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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Coverage of Pakistan floods lacks urgency

Saturday, August 21, 2010 | 2:16 p.m. CDT

Charles Davis, Associate Professor, Missouri School of Journalism: It is a holy month for most people in Pakistan. Ramadan is under way, but millions of residents in this troubled country are now displaced. Recently, flooding has submerged one-fifth of Pakistan in water. Thousands of people have died, and thousands of children are at risk of getting cholera. Just this week, pilotless drone attacks killed at least 13 people. And if that isn't enough for one country to deal with at one time, there is also a renewed conflict between Pakistan and India over the disputed Kashmir Territory. How are these issues being covered in the U.S. and international press? How will Pakistan figure into the United States' continued efforts to stamp out al-Qaida? Today we have Qasim Nauman, editorial administrator of Newsweek Pakistan, in Lahore, Pakistan; Omar Waraich, contributing writer for TIME Magazine, in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Ashok Malik, columnist from Times of India, in New Delhi, India. Qasim, do you think the international news media is covering the situation in Pakistan accurately, broadly and effectively?

Qasim Nauman, editorial administrator, Newsweek Pakistan: In terms of accuracy, that is not the issue because in remote areas of the world, information is difficult to come by. But it is the scale and the scope of the coverage that seems to be a problem because, if you look at the coverage of other comparable disasters like Haiti or even the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, there was a pronounced sense of urgency in the international media. That doesn't seem to be the case. While there is a lot of print coverage, you don't see the same kind of urgency in the television coverage. Perhaps that is one reason that donations have been slow to come by. At least, that is the sense in Pakistan among on-ground aid workers as well as some of the local media.

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Davis: Very interesting. Omar, I was reading a column of yours in TIME Magazine online. Can you tell us a bit about President Zardari's visit to Sindh and the political implications of that?

Omar Waraich, contributing writer, TIME Magazine: There is a lot of criticism of Mr. Zardari. When the flood devastation became apparent, he chose to go to Europe instead of staying at home as many people had urged him to do. When he returned, he came to Sindh Province, where I was at the time. It was seen very much as a choreographed affair. It didn't sit particularly well with the people in that southern province. Sindh, of course, is a natural political base for the PVP. A lot of the agricultural land there has been devastated, ruining crops, rice crops at the moment and wheat perhaps later. There was very little aid and very little sign of the government. Water diversion techniques have been mismanaged as had places for the displaced people to stay. Several tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, so they are putting up makeshift shelters at railway stations or in derelict school buildings. There is a lot of anger, given that this is Mr. Zardari's home base. The government's neglect hasn't gone down well.

Davis: Ashok Malik, how does the flooding affect relations with India?

Ashok Malik, columnist, Times of India: Other than a small fringe, most people have responded with sobriety to the problems in Pakistan. While our capacities to cope with the disaster of this magnitude are probably better than Pakistan's government, this easily could have been India's problem. However, people have commented on the inability of the Pakistani government to respond to multiple challenges, whether economic challenges of its own people, relief and rehabilitation challenges of the flood or the challenges of extremism within Pakistan. That seems to be a recurring theme and is a huge domestic issue that unfortunately has implications well beyond Pakistan. Also, some nongovernmental private groups have been accused of harboring Islamist extremists and have stepped in to fill in for what the Pakistani government or local governments have not been able to address.

Davis: There are many different issues that we're juggling here. I think one of them from the U.S. interest is working with the Pakistani government as well as the Indian government in combating terrorism. How do you see the floods affecting counter-terrorism, Qasim?

Nauman: From the U.S., which knows that its interests are at stake, there has been an influx of helicopters. At the same time, you have local political parties trying to not be confrontational but trying to score points off the government's lack of response. The government is always saying it is doing what it can with its capacity, and of course there is the threat of groups that are openly aligned with terrorist elements. It took a long time for the Pakistani government in the military, the government and the bureaucracy to get consensus against many groups that were operating in Pakistan. The groups affiliated with terrorists over the years have been very successful in doing photo ops, saying that we have been misrepresented; we are actually a welfare organization. So these are traps, and the only way they can be combated is efficient response to disasters and an efficient rehabilitation program.

Davis: Disasters offer real opportunities in terms of international aid response. They also offer real opportunities for radicalization if they fail. Omar, what is your sense of the level of relief and the extent of U.S. involvement in that effort?

Waraich: The U.S. is continually raising the aid it is offering from the initial figure of $10 million to $115 million. They have also been very active and visible in terms of offering helicopter aid and meals for people who are affected. They are very concerned that much or all of the damage in terms of lives lost is centered around the northwest province, which is also the center of Pakistani militancy. So whether this will win people over, win hearts and minds and alter the perceptions about the U.S. remains to be seen.

Davis: Qasim, could you comment on whether or not you see the potential for a thawing in the relationship between India and Pakistan? What does a disaster of this scope do to the tension that has been there for so long?

Nauman: It is interesting that just before we kicked off the show, Indian prime minister urged his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Gilani to accept the offer of Indian aid in the form of $5 million in cash as well some volunteer Indian organizations to operate in the affected areas. In terms of people-to-people contact, I would strike an optimistic note and say there is a great potential in both countries. As for more core issues such as Kashmir or the Indus Water System that is divided under the Indus Water Treaty, I don't think the floods are likely to change the core positions on both sides. However, there is great opportunity to foster people-to-people contact and trust, which has been so badly damaged following the Mumbai attacks. Both India and Pakistan need to be sensible about what needs to be done to better aid the people.

