Afia Salam's Blog

Life is a journey

Dear (ir)responsible Pakistani media, the Mina tragedy needed sensitivity not sensationalism

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Muslim pilgrims cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage on Eidul Azha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca on September 24, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

The tragic stampede in Mina during the recent Hajj and the way it was covered by the media, mainstream as well as social, once again revealed all that is wrong in the way journalism is practiced in Pakistan.

Media stirred the pot with the ingredients of sensationalism, conspiracy theories, misinformation, disinformation and deliberate biases. This was all based on a historical baggage, and the offering served was such a mish-mash that it became difficult to sift fact from fiction.

Yes, it was a developing story. In fact, it was not just a ‘story’, but was a tragic human event that demanded sensitive handling, a patience for the truth to emerge and careful handling of it, which was found to be seriously lacking. It seemed that the mind had already been made up about whom to blame and how to stand in the ‘them and us’ camps.

Even the eye witness accounts that started pouring in immediately afterwards did not do much to dent some of the preposterous opinions that were aired – making a human mistake and general lack of indiscipline morph into a regional conflict rooted in sectarian divide.

The death figures, the pulling out of old pictures of previous stampedes that had actually prompted the massive improvements in traffic flow leading to ‘one-way’ arrangement for rami (the symbolic stoning of the devil) at the Jamarat were a deliberate attempt at misinformation with an ulterior motive; as were the blurred pictures of dumper trucks and bulldozers that were removing trash but appeared on the media with captions stating they were desecrating the bodies of the hujjaj by picking them in this manner.

Do the gatekeepers in the media go on leave at times like these? Yes, there are no gatekeepers besides the contrarians on social media who keep countering such biased narratives. But what happens to the mainstream media? Sometimes it is overcautious in giving the complete picture, and at others, it completely distorts the picture.

Granted that we have many ‘more loyal than the king’ (pun intended) who want to hear no evil, criticism or questions about the way the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia manages the massive congregation at Hajj.

But we also have the other extreme in the media, who are riding the crest of a wave of negative feelings about what goes on there, and this group amplified the unverified stories of the VVIP movement being the cause of the stampede. They didn’t cross-check or even take into account how many miles separated the actual place of the incident, Maktab 93 and the Jamarat, simply displaying a wild abandonment of all journalistic norms.

We surely did not need Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) jumping into the fray by issuing a warning about stoking resentment against a ‘friendly country’ to stem this tide of negativity.

What was needed was a team of journalists and editors who would check the death figures, the figure of missing persons from the citizens and official sources and then draw some conclusions.

PEMRA must also note the criticism or calling for improvements in arrangements, so such tragedies can be avoided in the future is not taking a pot shot at ‘friendly countries.’ These calls need to be amplified through the media, so it should be careful with the directives in this regard.

I know it is hard for journalists to physically verify when the place is Saudi Arabia, as you can’t just ask a reporter and camera team to hop on a plane and just get to the spot. But compare the coverage to the other media. Even Iran, which somehow, courtesy of the media, was portrayed as a victim, acknowledged failing on part of its own contingents, despite suffering the maximum number of casualties.

The great variance in the death count and the missing persons of course is surprising but understandable. The figures quoted by The Guardian were almost four times the figures that were coming out in the Pakistani media which in my opinion was a plus point as was the constant transmission of the numbers that were being flashed about information.

So if the media could show responsibility and temperance here, why did it have to suddenly get into the mode of speculation and blame game? Even before the facts had emerged?

Was it by design or was it by default where it feels compelled to ‘feed’ its consumers with a commodity, even if half-baked, to whet its appetite for more?

These questions are mostly being asked by media practitioners who want to see the media develop into a responsible industry. Media must be wary of the day when their consumers start asking these questions.

Written by afiasalam

October 3, 2015 at 1:19 pm

No quick recovery in monsoon-hit Sindh

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Enlarge image

I sat up with a start when I heard in the news that it was raining heavily in Thatta. This spelled trouble for the two communities I had been interacting with on behalf of the humanitarian organisation I worked for. They had been displaced after the 2010 floods, and were occupying a vacant piece of land, waiting to be resettled in permanent shelters.

I called ahead to find out their plight, and sure enough was told that their makeshift thatch huts had collapsed, and that all their land was under water. Luckily, we had anticipated another spell of severe monsoon rains, so had prepared some emergency hampers with food and hygiene items that we immediately loaded onto a truck, and headed off to Sujawal.

It was distressing to see people homeless again who had only just started picking up the pieces of their lives after last year’s disaster. They moved with their rag-tag belongings from one building to another, finding shelter in schools. We could at best provide temporary relief.

However, worse was to follow. Just a couple of days later, torrential rains resulted in breaches to the agricultural run-off drains in Jati, and people from that area also streamed into Sujawal, looking for shelter and relief.

