MEDIA watchers will have observed the changing vocabulary of newspapers in particular as the print media covers ethnic and sectarian strife.
Yet, despite this ever-evolving vocabulary, some social media activists have expressed disquiet over the language used by the media to describe the frequent Shia killings. Is this criticism justified or over the top?
A dispassionate analysis leads me to say that while the critics may be partially justified in their criticism, often their tone and attribution of motives to the media coverage isn’t. It isn’t a grand conspiracy that the print media in particular deploys a certain vocabulary.
Its language on covering such strife started to evolve many years ago and may partially reflect the reality of that period. There can be no motive for most of the media other than to seek to convey the facts as best as it can in such cases. Better still if this is done in a responsible manner.
I started my career under the watchful eye of one of the finest and most upright professional editors in the country, Ahmad Ali Khan. Khan Sahab, as everyone called him, was a very cautious editor, forever aware of the onerous responsibility falling on the Fourth Estate.
He always insisted that in the event of a sectarian and/or ethnic clash, identifying the communities involved was something we couldn’t risk as it could further inflame passions and lead to more violence, create a chain reaction.
This message got ingrained in all Dawn journalists. Journalists elsewhere more or less followed suit or reached the same conclusion independently. You’d agree this worked rather well till these incidents were few and far between. In other words they represented the exception, not the rule.
With changing times, the media vocabulary is also changing. More so, because not only has this violence escalated to new, heartbreaking heights, but easy access to lethal weaponry means that one well-armed murderer can cause carnage within a matter of minutes.
Is it changing fast enough to satisfy the victim’s supporters? One could argue either way. But it won’t be out of place to stress again that whatever the vocabulary used at whichever point in time there was/is nothing sinister about it as some allege today.
Admittedly, earlier a dichotomy could be observed between ethnic and sectarian strife coverage. The pressure of the various parties aligned with different ethnic groups in Karachi acted as a catalyst and the media dropped the use of the ‘ethnic’ tag.
For example, the victim of an ethnic murder is identified, albeit via party affiliation. Rather than inflame passions, this perhaps more accurately reflects the ground reality. There is less and less criticism, therefore, from those whose loved ones fall to ethnic violence.
However, even today when people are gunned down in Karachi because of their ethnic background, and not political affiliations, they are rarely referred to as Pakhtuns, Sindhis, Baloch etc.
But smart phones, other social media tools as well as 24x7 live TV mean the nature of a conflict or the identity of the victim can barely be kept under wraps for long these days.
While some social media activists may find greater resonance in the genocide definition ‘the policy of deliberately killing a nationality or ethnic group’, the media perhaps relies more on the meaning that genocide should be used when the killings reach ‘extermination’ proportions.
The recent editorials in mainstream newspapers have left no doubt where the media stands not just on Shia killings but also on issues confronting other vulnerable groups being targeted by hate-ideology adherents.
This isn’t to say the media doesn’t need to perpetually fine-tune its language, be a shade more diligent. A case in point may be the coverage of the Babuser Pass incident just a few days ago where passengers were pulled out of buses and identified on the basis of their sect before being shot.
Those killed were predominantly Shia apart from a couple of their heroic Sunni co-travellers who paid the price for objecting to this crime and not abetting the killers. Heroic indeed as they had a choice.
The next day’s newspapers, and I read three major English ones, ran the news as a major item alongside the militant attack on the PAF facilities at Kamra. None of these papers identified the main victims in their main headlines, though they clearly did in the body of the story.
Contrast this with say the killing of militants, police, army or FC personnel, for example, and you’ll find that for each such incident the newspapers will mention those killed/victims in the headlines. This discrepancy can hardly be the grounds for grave allegations.
One can better explain the criticism when we see it against the backdrop of continued targeting of the community and the little headway in official efforts, if at all any are under way, to check this murder. A sense of outrage and insecurity in the community is a natural outcome. And this anger has to find channels of expression.
Having had a long association with the Pakistani media, it isn’t possible to say that you won’t find a biased individual or two but I haven’t experienced institutional bias against Shia Muslims as one can find in some media houses for instance against the Ahmadis.
Whatever the vocabulary, the horror of the crime remains. Someone sent me a link to the video shot by the Babuser Pass murderers. I shudder to say what I was reminded of by the way people were being chosen for slaughter.
I can’t seem to get out of my head the perplexed, pained, even petrified, expression on the face of one grey-bearded man. He was being questioned one moment, and the next being herded out of the frame possibly towards others who had already been picked out for summary execution.
With the security apparatus clueless or complicit in this mass murder, it will continue. So, should the media coverage whatever reaction it evokes in one quarter or the other. For only constant media focus can potentially chisel away at official apathy.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.