Davis: Omar, you wrote in your Time Magazine column that the difficult economic conditions have provided the political opposition with an opportunity. Yet you also conclude there is little prospect of a change in government. Can you give us a lay of the land politically?

Waraich: Politically, you have a coalition government led by Mr. Zardari as president. The largest party is the PLN, of the former President Pervez Musharraf, that has a poisonous history of rivalry with the People's Party. The fact that Mr. Zardari went to Europe instead of staying to tend with the floods was a source of controversy that the opposition raised. Then demands for foreign aid for example — Mr. Sharif said we don't need any foreign aid, and we can handle this ourselves. But beyond that, the opposition has been very careful not to be seen as trying to exploit a national tragedy on one level. None of the political parties really like to create a situation of unrest where the entire political class becomes discredited or it gives the army room for a backstage maneuver. The army is overstretched, and there is mechanism available at this moment to replace the government. However, you could possibly end up with a move against the government by the Supreme Court. Who knows, in Pakistan, as people here always say, it is all possible.

Davis: Ashok, this is sort of an unfair question. But can you give us some sense of the feelings of the Indian people for the suffering in Pakistan? How is it playing out in terms of domestic culture?

Malik: People do realize that this well could have been a battle scene. But there are continuing questions about the capacity of Pakistanis to address internal challenges. India and Pakistan have had a rough relationship, but things are much better today than had been historically. For one, there is no real prospect of a war. Pakistan has numerous challenges far beyond India, and it is not interested in a war, which would mean its economic ruin. This is quite an achievement for two countries that saw a war a few years ago.

Davis: Qasim, there is a lot of conversation in the American media about the threat of cholera, and certainly it looms over this entire disaster. What is the situation in terms of the spread of cholera now?

Nauman: Actually, it is far beyond just cholera outbreaks. We are hearing of diarrhea outbreaks, cholera, hepatitis A and measles. A large number of children are under 12, and of 15.5 million people affected, 2.1 million are under the age of five. In addition, there are 536,000 recorded cases of women who are pregnant and ready to give birth in the next four months. These are staggering figures. The risk of outbreak has been confirmed by people who are not talking about if it will happen, but when and what scale it will be at. It's why one of the biggest campaigns the United Nations is conducting is for medication and drinking water, which aren't enough to deal with the threats. Plus, most of these people are on the side of roads, in makeshift tents and camps. The close proximity of people, especially in such awful conditions, is the perfect place for disease to spread. It is not just a possibility. It is already happening, and that is one of the biggest things that the government, the United Nations and all other nonprofit organizations will have to deal with.

Davis: Omar, certainly the U.S. response was at least motivated in part by the opportunity the U.S. sees to spread some goodwill for the United States in Pakistan. Do you think the humanitarian aid will ultimately render itself into a successful PR effort? Or is it matched or countered by the U.S. use of drones in the tribal regions in Pakistan?

Waraich: There is resentment against the use of drones by large segments of the Pakistani population. But the closer you get to the tribal areas, the less resentment there is. These drone strikes have become increasingly accurate and have also taken out Pakistan's No. 1 enemy last year. There are broader anti-American feelings — some based on wild conspiracy theories and some based on historical reasons that affect the entire Muslim world. Where the aid effort is concerned, it is certainly significant that the U.S. is providing this aid and has stepped up its aid. In fact, John Kerry is here, and other people are raising the profile of U.S.'s contribution. But whatever contribution, it is not enough to the people on the ground.

Davis: Ashok, some publications in Pakistan are blaming India for exacerbating the flooding. What has the reaction been like in India?

Malik: For the past few months, there have been sections of Pakistan society, especially extremist sections, that have been alleging that Indian dam building and water projects are either drying up rivers in Pakistan or flooding Pakistan. These are two paradoxical consequences. But I would like to draw your attention to something the Pakistan foreign minister said a few months ago. He said most of Pakistan's domestic problems are water management. That is pretty much the position most government officials have in India. So I believe blaming India for Pakistan's water problems is more of political rhetoric than grounded in hard facts.

Davis: Qasim, the EU's foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, has said that she thinks the European Union should construct a 10-year plan for EU-Pakistani relations, which would in her words, "bring together military, humanitarian aid, development and trade under one umbrella." What do you think of that, and how possible is that?

Nauman: As far as the European Union is concerned, the Pakistani government has been going over to Brussels to figure out better trade relations with the European Union. It remains to be seen how it is operationalized because there have been many promising beginnings in the past that have not amounted to much. So it really depends on how those negotiating and those working things out on both sides will give this opportunity.

Davis: Qasim, will you talk about the daily practice of journalism in Pakistan? Can you give a sense of press freedom in Pakistan and whether journalists generally face threats in their daily reporting?

Nauman: Journalists reporting over the last five or six years — increasingly in 2007 when President Musharraf started to have obstacles in his rule — have hit spots that were otherwise considered taboo or simply off limits. There are many issues from war zones in the tribal areas or in Balochistan, which is a troubled province in Pakistan. But overall, the practice of journalism in this country is concerned with what is ethical, how far do you go, etc. These are questions that have more to do with how the media is run rather than who is clamping down on it. In terms of reporting on this disaster and reporting on critical issues, this is much better than it was three or four years ago.

Davis: Well, the challenges Pakistan faces depend well beyond this most recent disaster. We'll see if in the coming weeks, months and years, the international community steps up to make a real difference.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Charles Davis, Associate Professor at the MU School of Journalism, was the moderator of this weekly radio program "Global Journalist." It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org. Other recent shows are available on the show's archives.


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