With the help of the district administration we could still just about manage this in-flow of people. But what followed in the next few days threw every arrangement out of gear. The havoc caused by the breaches and the overtopping of the contentious and controversial Left Bank Outfall Drain in Badin inundated vast swathes of farmland, completely destroying the standing crops of cotton, sugarcane, rice and fodder.

Driving to Badin city and onwards, my heart sank deeper as I witnessed the scale of the devastation and the desolate, desperate faces of people on the side of the road, sitting under makeshift shelters that were barely wide enough to hold their cots.

The situation was even worse on the inner roads. All one could see were inundated fields, collapsed houses, and people begging for help, looking for a roof over their heads to save them from the relentless rain. There were people who waded through chest-high waters to come to the relief distribution points. At places, one had to offload relief supplies from trucks onto smaller vehicles and then onto boats to get them to affected communities.

My rudimentary understanding of the Sindhi language was no barrier to understanding the expressions that were writ large on the faces of the tottering old men, and women with babies already suffering from skin infections. The extended monsoon has water-logged entire districts, and although the rains have now stopped, poor drainage planning means that the water will remain on the lands for at least another couple of months.

Having lost this cropping season to the disaster, the farmers do not hope to reap a harvest in the next season either, as the land will still not be ready for cultivation.

Whichever way you look at it, it is a disaster on an unprecedented scale – a human disaster, an economic disaster, and now a health disaster due to the outbreak of water-borne and malarial diseases.

I would like to see climate change deniers explain away erratic monsoon patterns, as well as the ferocity of the rains that have wreaked this havoc.

More than that, one needs tonnes of determination to deal with the current crisis, and also to prepare contingency plans that work much more effectively in the future.

Written by afiasalam

September 28, 2015 at 4:32 am

What does the society expect of its women!

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What does the Society expect of its women

Written by afiasalam

July 11, 2015 at 4:45 am

Sabeen: The birthday girl is not here anymore

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Sabeen painting

Today is Sabeen’s birthday. She would have been 41. When I think back to the first time I saw her, when she was all of 15 years, and I saw her pottering with computers at Zaheer Kidvai’s office it is amazing to realize how much of life she was able to pack in just these four decades.

Those were the days when computers were serious, expensive things; not something one allowed children to fiddle around with. Hence my surprised query to ZAK at what a ‘bachee’ was doing with them. I was taken aback when he said she was his friend’s daughter who was interested’ in computers. It is only now, in a conversation with ZAK after she has gone that I learnt that I was not the only curious one. He says she too asked who I was after I left, and when told my name, said she already knew me through my cricket writings, as that was another thing she was interested in….passionately! This actually became our first point of connect.

Sabeen ET

Over the years I got to know her, and whenever our paths crossed, which was quite often because of school friend Jehan Ara becoming a part of the trio making multi media solutions.

Unlike me, she wasn’t just into the game of cricket from a distance. She played it, and played it hard.

Sabeen with poster

Hard enough to damage her knees, and had to keep away due to doctors’ orders, which she rarely followed, for she believed in living life on her own terms and dealing with the consequences. She loved cricket, and cricketers. She always wanted to listen to off-the-record stories about them, and envied the opportunity I had to meet her heroes.Sabeen quoteWhile living her life passionately, she touched so many people along the way, becoming the supporter of the odd ones, the marginalized, the weak and threatened, the ones without means to gain attention. And there was nothing luke-warm about anything she did, or believed in.

Passion conjures up vision of frenetic activity, raised decibels, and things going haywire. But while enough of what was going on around her merited these states, the Sabeen I remember was always a picture of calm. Even in anger, and there were such moments a plenty, her ‘aap janaab’ never slid into ‘tum or tu’ though she reserved the right to let off expletives in English.. always ‘appropriately’ placed and targeted.

Passions that made her master the finest nuances of the Urdu language, of Jazz, of Classical music and Qawwali, which she just dived deep into. Yes ZAK’s influence was there, but that his introduction would ignite such passion probably he could not have imagined.Sabeen on scooter

And she was brave. Oh so brave, maybe to the extent of being reckless. She was brave not just because she chose to ride a scooter on Karachi roads, but because she wanted to have her say, come what may. This is what led her to swim upstream, and sometimes plunge in without testing the waters. Like she did when she went all out with her ‘fasla na rakhein, piyaar honey dein’ and earned the wrath, and faced threats from the lobby that wanted to heap all responsibility of immorality on the observance of Valentine’s Day.

Was that foolhardy? Maybe Was she worried? yes, Did it put a dent in her resolve to take a bold stance? No. They say this is why she was killed. That her killer cited her Valentines’ Day campaign as the reason he put 5 bullets in her, 3 years after the event. Really? Takes a bit of getting used to this notion. I still haven’t so won’t dwell on it.

