Monday, April 9, 2012

Siachen Tragedy: Prioritizing the News

This is a post about the heart-rending tragedy that struck on the Siachen Glacier early Saturday morning, which has buried - and in all likely probability killed - at least 135 people in one of the biggest avalanches ever to strike Pakistan. The latest estimates say all 124 soldiers stationed at the battalion headquarters in the Gayari sector and some 11-14 civilian support staff are now buried somewhere underneath the avalanche of snow, stone and dirt, said to be over-a-kilometre-wide and up to 80 feet deep.

But this post is not about the futility of maintaining armed forces in such inhospitable terrain (where more soldiers have died from the natural conditions than actual fighting), nor about the ridiculous expenditure this quarter-of-a-century-long deployment imposes on both Pakistan and India whose people still die from hunger, malnutrition, lack of access to clean water and easily treatable diseases. It could well be, but that's become almost a cliche and enough commentators will be focusing on just that. No, I want to focus on the shocking way this tragedy was covered by Pakistan's electronic media.

The following are the headlines from the 9pm bulletin on Geo News from Saturday 7th April 2012. Notice something?

As you can see, the news item about more than 100 Pakistanis having possibly perished was tucked away in fourth priority, behind the usual war of words between the PPP and the PMLN, the preps in India for President Zardari's 'private' visit to the Ajmer shrine and COAS Gen Kayani's banal statement about not letting counter-insurgency operations detract from 'normal' war planning. Sandwiched between these stories and other  news items about a motorbike stunt show, a transvestite wedding and 'Arab' dance on Karachi's food street, you could be almost forgiven for thinking the death of so many citizens of Pakistan was no big deal.

Keep in mind that the avalanche took place at 6 am on Saturday morning. I first saw the news in the 2 pm bulletin (it could have appeared earlier, I am not sure). And I remember feeling incredulous that even then the story was dealt with in such cavalier fashion. The entire day, it never received any higher priority than the third, fourth or fifth top story. It was only at 10.30 pm, when the armed forces' Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department issued a statement detailing the specifics of the catastrophe that, suddenly, the news was turned into 'Breaking News' and finally entered the top slot of news bulletins.

Now, in any country in the world, such a natural disaster, especially one in which over 100 of its citizens had perished or even been trapped, would have or should have made the top story. Forget issues of nationalism, this would be a top story for any news media anywhere in the world. For a media that thrives on human interest stories, the idea that such a huge number of people were buried alive under a wall of snow inherently calls out for top billing. The number of lives directly touched by this tragedy - from family, relations, friends - in itself numbers in the tens of thousands. All the next day's papers, quite rightly, gave the story the main headline.

So what happened with Pakistan's television channels? (Although I have chosen to highlight Geo News here as the largest, by far, of the private media channels, I am told the other channels were similar in their handling of the story.) The only two possibilities are that either the news editors are completely incompetent in their judgement of news-worthiness, or that it was, more likely, pressure from the army that forced them to play down the story the whole day. And I will submit that in the case of the latter, the news editors and their channel's owners have displayed that they are equally incompetent in their judgement.

It is important to keep in mind a couple of things. One, that it was not that the story had not reached the news channels because of the remote location; they were aware of the parameters of the disaster at least by 2pm and were running the story, just not in the spot it deserved. Two, that it is highly, highly improbable that channels that run even the most mundane localized political and crime stories ad nauseam in their bulletins suddenly discovered the value of not 'sensationalizing' such a genuinely 'big' story. Even the argument that time was needed to inform the families of the potential victims does not hold any weight, since anyone whose loved one was deployed at Siachen would already have become aware of the disaster from the news that was running through the day. The only thing the down-playing of the news might have achieved is their resentment that their loved ones' lives were not worth more serious concern.

If channel heads and news editors cannot turn down the silly and unwarranted pressure of the army (if indeed it was this that decided the news priority and not simple incompetence) to play down what is, for any half-wit journalist, a blatantly obvious major story, if they really cannot stand up for their own news sense on such a non-controversial matter, they really should stop tooting the horn about themselves as the "independent media."


