Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is our neighbour's tragedy not our own?

So why did the Indian media choose to ignore a huge human tragedy which, by virtue of its proportions, has to be considered “breaking news” by any objective criteria, asks KALPANA SHARMA
Posted Wednesday, Aug 11 23:50:10, 2010


On August 6, the BBC carried extensive reports on the terrible floods in Pakistan.  The estimated number of people affected stood at an incredible 12 million.  The number increases by the day and at last count stood at 14 million.

That evening I checked the main news bulletins on three English news channels, Times Now, NDTV and CNN/IBN. There was not a word on any of these channels about the devastation in our neighbouring country.

The next day, August 7, I checked five Mumbai editions of English language newspapers ' The Times of IndiaIndian ExpressHindustan TimesDNA and Mint—as well as The Hindu on the net.  Barring The Hindu, the only Indian newspaper with a correspondent in Pakistan, not a single paper even mentioned the floods although all carried news of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to the UK and his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

By August 8, some reports did appear but more often than not they emphasized the political angle, such as the criticism in Pakistan over Zardari's absence from the country, rather than the enormous humanitarian and ecological catastrophe.  For details on that, one had to read papers and websites outside India.

So why did the Indian media choose to ignore a huge human tragedy which, by virtue of its proportions, has to be considered “breaking news” by any objective criteria? Going by a traditional understanding of events considered newsworthy, any natural disaster affecting such a large population anywhere in the world would fall into this category. Disasters closer home merit even greater interest. Hence Pakistan's proximity also makes the floods there eminently newsworthy.

One could argue that floods are an annual phenomenon in vast swathes of the subcontinent and a media now obsessed with the exceptional or sensational is bound to treat such events as routine.  Indeed, two years ago the floods in Bihar that displaced 2.5 million people got more coverage outside India than in our media.

Yet one cannot fail to notice that torrential rain and mudslides in China were reported within a day of their occurrence while Pakistan's worst floods in 80 years had to wait longer for the Indian media to take note.

Even when reports appeared, they spoke of an angle that presumably would interest Indian readers, such as “terror” groups collecting funds for relief efforts much as they did for the Kashmir earthquake in 2005.

Does this, in fact, illustrate how the media on both sides of the border contributes to a narrow and limited picture that remains firmly fixated on the areas of dispute and conflict whereas our two countries, virtually joined at the hip, share much more in common than we care to admit?  The aam admi and aurat have similar problems. The natural environment is a mirror image in some parts, not to speak of overlaps in cultural heritage. Yet there is precious little of this other Pakistan in our media ' or of the other India in theirs.

If we read reports about the devastation caused by these floods, the problems of getting across relief, the misappropriation of relief funds, the efforts of civil society groups and the disappointment and anger against politicians, we would realise that our experiences during such natural disasters is not that different from theirs.

What is different is the trenchant and frank criticism of their leaders.  We tend to be far more polite. Read Café Pyala for a brutally frank take on current developments inPakistan and the role of the media. Here is a quote:

“So Zardari was an insensitive ass. But is that such breaking news that the media focus shifts entirely to undermining him? Were he not the president, would the suffering of the affectees of the biggest floods in Pakistan's history be any less? Would the administration become super-efficient? Isn't the issue of the inherent lack of capacity of the Pakistani state to deal with such crises a bigger issue than Zardari and his jaunts? Criticise him by all means but is a man chucking a couple of shoes in his direction really a bigger story than the tens of millions displaced from their homes? Or have we become so blinded by our rage and the cult of personality that we are willing to jettison all sense of proportion?”

Clearly, politics and entertainment and politics asentertainment have become far more important to media on both sides than the sudden and perennial tragedies that affect millions of ordinary people.

I want to end this column with a quote from Basharat Peer's searing “Letter to an unknown Indian” in the Economic Times (August 9, 2010). It addresses a similar issue, what the media chooses to report, what it chooses to ignore:
“When pain makes it difficult to articulate coherently, quiet remembrance helps. Like many other Kashmiris, I have been in silence, committing to memory, the deed, the date. The faces of the murdered boys, the colour of their shirts, their grieving fathers — these might disappear from the headlines, but they have already found their place in our collective memory. Kashmir remembers what is done in your name, in the name of your democracy, whether its full import ever reaches your drawing rooms and offices or not. Your soldiers of reason carrying their press cards might dissuade you from seeing it, comfort you with their cynical use of academic categories and interpretations of Kashmir, they might rerun the carefully chosen, convenient images on TV, but Kashmir sees the unedited Kashmir.”

Unedited Kashmir, unedited Pakistan, unedited India. Given current media realities, is this ever possible?


BVN said...

Thoughtful post.

Despite it's cruel hand, and the whole manufactured opinion, we still expect a basic level of human decency from the media. This was lacking in the coverage of Pakistan floods. Maybe they go with the analytics and market research, but personally such a media will land us all in trouble. It's good to see atleast a few opinions in blogs on this subject.

Mee said...

Look who is reluctant to give money to Pakistan's flood victims.
Incumbent govt has zero credibility. That's why no one trusts them and no one wants to provide aid to govt agencies. Instead all foreign/local aids come and distribute through NGOs.