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Paradise Lost?

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

April 14th, 2009

By now anyone with any access to media anywhere would have heard, read about and probably seen a video of the flogging incident in Pakistan, news and visuals of which were apparently circulated via mobile phones and the Internet before the event was reported by The Guardian and, I understand, The Times in the UK on 2 April.

The news was picked up by Pakistan’s independent TV channels the following day, triggering a strong public reaction that was prominently reported in the country’s print media, with some papers making it the first lead. By the next day there were condemnatory editorials in the liberal press in Pakistan.

According to senior Pakistani journalist Zubeida Mustafa the initial coverage of the incident in the national media was balanced, with the Taliban spokesman’s justification of the punishment duly reported alongside reactions from civil society.

However, the public outcry that followed appears to have prompted some backtracking by the Taliban, with suggestions that the video was a fake being floated despite confirmation by sources in the Swat Valley that the incident had taken place even though the date on which it happened could not be established.

After that, says Mustafa, there was an perceptible split in the reaction of the media, with some TV channels and publications providing excessive space to those questioning the credibility of the video and the timing of its release, suggesting that it was part of a conspiracy to defame the country and/or Islam and to sabotage the controversial and complicated peace deal between the Taliban and the government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Swat, a beautiful area long known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, situated in the remote, semi-autonomous tribal region of Malakand.

Incidentally, the deal - which appeared shaky in the wake of the flogging incident - has just been strengthened with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, backed by the National Assembly, approving controversial Sharia regulation for the Malakand division of the NWFP on Monday.

Pakistani journalist and media activist Tasneem Ahmar has another take on media coverage of not only the flogging incident but other controversial events and issues involving religion. According to her, some sections of the media tend to go overboard in their eagerness to establish their progressive credentials, generating highly-charged debates on religious beliefs and practices that only serve to widen the gap that exists between secular individuals and groups on the one hand and ordinary people of faith on the other. Journalists, especially television anchors, need to be more conscious of their own limitations in orchestrating media debates on religious matters, she says. According to her, public opinion in the country was by and large against the flogging but people tend to be sensitive about what they see as unnecessary criticism of their faith.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the coverage on Pakistani television but I can imagine what she is talking about since most Indian TV channels, too, tend to set up “debates” on controversial issues by pitting people at extreme ends of the opinion spectrum against each other and in the process generating a lot of sound and fury that, in the end, signify very little. And I agree that often such slanging matches are, in fact, counter-productive.

However, there have been some insightful articles in the Pakistani press on the flogging incident and beyond. Here are links to some of them:

Zia’s children” by Ayesha Siddiqa

A catalyst for change?” by Zubeida Mustafa

My fanatic versus your fanatic” by Jawed Naqvi

A state adrift” by Cyril Almeida

The high cost of surrender” by Irfan Husain

Swat flogging & public outrage” by Beena Sarwar

Anyone interested in more background on what has been going on in Swat since the Taliban take-over of the area may also like to read the February 2009 edition of Newsline (a unique, independent, staff-owned current affairs magazine founded in 1989 by a group of Pakistani women journalists), which focuses on what it describes as Paradise Lost.

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