In October 2013, many will still remember, a minor girl was picked up from a hospital courtyard in Lahore in Punjab, raped and then let go. Albeit in terrible shape, she survived. The kidnapping was caught on tape and aired repeatedly by all current affairs TV channels for days. Much airtime and newspaper inches were devoted to the incident generating near universal outrage against the ill fate visited on the child. Rarely had a crime against children in Pakistan generated such high-intensity, long running prime-time media coverage that helped shine the spotlight on a depravity that is more widespread than thought. The quality of coverage was another issue altogether and generated controversy over its insensitivity and inappropriation. But that’s a debate for another time.
In November 2014 in Quetta in Balochistan, a similarly minor girl went missing. The kidnapping wasn’t caught on tape but the ending was more tragic: she was not just raped but also tortured and killed. She was an ethnic Hazara, the daughter of poor parents. There has been virtually no media coverage. The English language newspapers have carried some reports about it and the Urdu-langue print media even less. The TV channels are characterized by a near-deafening silence. Why this difference between media coverage of events of equally horrific proportions? The little lost girl in Lahore and the little lost girl in Quetta – separated by province, nationality, ethnicity, language, culture and sect. Treated with the same disdain by cruel men but differently by a media that otherwise seems to thrive on misery and sensation. Why this difference in coverage, then?
There are no written policies in the Pakistani media sector that dissuades media houses from covering certain themes, regions and people, of course. And yet the media in general prioritizes reporting of these partly by way of unwritten policies and partly by default. Unwritten policies dictate some taboos – the patchy and pitiable coverage of Balochistan in general and the misfortunes of the marginalized communities therein is the manifestation of pressures from both State and non-State actors. Highlighting issues and communities that touch communal, class and circumstance from Balochistan entail greater likelihood of blowback from pressure groups than it does in regions like Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Media has, therefore, learnt to navigate the competing demands and expectations heaped on them by the pressure groups in Balochistan. Restraint and approved rhetoric are the regulations for Balochistan when it comes to soundbites media.
The issues and events the Pakistani media covers are also heavily dictated by circumstance – four-fifths of Pakistan’s media density lies east of Indus: Islamabad, Punjab and Sindh. Hence these regions figure more, and more consistently on the airwaves, than the regions west of Indus: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan. This characteristic is, however, not just a manifestation of the fact that where the need for and about information is greatest is where it is least available. It is also a matter of audiences and, hence, advertisers.
Because the primary business of media is to sell its audiences to its advertisers, Pakistani media services information, commentary and analysis about regions on its screens where its viewers and readers are in bulk. It’s easier to attract eyeballs to outrage emanating from Punjab and Sindh than it is from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan. This is partly why the travails of thousands of people in Thar, despite not being an urban agenda, gets more coverage and more consistently than the plight of hundreds of thousands of IDPs from FATA who have been homeless in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Pakistani media is also, inevitably, choosy in its political bent. Overwhelmingly headquartered and operational in regions that are politically and economically more stable (east of Indus), their agendas are mostly urban (political and economic), their preoccupations those of middle classes (religion and business) and their priorities more profit-oriented (advertising and consumerism) than issue-based (development, empowerment or reforms – and which is also why opinion triumphs over analysis).
For the media, the victim in Quetta ticked off all the wrong boxes. She was a girl. She was a Hazara. She lived in Balochistan. She was poor. She was not a consumer. She was not urban – a refugee in Quetta, not a local resident. Pakistan’s media – while a compromised prisoner of its own market and moral dynamics – deals in the mainstream, not the marginalized. Despite the low-income background of the family of the girl victim of Lahore, she was in the ‘right’ province, had an urban background and provided the right backdrop to draw the right audiences that the advertisers clamor for. While both girls were equal victims, the Quetta girl child victim was never going to get even 15 minutes of accumulative coverage what to speak of the 15 days that the Lahore girl child victim got.
The author is a media analyst and media development specialist based in Pakistan. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or @adnanrehmat1
A version of this blog appeared on Dawn.com on November 13, 2014.