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DAWN - Opinion; December 03, 2008

December 03, 2008

Media falls in the old trap

By Beena Sarwar


THE Mumbai nightmare has plunged the media in India and Pakistan into the dangerous, old trap in which nationalism trumps responsible reporting. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it restricted to India and Pakistan.

American journalists fell into this trap after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on Sept 11, 2001. They were vigorously criticised for their unquestioning over-reliance on the security establishment for information. The security establishment, with its blinkered security paradigm, fed them false information that prepared the ground for the Iraq invasion and the Afghanistan bombing.

As part of society, journalists may find it difficult to step back and see the larger picture, especially when their countries are under attack. Responsible reporting and commentary require recognising this fallibility. There is no such thing as objective journalism. All journalists have their own world views and political baggage but at least we can aspire to be fair — to our subjects, to our audiences, and perhaps to our common humanity rather than national identities.“Media manipulation is less an issue of overt censorship than an internalisation of myths and mindsets,” commented Rita Manchanda, summing up a radical critique of the mass media by Indian and Pakistani journalists (‘Reporting conflict’, South Asia Forum for Human Rights, May 2001).

If the Indian media tends to be nationalistic and trusting in its government (which Pakistan government representatives often ask the more cynical Pakistanis to emulate), the Pakistani media has clearly demarcated no-go areas. As the veteran Peshawar-based journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai said at the consultation, “Pakistani journalists never had the opportunity to professionally cover the 1965 or 1971 wars or the Rann of Kutch or Kargil conflicts.” Add the conflicts in Balochistan and the northern areas to that list since then.

The Babri Masjid demolition, the nuclear tests and the Kargil conflict all fed jingoism and jingoistic reporting on both sides. Sometimes journalists are culpable more by omission than commission, ignoring or playing down certain aspects or not asking crucial questions.

Take the festering issue of prisoners. The young Indian fisherman Lakshman who died in a Karachi jail on March 10, 2008 received scant mention in the Pakistani media. The body of a Pakistani prisoner Khalid Mehmood who died in an Indian prison, sent home around the same time, made front-page news, with many journalists accusing the Indians of torture.

Prison conditions and how the police treat prisoners in both countries are no secret. It is not that we treat Indian prisoners well, while they viciously torture Pakistanis. Sometimes a prisoner’s death results not from outright torture but illness arising from neglect — poor living conditions in a hostile environment, extreme temperatures, lack of medical attention, all compounded by lack of contact with loved ones back home.

When the Maharashtra government stopped two Pakistani artists from continuing their work in Mumbai, TV reporters here got sound bites from passers-by who condemned the action. The reporter did not ask, and nor did the respondents bring up, the question of what would have happened had the situation been reversed — would Indians have been allowed to continue working here in the aftermath of such an attack, in which the attackers were widely believed to have links with India?

Similarly, talk show hosts let hawkish talk go unchallenged. In one recent instance, a retired army general referred to India as Pakistan’s dushman mulk (enemy country). They invite more balanced commentators also but give them get far less time and space. Channels play up Mahesh Butt’s criticism of the Indian media but, as the analyst Foqia Sadiq Khan asks, would they quote someone from Pakistan criticising the Pakistani media? “They quote Shabana Azmi ad nauseum that she couldn’t find a flat in Bombay being a Muslim, but not on her opinion of fundamentalism.”

Media might have brought the people closer but when nationalism rears its head, the beast of 24-hour television news also fuels conflict. This is where the commercial aspect comes in. When something big happens, the public seeks answers. The channels which cater to this need improve their ratings. Sensation sells. With viewers glued to the screens, channels keep them there with a continuous virtual reality show. They fill the time with speculative commentary, ‘expert’ guests and whatever footage is available. Sometimes such footage is repeated ad nauseum — like when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, when the Marriott hotel was attacked, when the FIA building in Lahore was struck.

Even when nothing big is happening, information is packaged in an exciting way in order to attract attention. This often means playing up bad news and downplaying good news. TV channels continuously showed the scene of the blasts that rocked the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore on its second-last day, injuring two people. They did not give the artists who defied fear and went ahead on the last day the same kind of attention.

When Zardari was sworn in as president, a breaking news ticker reported: “Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulates Zardari”. Breaking news? At least it was true. In the rush to be the first, channels often misreport.

The Mumbai nightmare provided several examples, as Kalpana Sharma documents in her critique of the Indian media’s coverage of the first 60 hours, ‘Unpacking the pixel’ in Tehelka. She concludes, “it is essential that reporters be trained to handle such extraordinary situations, that they learn the importance of restraint and cross-checking…. Professionalism and accuracy will ensure that we don’t contribute to prejudice and panic.”