I would rather talk about T2F, which is actually proof of what passion about an interest can create. The concept, the space, the programmes held there, all showed how fully she had thrown herself into this space that she wanted everyone to share… a space created for ‘intellectual poverty alleviation,’ her only demand to people coming there being, ‘bring your brain.’

If the space fell short to accommodate her ideas and plans and events, she went elsewhere, but she had to be a part of, if not at the center of events making waves in the city of Karachi… another one of her passions which always resonated with me. And all the time, while wracking her brains to keep her T2F financially afloat, whenever someone approached her to use the space for an event without the required amount in had, her answer used to be ‘daikh lein gey.. kuch kur lein gey’ (Will see what we can do about it).

And it Sabeen at Farieha'swas this spirit of kuch kur lein gey which made so many good things happen, through Sabeen, who would float new ideas and initiatives, introduce amazing guests, or kickstart an event, and sit at the back with that smile on her face which we all remember her for.

The only time she would intervene was if she saw the discussion getting out of hand or some people not being able to have their say, and she would take the mike to them.

Sabeen with Mahenaz

There was a quiet strength about her, which we now know she inherited from her mother Mahenaz Mahmud, whose calm and courage in the face of the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen her showed what she was made of, and the kind of genes she had passed on to Sabeen that enabled her to achieve so much in so little time.

So today when friends and admirers gather at T2F to listen to qawwali on Sabeen’s  birthday, they are not just there for the genre Sabeen had come to love and loved to promote; they are there to remember her, and the many ways in which she enriched lives.

Like them, I too would like that acknowledge that Sabeen, for all you did, and all you stood for, ‘tu maira hero.”sabeen-hero-karachi-mohsin-sayeed

Written by afiasalam

June 20, 2015 at 8:49 pm

Full frontal… the New Normal?

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Full Frontal Assault… the new normal?

Updated 2 days ago
A NEWSpaper front-page is supposed to give just that… the news!

The world is a happening place with never a dull moment. Even if you had scanned the headlines on your TV or the web before going to sleep, there would still be plenty of major stories developing during the night.

So you hear the thud of the newspaper fall on your balcony or driveway in the mornings and you rush there to get up to speed with the news. You impatiently flick off the rubber band and flip open the paper to see the headlines… and lo and behold… you are told to close your eyes and drink a glass of milk whose purity has been ensured for you. Or you are brought face to face with the virtues of sending money through a cell phone service… all this when you have not even brushed your teeth or had your first cup of tea or coffee!

Well ladies and gentlemen, please wake up and smell the coffee. This full frontal assault on the front page of your newspaper is set to become the new normal. The sharp intake of breath or gasp of dismay is about to give way to a shrug of resignation as the realisations dawns that this is the current trend; so like it or lump it!

While magazines have been known to ‘sell’ their front page (soul?), it did not raise as many eyebrows because no one expects an update on the news from a magazine cover. However, a NEWSpaper front-page is supposed to give just that… the news!

A sliver of news placed under the masthead as a sop to readers is how this frontal assault began. Maybe it was a testing of the waters. And the resultant hue and cry did not go beyond leg pulling by journalists of colleagues of that particular media group, and that too mostly on social media. There was very little reader reaction. Encouraged and emboldened advertisers took this to the next level by wiping the news completely off the front page and placing a full-page ad there instead. No sop, no space, no as a by your leave! Just full frontal!

According to Sarmad Ali. Group MD, Marketing, Jang Group says, “Pakistan has been slow in catching up with international practices and this was not very common here. The Australian, DNA India, The Guardian, Gulf News, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express The Khaleej Times, The Times of India and The Straits Times are only a few examples of newspapers accepting these creative placements.

Seasoned journalist, Chris Cork, for his part makes the distinction between advertising freesheets and newspapers. “If you are paying hard cash for a newspaper then you have a reasonable expectation of having news in your hands, especially on the front page.”

The ‘rules’ are silent. And there is nothing in the ‘guidelines’ (oh that hated word!) of the Press Council of Pakistan or the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) to restrict such encroachment. Hence the absence of a strong push back mechanism by the editorial departments, barring rare instances of preset space limitations for advertising.

In the absence of such regulations, if editors have a problem, according to both Talat Aslam of The News and Tahir Najmi ofExpress, they need “to kick up a fuss” because “you cannot deprive your readers of the whole page. The reader has every right to know all the major information in the form of news on the front page.”

In Aslam’s opinion, given that the advertisements which have so far hijacked the front page are nothing special or creative, they could have easily been placed elsewhere within the paper. This is why, new though the trend is, there needs to be an analysis of whether the brand garners positive feedback or flak from readers. Or is massaging the ego of the brand managers the only purpose that is served?

