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The 'overlooked' details

Updated July 18, 2011

Pakistani volunteers take a wounded man to hospital in Karachi early July 14, 2011. Violence erupted in the southern city, when a statement by Pakistan People's Party provincial minister Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza was aired on local television news, allegedly criticising Pakistani political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) self-exiled chief Altaf Hussain. – AFP Photo

KARACHI: Sindh Senior Minister Dr Zulfikar Mirza’s diatribe and the immediate and violent reaction by MQM sympathisers left 15 innocent people dead in the city.

At a juncture when the city struggled to return to normality after the bloodshed that left over 100 people dead and many more wounded, Dr Mirza’s remarks were inciting and provocative. And he found an active audience for his show, thanks to the TV channels that had nothing better to offer at 10:55pm that night. At the same time, coverage of Dr Mirza’s speech and the street protests also demonstrated how the vernacular media was sharply divided, consciously or otherwise, along ethnic lines.

While the Urdu press remained focused on the outburst against Altaf Hussain and the ethnic slurs against the Urdu-speaking population of the province, the Sindhi press “expressed the sentiments of the natives” and denounced the demand for a new province. Worse still were the sound bytes by the “common man” or MQM supporters that showed a no holds barred barrage of insults that further added to the violence.

“The press reports keeping in mind its audience. While the English press is more restrained and usually tries to find a balanced approach, the Urdu and regional papers and television channels have a more awami flavour. They will highlight what they feel will get their audience to respond,” says journalist Razzak Abro.

Giving the example of the furore caused by Shahbaz Sharif’s comments regarding Karachi being turned into a province, he said that this wasn’t taken too kindly by the Sindhis. “Obviously, to Sindhis the idea of separating Karachi and turning it into a new province touches a raw nerve. Already emotions are running high and at this point, hate speech or any inflammatory comment will be taken in a different light by the audience,” he elaborated.

“In the bid for outshining each other when it comes to ‘breaking news’, the channels at times try to get SOT (sound on tape) that will elicit a reaction. The way things went haywire after Dr Mirza’s speech is a case in point. First off, his speech should not have been aired and then the particular section where he went in an overdrive against the Urdu-speaking community could have well been avoided. It’s the responsibility of the press to have self censorship,” said an anchor at a Sindhi TV channel.

While the night was a mess, the following morning saw the papers devoting columns to Dr Mirza’s rant. The story in Kawish, a leading Sindh daily, quoted him as saying: “Those who dream of breaking down Sindh must remember that this can only happen over our dead bodies.” In a similar vein, Awami Awaz quoted Dr Mirza: “A new province in Sindh only over our dead bodies”.

“The reports in most leading English dailies did not take into account these lines uttered by him and even if they did, the readership base which happens to be the educated and in a better socio-economic status overlooked at this particular “over my dead body” comment as a rhetorical rant. But for the lower middle class and those with nationalist leanings, these lines mean a whole lot more,” says Azhar Khan, a regular watcher of Sindhi TV channels. “Yes the channels do tend to sensationlise and newspapers may misquote, but the fact is that as a leader, Dr Mirza or for that matter anyone else should be careful about what they say. His apology today won’t bring back the 15 people killed since that night,” he opined.

“Its like seeds of discord are being planted. We have seen this sort of thing in the 90s when the Urdu press went into an overdrive against the Sindhi and Pakhtun population and the ethnic violence has gradually worsened over the years. The Bushra Zaidi case is an example. That’s when this wave of ethnic violence started. From that point on, the press also took side. Most notorious was a leading Urdu paper that printed small news items in its inside pages, which were faked news report about the mohajir community being harassed in Sindh. Again, this was retorted by the Sindhi press. Although their circulation was limited to the Sindhi-speaking masses, the paper carried items about the 'outsiders'. This has polarised the environment and it’s not just limited to ethnicity. Same goes for sectarian violence too,” Mr Khan said.

As the war of words escalated Dr Mirza and other politicians, citizens responded differently. While the distaste towards his remarks was visible, also noticeable was the reaction to the ‘new province’. “For us, a divided Sindh is not acceptable at all,” said Bilal, a 20-year-old student of political science at the University of Karachi. He said that while Dr Mirza had hurt the sentiments of the Urdu-speaking people, the Sindhi-speaking people had been repeatedly hurt by the “demand of a new province within Sindh”.

“We have welcomed the Pakhtuns and the Mohajirs into our city but now they want to control what is ours,” he said.

In a column ‘Nadan Dost, Dana Dushman’ that appeared on July 16, 2011 in Daily Kawish, Agha Rafique broke down the politics of the city. At the end of the write-up he summed up the reaction to Dr Mirza’s speech by writing about the ‘celebratory’ text messages he received that praised Dr Mirza for taking a bold stance. In Awami Awaz, a column by Rana Nathan Shah dismissed the moves of the MQM and at the same time downplayed the Mirza episode by saying that MQM created a ruckus over Dr Mirza’s meeting with Afaq Ahmed. “It was more than the meeting that led to the bloodshed in the city,” commented a reader.

“Freedom of speech is everyone’s right. But the press should report sensibly rather than highlighting these statements. People need to realise that the country is immune to Karachi’s ethnic fights and when something like ‘over my dead body’ is getting their attention, it's not very right. It was his personal opinion that is now affecting everyone. We have seen marriages and peaceful coexistence between the Pakhtuns, Mohajirs and Sindhis as well as other ethnicities. But yes if you keep drumming down something, eventually it will affect people, especially the impressionable youth,” said journalist Lubna Jerar Naqvi.

At a time when understanding and active listening is needed along with massive amounts of restraint, these rants of personal biases are just adding to the volatile mix that furthers the political and ethnic divide in the city and the province.