous' (again), 'raging hit', 'great', 'masterstroke', 'panache', 'flawless', 'super hit', 'equally brilliant', 'wizard', 'hottest', 'new heights', 'such talent', 'brilliance' (again), 'brightest', 'most cutting edge', 'to die for', 'rollicking collection', 'fashion met art', 'one-of-a-kind', 'collector's item' and 'painstakingly perfect.' Well, at least you know that a thesaurus might be the best gift to get the author.

Seriously, if any other 'beat' carried this type of writing, it would be accused of being dangerously naive and simply promotional advertising rather than journalism. How can anyone then take fashion without a healthy heaping of salt?

The article ends with an exhortation:

“Let’s try something that hasn’t been done before.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, why don't we.