Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Glass Half Full

I've said plenty of mean things about Pakistan's media in my time, but I can truly say that they have proved me wrong with their coverage of the recent floods, and to a lesser extent, the lynching of innocent boys in Sialkot.

Cameras and reporters were quick to arrive on the ground in affected areas. The real-time information served the dual purpose of directing attention where it was needed, while providing a warning to areas where the flood appeared to be heading. In the process the tragedy was transmitted into our homes and worldwide where it took time to register.

Analysts were spot on with their criticism, whether it be on the President's European adventures, the initial weakness of the response in comparison to the 2005 earthquake or the apathy of the international community.

The media's pressure greatly contributed in turning these wrongs into rights. The President and his government slowly moved into action (not as we would have hoped of course but better than their preliminary slumber), the Pakistani public, especially the youth, mobilized brilliantly, and the world was shamed into opening its wallets.

IVS Flood Victims Support is an initiative by Students Council and Rahnuma at the Indus Valley School or Art and Architecture. Photo Courtesy DAWN.

Surprisingly even the much maligned television anchors, forever accused of sensationalism, put their influence to constructive use. Kashif Abbasi (ARY) and Talat Hussain (Aaj News) started their own fundraising campaign, urging those people who complained of a lack of trust in the government, to donate to them instead. The initiative and transparency shown by the two is a model for the entrepreneurial spirit shown by many others in the country.

Similarly with the Sialkot lyching, the media was quick to report the incident and quick to urge the concerned authorities (the provincial government, the local security apparatus and the judiciary) to bring the accused into the dock. Many heads have rolled since and hopefully many more will.

These are tough times for Pakistan. We are in the midst of the worst natural disaster of this century. Such tragedies do take their toll on national morale, and inevitably lead to an air of resignation. But this resignation should not be a cry for self-defeatism. That is where I have a problem, particularly with the newspaper of choice these days it seems, the Express Tribune. In the aftermath of Sialkot, the Tribune has published a series of op-eds which portray the incident as a reflection of society itself, and a sign of inconvertible moral decay.

I don't have a beef with the articles themselves, but I do feel that in a newspaper with an international reputation, they seem awfully out of place. Sure you can put them in a blog where it is OK to be controversial or rude or whatever, but you can't label a nation as 'human cockroaches' or even worse (and I'm quoting directly here) call it a 'barbaric, degenerate nation reveling in bloodlust', however sarcastic you are, in a widely circulated publication. Then again maybe it's my fault, after all I shouldn't expect much of a newspaper whose opinion pages resemble a chaotic blog and whose wisest writer is a standup comedian.

My point is the incident was gruesome and condemnable for sure but I am not prepared to believe that it is a microcosm of the conscience of a 170 million people. The fact that the killings were brought to light, condemned by all and sundry, and are leading to protests for an improved system of justice and law (here's a report and a video of a rally held in Islamabad today), is a sign that Pakistanis are not barbaric as Fasi Zaka will have us believe. Saying that the mob that killed those boys is representative of all of us is like the international notion of saying that most Pakistanis are with the Taliban. Simplistic and patently untrue.

As a friend on Facebook put it, the violence is as bad as normal people walking into a school and killing dozens of kids, or priests molesting children, both of which happened in some of the most developed countries in the world. In the aftermath of those incidents the requisite outrage was coupled with a desire to understand the problem and put it into perspective. But there weren't any op-eds in the New York Times saying that the Columbine killer represented all of America, or that the Church's sins were all of Europe's. Again, this is not a defense of what happened, no one in the right mind would do that, but let's please manage the emotion and vitriol, and spare the majority of Pakistanis who do not conform to such violence and brutality.

If anything, the 'we are the mob in Sialkot' theory can be put to bed by something else happening right now. It might just be me but I believe we are witnessing one of the extraordinary events of recent times: the remarkable mobilization of Pakistanis, taking the challenge of dealing with the biggest natural calamity in years into their own hands. From donating to fundraising to volunteering, thousands of ordinary citizens, young and old, poor and rich, are showing outstanding character and spirit.