Nadir El-Edroos said...

I woke up to BBC News having the avalanche as the headline news. It was on the ticker on BBC and Sky News throughout the day.

Then when the ISPR statement came out, it was predictably bland and poorly worded. I mean what does: "Civilian (paid out of defence establishment)" supposed to mean.

When it comes to public relations we are our worst enemy.

As for the private television channels, its seems that until they cant put a camera with a hyper active journalist infront of a disaster site they are unable to offer any meaningful coverage.

Anonymous said...

The media has always maintained its stance that the army is part of the axis of evil.Think it's got more to do with not encouraging sympathy for the army.

Anonymous said...

Forget the electronic media, even the conscientious social media networks more concerned with Veena Malik's "bravado" than the 135 jawans who just got buried in snow.

Anonymous said...

There were no images, that could have been a factor. BBC ran the story as its lead on Saturday night, interviewing Abbas. The army was on the record about the disaster from 10.00 am. Today, Monday, most English language newspapers running foreign wire agency copy. Don't just blame the media. In most countries, the president would have cancelled any foreign trip,

Anonymous said...

What else can we expect from this Kleptocracy that has ruled Pakistan for over 60 years? They hypocritically wave the banner of Islam to brainwash the simple minded citizens of Pakistan. For them it is essential to paint neighboring countries as eternal enemies to ensure their own survival. Do you think they really care that 130 jawans trapped in the frigid snows of Siachen? Did they care when tens of thousands of young men and mere boys were deliberately groomed and sent out on Jihad in Afghanistan to meet certain death? Pakistan today stands at the very edge of a precipice, a predicament of its own making by a carefully cultivated aversion of its own deep roots in the Indian subcontinent. Hafiz Saeed, Hamid Gul and sundry hatemongers are the likely sentinels of this inevitable degeneration.

Truth Exposed said...

Why would army like to downplay such a huge incident????
why not you explained this.
Plus you are against conspiracy theories and here you are giving your own. :)

Truth Exposed said...

what really you want to say?

Anonymous said...

I have no clue what you are trying to say here. For media's incompetence you are blaming the army? Who lost there good old 130 men. Trust me if it was not the army men, media would have been bashing about it all day. If you are smart I am sure you will realize its a part of propaganda to disconnect army from their nations heart. So no news that can gain affection or love for the army is displayed. Sad but true ...

Anonymous said...

It looks like our traditional fear NOT to say anything about army that is present in our private TV channels as well, some important points are

1. Our private TV channels can only conduct TV talk shows with corrupt , selfish politicians in which their anchors mostly also behave like politicians.

2. As usual our Army technical expertise failure that they don't even have sensors while working on such a high altitude, like they were not able to stop FM radio in SWAT.

3. Military leadership should be accountable for incompetency and failures.Why they are not investing in research?

4. Where are people from our neighbour having friendship higher than "HIMALIYAS".

Farwa B Naqvi said...

Being a media student I am extremely ashamed of the industry I am going to be a part of soon. :( Really sad. My condolences to the families of the 'lost' officers. They deserve more than '21 topon ki salami'.

Ilmana Fasih said...

Thank you for writing this.

Our media and hence the public or vice versa loves spicy masala news. And thus you see distasteful items like this or the sectarian killings going on for HAZARAS, not chatt patta enough to be at the top slots of any new bulletin or the print media.

Remember we are a Biryani and Nihari loving nation, not karelas ( bitter gourd).

Anonymous said...

Couldnt agree more but then again the independent media is quite subservient to army and if it wasn't on the first position it wasn't there as per instruction of their masters in GHQ.

live sports said...

Why would like News having the avalanche as the headline news

soniya said...

sad news, har taraf say imtihanaat :( living in pakistan is really getting tougher day by day .