What about reader feedback? How do readers who have a problem with this trend express their point of view?

According to Javed Jabbar, “ if readers have a problem they must move beyond passive acceptance, and write letters to the editors and boycott buying the paper for a few days to make their point.”

Although the Media Commission set up by the Supreme Court has recommended appointing an Ombudsman or a Readers’ Editor for each publication, only a few have done so. Readers can write to them to register complaints, or they can set up consumer societies which talk back to the newspapers.

However, at the end of the day, the Ombudsman too may have to bow to financial realities. Unless and until newspapers themselves strike a balance between the rights of their readers and their revenue stream, we can let this debate develop to see what the Pakistani market will accept.

Written by afiasalam

May 31, 2015 at 4:05 pm

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Karachi: Beware of an earthquake; never mind the Tsunami.. yet!

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Written by afiasalam

September 16, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Rain on the (#AzadiMarchPTI #Inqilab) Parade

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Governance means reading the signs, making projections, extrapolating existing data to forecast trends and make arrangements and adjustments accordingly. It means number crunching, matching available resources to the demographic spread, so on and so forth, etc. etc. etc. That is what the incumbent  government does, and the opposition, which is supposed to be a government-in-the-waiting for whenever the people vote them in, keeps its eye on.

Now, despite the ‘heavy mandate’  barring the very few delusional (also called ‘dheet’ in Urdu) out of the 180 million Pakistanis, everyone would agree, at least in their hearts even if they do not want to articulate, that Nawaz Sharif and his coterie has taken ineptitude, nepotism and bad governance to whole new level.

While they want the nation to do a jig because the Rupee:Dollar parity has been dragged back to double digits, and rejoice at the visible signs of skewed development priorities like the Metro Bus and Flyovers etc, fact remains that the poor are getting poorer, rich richer, marginalized are more vulnerable today than ever before, the vulnerable now stand in the category of the threatened with extinction, the criminals roam free, justice is held hostage to street power etc.

All of the above need, nay, deserve to be changed, so the clarion call of ‘#Tabdeeli’ or change resonates with all and sundry. Raise the decibels, and the degree, and this calls gets another name by another group.. for instance #Inqilab! But look who is giving this call. Is it a case of the pot calling the kettle black? What do we have at the other end of the scale

On one side is a party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf, which has a chance NOT to do all that it accuses the Nawaz Sharif Government of PML-N in a province it holds sway in.. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Now to be fair, many a good initiatives have been taken there which can serve as a model for the other provincial governments if they can get out of their parochial silos. But there are plenty of regressive steps in fields that have an impact beyond the here and now; like education, and its basic building block, the curriculum. Now with its band of 30 off Parliamentarians against the ruling party’s 170, all of whom could not have gone past the post through rigging, its leader Imran Khan refuses to settle for anything but the ouster of the Government.

The other demand for #Inqilab or revolution is coming from a person who cannot be accepted as a stakeholder by any stretch of imagination. This flyby Canadian cleric, emboldened by the clout he was able to wield during his last year’s street theatre when the PPP was in power, wants to upchuck the existing system. #TUQ or Tahir ul Qadri of the #PAT or Pakistan Awami Tehreek and/or Idara e Minhaj ul Quran breathing verbal hellfire and brimstone is presenting a total either/or and with us or against us scenario with very little room for negotiations or manoeuvering.

With these two ‘personalities’ set in formaldehyde, and their band of followers with an equally rigid mindset, it will take some going to resolve the current impasse, even if one puts blinkers on and ignores a khaki shadow, coupled with the extremely myopic, and almost panic stricken response of the Government, which was a case of too little too late.

Oh, and while it may disturb the flow of the words, I must of course mention here that we have a little case of a full scale war, given the title of #ZarbeAzb, going on just hours away from where the street show is taking place. Relevant? Maybe!

However, this is not about a comparison of performance. This is more about planning. No matter how dissatisfied I am with the performance of the government in power, how can I ever think of throwing my lot with people who cannot even look up a weather map before planning the biggest disruption to civic life in two major cities at a time.

This is August. The season, despite #ClimateChange and shifting monsoonal pattern, is still a rainy season. If the ‘planners’ within Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri’s camp do not trust their own country’s Met department, there are plenty of weather sites that would have told them well in advance that these days would be rainy days. If they had extrapolate the data of the past few years, the result would have been the same.

So if the March Hare and Mad Hatter cannot get this basic information before putting the biggest open air show together, inconveniencing thousands (no, it didn’t turn out to be a Million Man March after all) of citizens of Lahore and Islamabad and all the places in between, then please, you can’t expect me to entrust them with my fate!

Written by afiasalam

August 17, 2014 at 11:18 am


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