Sep 5, 2010

Flood of negative soundbites

The media has wrongly pitched army against the government while comparing relief activities -- army is part of the government, not a separate entity

By Adnan Rehmat

The floods ravaging Pakistan are biblical: 20 million affected, 16 million displaced, 1 million homes washed away and 2 million jobs lost. Hunger, disease and exploitation loom large. The disaster response to provide emergency relief and support for recovery, however, has been far from adequate or satisfactory.

This much pretty much everyone agrees on -- whether they are the affectees or the helpers, and whether they are in Pakistan or abroad. What no one even after five weeks agrees upon in Pakistan is how much needs to be done and how. And who should do what. Or from where to get the resources needed to overcome a challenge even the most developed countries would struggle to. And a big part of the reason for this is the media coverage of the disaster.

What is becoming clear are the public perceptions and global impressions -- for better or for worse -- about who is doing a good job at providing succor for the aggrieved and who is struggling and who is failing. The general impressions are that the governments, both federal and provincial, are failing and the army is succeeding. That the politicians have been found wanting and the civil society are only marginally better. That the international community, particularly the West, has been tight-fisted with the purse strings while the Muslim world has been helpful. All these impressions, honed by the media, are questionable.

Coverage of floods and flood relief are two things

The Pakistani media -- much heralded, in most parts correctly, as the principal influence in positively shaping opinions and mobilising public support on the monumental socio-political national shifts that have occurred in the past five years, such as movement for an independent judiciary, transition from military dictatorship to democracy and fighting terrorism -- has emerged as a bit of a misguide on the issue of coverage of flood relief.

While the coverage of floods and the destruction is concerned, make no mistake the media has been top-notch, bringing vital, consistent and reliable information from the waters as they washed away lives and livelihoods across large swathes of Pakistan, to the dry lands of people and policymakers’ homes and offices. This information has helped people and groups galvanise to coordinate relief efforts.

However, the media coverage of the flood relief efforts is found wanting in general and unprofessional, inappropriate and inconsiderate and even misleading in many instances. Consider: the coverage of relief centres on help offered by four sectors – efforts and success of the governments (both federal and provincial), the military, the civil society (including non-governmental groups and individuals) and the international community. There has been criticism, sometimes harsh and unwarranted, on all counts, except for the military.

The army and the

government are one entity

While understandably the main focus of the coverage has been the government’s response to the crisis and the inevitable inadequacy of the scale and scope of this response, this coverage is almost always "balanced" through almost equal billing to the relief activities of the army and in many instances a comparison of the two responses, particularly in talk shows that dominate Pakistani evenings on current affairs television channels. This is perplexing because the army is part of the government, not a separate entity. The army is neither an NGO, nor an international group or even a private national enterprise. So why should the government and the army’s relief activities be compared in the first place comes as a surprise.

The media, in general, is not, for instance, projecting the flood relief activities of Wapda, Pepco, Pakistan Railways, PIA, the state gas companies, PSO, PTV and the police, etc – which are all government owned and managed, and all of which despite themselves being affected by the floods are mobilising their own scarce resources for the disaster affectees and which are also keeping the essential services running and making the larger relief operation possible. And yet while the army does the same, the media portrays their activities as stand-alone, independent and out of proportion to the other government actors doing the same.

What is not in question are efforts being done by the military for the general relief, but what is unprofessional is media’s packaging and presentation of this effort as independent of the government. The military is run, managed and supported by taxpayers money, not through private business, therefore, its output has to be seen as part of the government’s effort. The media is failing to see the wood for the trees just because the army has uniforms and the other government departments or organisations don’t have them.

Choppers and boats belong to people, not army or government

Also, when the military is portrayed as the principal actor in saving lives and the stranded people by using helicopters and boats, the unspoken but inherent message being conveyed to the public is that the government is failing in this task by not using these instruments. Well it is the military part of the government that is supposed to have them and use them. The helicopters and boats have been purchased by people’s money through the government. The media is failing to make the distinction that the military using helicopters and boats is actually the government using them to rescue people.

A comparison of the Pakistani media coverage of the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods shows that an absence of media hostility against the military government in general (the hostility was only born in the wake of the 2007 sacking of the chief justice by army chief General Pervez Musharraf) meant that the media focused on only the relief effort. And because the military was in power the media in 2005 did not make the distinction between the army and the government. In the case of flood relief coverage, however, the media is clearly making a non-existent structural distinction between the civilian government and military leadership.

There aren’t two sides but only one side to choose

This is sad because the media is projecting its general hostility to the civilian government -- largely driven through a near universal media dislike of President Asif Zardari -- to its coverage of relief effort. Irrespective of whether media’s general hostility to the civilian governments, both federal and provincial, is well-placed or not, employing the general perception of the governments being inept and even indifferent sometimes to construct a parallel with the military means the media is directly responsible for propping up the military as a governance alternative to a bumbling democracy by treating the two as separate standalone entities rather than parts of a whole.

There is no doubt the military is doing great work in the relief phase. The credit goes to the government that one of its biggest departments is doing well, just as its other departments are also doing albeit to varying degrees. The general inadequacy of the government’s response should not be oversimplified by the media because of which people’s perceptions are shaped disproportionately to actualities.

The government definitely needs to do far better to match the expectations of the unfortunate millions affected by the floods but the kind of understanding and support the media offered in 2005 helped build the confidence and trust of all Pakistanis and the international community and massive amounts of resources were mobilised that went a long way to help the affectees of the devastating earthquake. Partly because that isn’t happening now and the media continues to construct and choose sides, Pakistan struggles to respond to a crisis of gargantuan proportion that even the super powers would have had trouble tiding over.

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