Some Indian channels are running the Pakistan factor like a movie trailer, complete with sound effects and watch-for-the-next-episode commentary. This obviously fuels Pakistani indignation. However, this indignation could be tempered by being less reactive and empathising with the Indians’ pain and grief that many Pakistanis share. Zealous commentators could also recall the times that their own media houses sensationalised an issue.

Journalists may argue that they are just the messenger, reflecting official or public opinion. But the media must also question, and get people to think. The stakes are high in our nuclear-armed countries, in a post-9/11 world where the major players include armed and trained men around the world who subscribe to the ideology of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

As President Asif Ali Zardari said, even if elements within Pakistan were involved it is these same elements that the Pakistan government is fighting. So how much sense does it make to push the Pakistan government in a corner and divert its attention from fighting these elements?

The writer is an independent journalist based in Karachi.

Women and democracy

By Dr Rubina Saigol


THE relationship of women with the state in Pakistan appears to depend on three interrelated sets of relationships: (i) the relation between the state and the individual citizen; (ii) the relation between the state and the ethnic or religious group to which a citizen belongs; and (iii) the relation between women and the ethnic or religious group with which they identify.

The extent to which a woman is allowed or denied her fundamental rights granted by the state is mediated by her ethnic or religious group and its relationship with the state.

In a liberal bourgeois democracy these relationships are further complicated by the need to accommodate ethnic and religious parties in coalition arrangements. Elections increasingly deliver ethnically split verdicts in which no single party gets a simple majority and the party with the largest number of seats is forced to rely on others to form its government.

In return for support the smaller parties extract their pound of flesh in the form of ministries, lucrative positions and compromise on certain ideological standpoints. This not only creates large cabinets it also requires backtracking by political parties on clearly enunciated principles. In political bargains the greatest backtracking is invariably witnessed on the issues of women’s rights and equality.

The clearest evidence of such political manoeuvring is the manner in which the PPP inducted two ministers, Israrullah Zehri as minister for postal services and Hazar Khan Bijarani as minister for education. Israrullah Zehri is on record defending the brutal murder of five women (the figure is disputed) who it is alleged were buried alive in Balochistan. Hazar Khan Bijarani is said to have presided over a jirga that ordered that five girls aged two to five be handed over to a rival clan to settle a dispute.

The overriding need to accommodate people from the smaller provinces and minority ethnic groups to ensure their support for the government has negated the fundamental rights to life and security for women. Such political compromise for expediency ignores the manifesto of the party which states: “The Pakistan People’s Party has an unflinching commitment to the cause of gender equality ever since it was founded in 1967” and “The party will take institutional initiatives to prevent crimes against women in the name of tribalism, such as honour killings and forced marriages”. Despite repeated protests by various sections of society this travesty of justice has not been reversed.

Other parties with stated commitments to women’s rights and equality have also exhibited misogynist biases against women by failing to show a modicum of respect for their female colleagues. The remarks about two women being equal to one man by Ishaq Dar of the PML-N, and the subsequent refusal by party members to allow Sherry Rehman to record her protest is an incident reflective of the deeply prejudiced attitudes of our lawmakers.

The bewildering insensitivity was further demonstrated by Chaudhry Nisar Ali’s nomination of Hanif Abbasi as head of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Women’s Affairs despite the presence of a number of worthy women candidates in the parliament. The heartening fact is that the PML-N women parliamentarians themselves protested. The PML-N’s manifesto also promises to “promote participation of women in national development and their social, political and economic empowerment”. One wonders how women’s political empowerment would be possible when even their most basic rights to represent themselves are not acknowledged.

As if all this were not enough there are rumours circulating that the Ministry of Women Development would be given to the JUI-F. Apart from this party’s known aversion to women’s equality and freedom, it is vital to remember that its members had stated that the implementation of the Protection of Women Bill 2006 was like challenging God. One of the demands of the JUI-F for supporting Asif Zardari’s presidential bid was the revocation of parts of the Women Protection Act. Maulana Fazlur Rahman and his associates were seen roaring with laughter over an anti-women song at the maulana’s brother’s valima reception. The song was about marrying four times as one wife was not sufficient.

Patriarchal and misogynist attitudes are deeply ingrained in our social, economic, political and ideological structures. It is too much to hope that those entrusted with making the country’s laws would reflect a morality higher than the rest of the nation’s. However, one can expect the lawmakers to have read the constitution and know that killing citizens, men or women, is murder and that murder is a crime. The country’s law does not allow so-called honour to be invoked as a justification for vile murder. It is also reasonable to expect that lawmakers would not pass statements contrary to the law to justify crimes.

