No one is going beyond the floods

BY SHYAM G. MENON| IN Media Practice | 28/08/2010
The full picture of Pakistan’s month of sorrow has still not emerged. The rigour shown by media while reporting religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, is absent in the floods coverage,

Twelve years ago there was a devastating cyclone and tidal wave that hit Kandla in Gujarat. A day or two later, I found myself at the Kandla port. Beyond the port’s wharves, across the shipping channel, was a stretch of land described locally as an island. The major news that morning was the discovery of several dead bodies there. News teams on the wharf were eager to visit but probably because of health concerns and political worry, the authorities denied permission. Persistent in their demand was a foreign television crew. Pointing to a helicopter hovering over the island they insisted that all they wanted was for their cameraman to be on the chopper.

After a couple of days, I ran into the same television crew at the nearby airport. As we got talking I asked the senior correspondent whether he had managed to film on the island. He said yes and apparently it had been worth the effort because the scene of death was bad. ``I don’t know why the authorities fail to understand this. But if you don’t show it on television how will you get aid?’’ Kandla’s cyclone is today remembered as much for the lives lost as for the alleged inaction of authorities despite early warning. The latter was a story told by survivors, not the dead.

Disaster is visually shocking footage. Thankfully the foreign reporters covering Pakistan’s floods seem free of the ``ground zero’’ affliction of their Indian counterparts. They don’t overload the obvious with the dramatic. But on the few channels I get, I am yet to see any inquiry into the reasons for floods or a study of flooding despite it being not a flood but an entire season of flooding. Pakistan, like Punjab, is a land famous for its rivers. One of the oldest traces of our sub-continental civilization was the Indus Valley Civilization, suspected to have ended through ancient floods. The current season of havoc started ahead of the flash floods in Leh which saw the Indian media into ground zero reporting. With regard to Pakistan, sufficient time has elapsed to tell a story on the meteorological backdrop of the flood, the journey of water down the Indus, the controversy surrounding dams on Pakistan’s rivers, the preparations en route to face floods; even the paradox of often cited less water in sections of the Indus and this killer flow.

The difference between Pakistan and other regions hit by flood in the same season and in the same sub continent is quite likely that Pakistan has more distractions and prejudices to overcome before governance gets cracking. There is old enemy India, new enemy America, internal enemy Taliban, pet obsession Kashmir, several home grown militant groups and after all that and religion – there is normal life. Calamity on the other hand is the abject opposite of bureaucracy and complicated human existence. Nature’s elements have clear destiny. That’s what the floods did – wiped the slate clean, temporarily silenced the guns. Can Pakistan, lost to several conspiracies, focus on relief work or will it relapse to distractions in the brain? Pakistan is not the only guilty country. South Asia reeks of distracted society and governance. What we see through drought, disease and flood are varying shades of distracted response to tragedy.

The rigour shown by media while reporting religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, is absent in the floods coverage. Perhaps I am to blame – but in none of the television reports I came across, was I getting a sense of what it was like to be handed a natural disaster atop that country’s man-made tragedies. It was as though the known industry of extremist politics and the emergent flood were two separate, destructive gentlemen toying with the same victim. Convergence in the victim and the latter’s pathetic condition didn’t seem to make both causative agents, villains. So far, the politics appears spared. It is nature that is completely at fault. To me the full picture of Pakistan’s month of misery is thus yet to emerge. We haven’t been told why the state falls short, what the situation of its administration and economy is to face such crisis. Instead, it is still, visuals and narration that would fetch aid. If it wants, by subtly shifting focus (whenever it chooses to) from Pakistan to Pakistan in today’s world, the media can not only bring in aid but also address a situation that the world is exasperated dealing with and wants nothing but to see settled. The whole world has paid for strident religion and South Asia’s restlessness.

Today, that perspective is available only on the Internet where you can shuffle between a Pakistan before floods and the current floods. The flood appears a case study delineating the respective value of different types of media in our times – television for impact albeit merely impact; print to go just beyond impact and Internet for understanding and resource. Still one would think that a month of evolving news is long enough for television to move on from aid and piece together a comprehensive story. The Internet – including the websites of television channels – has far deeper content. Television channels have all it takes to tell the story on air – they have resources, reporters, archival footage, access to locations, politicians and bureaucrats eager to talk, governments happy to fly them around and in-house weather bureaus. So why don’t they?

Few days ago, there was a diversion from the set broadcast theme. But it was not into why the floods happened, what was happening before floods, the state of Pakistan’s governance, the state of its economy and thereby whether it can tackle the crisis. It was on how the Americans were beginning to win hearts in the affected regions by lending their army helicopters to ferry people and supplies. Meanwhile our friend, the correspondent from Kandla, is now in Pakistan. As I watched dispatches filed from helicopters in another livery, I also kept looking out for his new island. When the media reports disaster, the island – not the island in the world – is news.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


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