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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

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

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

Posted in Media

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‪#‎KarachiAirportAttack‬: We learn from history, that we NEVER learn from history

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The story developed like a gathering storm. First there was news of a security breach when some armed men cut through the fence from the “Fokker gate’ near the Ispahani Hanger, close to the Pehelwah Goth area which had already been cited as a security risk many times.

Ispahani hanger

Ispahani wide-body aircraft maintenance hangar at Karachi Airport in early 1980s. In late 1970s, PIA spent more than 17 million US Dollars for construction of a new hangar capable of housing two wide-bodied aircraft. The construction of hangar and related workshop was completed and commissioned in 1980. The hangar has been named after Mirza Ahmad Ispahani who was the longest serving chairman of PIA from 1955 to 1962.

Television audience was just trying to catch its breath over the horror unfolding in Taftan, on the Pak-Iran border where over 22 Shia Zaireen lost their lives to a suicide attack, in a manner that has such a familiar, horrible ring to it.

As if that breaking news was not heartbreaking enough, news about the security breach at the Karachi Airport wherein ASF check post was attacked splashed across the screens.

First it was that the ASF personnel had been injured and the intruders had come in. Then the entire incident snowballed wherein they not only killed the ASF personnel, but a PIA employee in the Cargo terminal, as they moved rapidly deeper into the Karachi airport.

The fire fights broke out, Rangers moved in to assist the ASF personnel, sounds of blasts and heavy weaponry rent the night air, and then there was news of the terrorists moving towards an international airliner on the runway, ready to depart, and stiff resistance in which they were able to hit an oil depot, sending out leaping flames billowing smoke.

Karachi Airport Attack

The media rushed into this chaotic scene, and added to the confusion by throwing in unconfirmed, unattributed, very speculative news, including that of aircraft on fire.

That there can NEVER be any short cuts to experience was very clearly visible on a couple of channels who rushed their senior reporters. That is where some voices of sanity could be heard. The rest were proving prime examples of irresponsible journalism, which showed that the back-end support from the newsrooms was just as lacking in experiencing and ability to deal with such crisis.

Troops movement were shown, until better sense prevailed, Names of the fallen personnel were being aired, when protocol as well as sensitivity demands that the family be notified before the names are revealed. Bodies were shown, their condition graphically described, location of the mortuary as well as injured personnel was revealed too. This is all against the agreed media norms.

When will the media learn?  Despite being involved in media trainings, it is at times like these I feel it is a losing battle. Pakistan is supposed to be a ‘happening place’.. not for all the right reasons, but even then, these happenings provide ample opportunity for the media to learn and improve itself, for practise is supposed to make you perfect, instead of being repetitively imperfect!

However, that is whole different discourse. Let us talk about the ‪#‎KarachiAirportAttack‬. How is history repeated? Why was the name of the Mehran and Kamra airbase bandied about? And why has a huge sigh of relief been heaved simply because in the final analysis, the ‘assets’ remained safe.. despite the loss of 16 precious lives.

Is it because, as reports during this crisis indicated, prior warning had been received of an imminent attack on the Karachi Airport, and yet it happened? just like in the case of Mehran and Kamra bases? If that warning had been given a week ago, what extra security measures had been taken? was the alert level raised to match the threat level? Apparently not.

The ‘jungle’ that is being mentioned across the perimeter fence from where one group of these terrorists intruded is not a Redwood forest.. those are just bushes which in any case should not have been obscuring the view of any person on watch, if there was one.

The area adjoining Pehelwan Goth should have extra security not just because of its proximity to a populated area, but because of the presence of the operational installations of the airport, like the RADAR, which are located there. They are much too easily accessible.

Also, even after the end of the operation, the other entry point has not been mentioned, despite acknowledgement of the fact that the terrorists came from two different points.

However, what bothers me, and takes me back to another incident at the Karachi Airport, way back in the mid 80’s.. in September 1986 to be precise when the PanAm Flight 01 was stormed by terrorists, who has entered the airport effortlessly, because they were wearing ASF uniforms, and were in a van with ASF markings.

They were just saluted in, and went right up to the aircraft, and boarded it, making the passengers hostage. The crew, following protocols, escaped from the cockpit so the terrorists were not able to get the plane to fly to a destination of their choice. The saga lasted for over two days, and had a violent and bloody end with over 20 people killed when Pakistani commandos stormed the plane, killed most of the hijackers, but not without loss of life to the passengers either.

So is being in a uniform enough of a right of passage to even high security areas? Is this attitude that is the Achilles heal of our security set up? Why hasn’t the protocol of  questioning persons of one’s own force trickled down through the forces that are manning the entry points. There MUST NOT be any exceptions to the rule… be they women, children, people in uniform, specially those wearing your own uniform.

It is these lapses that have cost us dearly in the past, but we never seem to learn from them. These people entered not only wearing uniforms, which are not really all that hard to acquire, but came in with heavy weaponry. Irrespective of the origin of those weapons, which again is the subject of another debate, the fact that so much armament cross the security parameter of the largest civilian airport of the country is scary prospect.

One doesn’t want to take anything away from the round of congratulations taking place at the ‘end’ of the operation in which ASF, Rangers, Sindh Police and the Zarrar Force of the Pakistan Army ‘cleared’ it of the terrorists within 5 hours.

3 of the intruders blew themselves up, 7 were taken down.. none survived so the who, when, what, why of the incident will need some other modes of answers. 16 others lost their lives, ASF, Police, Rangers, PIA and CAA staffers. 22 have suffered injuries of varying degrees and severity. Aircraft remained safe and just the cargo building suffered damage.

But isn’t there another damage we need to assess amidst all the thumping of the chest and backslapping? The damage to an already fragile image of the efficacy of intelligence and security apparatus which is supposed to pre-empt, and prevent these incidents. Damage control and fire fighting takes the shine off the remarks about the ‘ability to deal with all manifestations of terrorism’ etc.

Or is it this very question that is damaging?

Written by afiasalam

June 9, 2014 at 3:24 am