Since one cannot depend on individuals to rise above their ethnic or religious prejudices, one has to rely on systems. The assumption underlying liberal democracy was that over time it would eliminate the pre-modern identities of caste, clan, tribe and sect and create the modern identity of the citizen whose relation to the state would be a direct one and not mediated through local, cultural and customary structures. It was also assumed that broad-based political parties, premised on shared economic issues, would replace narrow sub-nationalist, ethnic, sectarian and fundamentalist outfits.

Instead, politics itself became ethnicised, and sub-national, sectarian and tribal sentiments were articulated in the political arena. The state capitulated to such sentiments in the process itself becoming tribal and sectarian. Multiple legal systems distorted democracy and laws came to be premised on religion and tribal customs.

The Qisas and Diyat law is a major example of a tribal law becoming entrenched in the state’s legal structure. The tribal state allows parliamentarians like Ajmal Khattak, Salim Mazari, Israrullah Zehri and Hazar Bijarani to legitimise the murder and trafficking of women as cultural tradition.

The sectarian state allows violence against women to be condoned through laws made in the name of religion. Political compulsions force parties like the PPP to establish the Sharia in parts of Pakistan like Malakand. With the collusion between the Sharia, tribal and customary law, and Anglo-Saxon legal principles, women’s rights and equality are sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

If democracy has reinforced rather than weakened tribal, sectarian, fundamentalist and ethnic articulations, it is because Pakistan’s social and economic structures were not transformed significantly to meet the needs of a viable democracy. The most fundamental requirement for democracy is secularism so that the legal system of the country can ensure equality and justice to all citizens irrespective of religion, sex or ethnic belonging. A single legal system based on democratic and secular principles would eliminate parallel ones and establish a direct relation between women citizens and the state. Their relation to the state would then not be mediated by the immediate reference group but by their status as equal citizens.

Climate change targets

By Michael McCarthy


BRITAIN should adopt the world’s toughest climate change target and slash nearly half of its greenhouse gas emissions in the next 12 years, the government’s new climate advisory committee says in its first report.

Emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases causing global warming should be cut by 42 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, as long as there is a new global climate deal in a UN meeting in Copenhagen a year from now, said the Committee on Climate Change. The recommendation for what is a massively ambitious and world-beating target – and a costly one for electricity consumers, who will face higher bills, perhaps of up to (pounds sterling)500 a year – brought plaudits from environmentalists, while the government itself was obliged to put a positive face on a goal which is considerably in excess of what it had hitherto been contemplating.

The 42 per cent cut will require accelerated effort across all sectors of the economy if it is to be realised, with the committee pointing at massively increased wind power, new nuclear power stations, a big boost to energy efficiency and a substantial increase in electric vehicles as key ways forward.

In fact, 12 years from now, 40 per cent of vehicles on Britain’s roads will probably be battery-driven or petrol-electric hybrids if the goal is realised, said the committee chairman, Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, who as Adair Turner was the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.

The changes will cost “less than one per cent” of Britain’s GDP (in the range 0.3 to 0.8 per cent) and will push up domestic electricity and gas bills (renewable energy is more expensive). They could tip 1.7 million households into fuel poverty, so the government must make provision for this, the committee warned.

The full cost per household has not been calculated, but committee sources suggested a ballpark figure could be arrived at by dividing one per cent of GDP in 2020 — expected to be (pounds sterling)15bn — by the number of households in Britain, expected to be 25 million. This would give a figure of (pounds sterling)600 per household, at the top end – and 0.3 to 0.8 of that would be (pounds sterling)180 to (pounds sterling)480.

However, despite the costs, the high 2020 target is the only way to go, the committee said, if the UK is to achieve its long-term goal, which the Government accepts, of cutting emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

The Climate Change Committee has been set up under the Climate Change Act which came into force last week. Its main purpose, with all-party support, is to make Britain’s emissions reductions programme legally binding whatever government is in power.

The programme will be driven by five-yearly “carbon budgets”, and the purpose of the Climate Change Committee is to recommend the contents of the budgets, and to police their implementation, reporting to Parliament annually. Ministers may ignore its recommendations, but there would be a high political price in doing so.

On Monday, the committee unveiled its first three proposed carbon budgets, for 2008-12, 2013-17 and for 2018-22, but the overall emissions reduction target they are designed to deliver was the eye-catching measure.

— © The Independent