Amidst the ruins, this is a story that also needs to be told.


  1. I like your critique, yours is a balance i would personally like to have, but this particular incident, and the general everyday prejudice i find ingrained that i feel could easily lead to such violence as a possible extension, had me quite emotional. as opposed to reporting, op-ed writing gives you that freedom (though not always best to use it).

  2. @Fasi: Sure, but even op-eds have to be substantiated by fact. Let's look at it logically, using an analogy: the laws of cricket permit a bowler to bowl 'short balls' but should he bowl one without checking to see if there's a fielder on the boundary first?

    Secondly, I would agree that the use of emotions can strengthen an editorial. But isn't it the mark of a great columnist that he/she can channel that emotion into a rational, coherent argument?

    Exhibit A:

  3. Well said Umair. Thank you.

  4. You took the words right out of my mouth. Very well thought out, and the first proper piece of journalism I've seen on this incident. It was a relief to read this.

  5. Well I wouldn't agree completely with the writer here, because even when we all oppose the brutal killings in Sialkot, It is only humble of us to admit that perhaps we all play a part here. To admit is to take the first step toasted reforming and it is easier to put the blame on just the ones who actually committed the crime . We condemn but at the same time we peek into our own hearts.

  6. Good job. Pehle bhi kaha tha, dubara kahoun gi: Your trio reminds me of Five Rupees. I'll say you guys are their younger brothers. Take it as a compliment please. Sharing this on my Facebook and Twitter.

  7. i have to agree with anon 1201 here.

    if we must force ourselves to pedantic arguments like "we don't see op-eds on columbine in the NYT" we also don't see films like "waltz with bashir" emerging from our past in bangladesh. every society has horrific incidences, but comparing our obfuscation of history with similar efforts by others is not going to get anybody anywhere.

    but i digress.

    you say that the sialkot event does not speak for all of us. ok. what about what happened at partition? think about this for a second. who was to blame there? not us? for all that the British did and the leaders who lied, there was someone slicing off women's breasts, ripping apart genetalia, lumping bodies into carriages dripping with blood, and that person wasn't an unmanned drone being controlled in tampa, it was one of us.

    forget the media for a second. your critique of them was fair, the personal attacks aside. but my point is about blame and society.

    the sialkot event was not isolated. such barbarism has happened very frequently to alleged mobile thieves, pickpockets and such over the past few years. extend that to the beheadings by the taliban, and the lynching/whipping/stoning of women, and you have a very steady influx of routine barbarity.

    you and i are not to blame of course. its the jaahil ruralites. or the jaahil maulvis, in tender moments, we replace jahil with misguided, and blame zia, us imperialism, late-capitalism, loss of identity, economic apartheid, etc etc

    and you and i would share this conversation on computers which cost more than what a flood victim is getting, using words we learnt from an education whose cost could sustain a large village for several years.

    and in all this we can't understand where our fault is? where we are to blame?

    i wish you can see that, because then it makes your final assessment so much stronger. yes, even amongst all this, we are a nation that comes together when it needs to. but let's not come together out of guilt.

    if we can be honest about who we are, then these moments of unity can become something lasting.

  8. Very well said. I guess we are a nation of dualities, but then again, who isn't?

  9. Bravo Mr. karachi Khatmal bravo.
    Umair I always agree with your point of view, and yours being the counterpoint to us being deemed roaches also stands.
    However there is a balance that needs to be struck here. There is a responsibility that need be taken by us, for by no means are we not to blame for this as well. The sialkot lynchings are by no means an isolated event. The media in its misguidedness has helped us out in exposing on of these not so rare happenings.
    But ask yourself this, is all that being done, being done to bring to justice who did this, or to prevent such a thing from happening again.
    The former is true, the latter need be.