As I indulge in a bit of channel surfing, an independent TV outlet catches my attention. The anchor is talking to a group of sobbing women. They are family members of Shumaila Kanwal, the 18-year-old widow of Fahim Ahmed, a young man who was killed along with another Pakistani in Lahore on January 27. They were shot by an American man named Raymond Davis, who was attached to the American consulate in Lahore. There are rumours that he was an undercover agent. The circumstances of the shootings have been murky.
Davis claims to have acted in self-defence when the two men tried to rob him. Though, that doesn’t explain why he supposedly carried unlicensed firearms and moved about in a car with fake number plates.
Ten days after the shooting, Shumaila apparently poisoned herself in protest. She was demanding justice. She feared that Davis would be sent home without a trial. “Blood for blood” were her widely-televised last words.
The media and the rumour mill
The American government has asked for diplomatic immunity for Davis under the Vienna Convention. The Pakistan government has chosen to be ambiguous on the facts of the case, saying the court will decide. In so doing, the Pakistan government has left public opinion at the mercy of the media, the opposition parties, and the rumour mills. They have already pronounced Raymond Davis guilty.
Anti-American feelings are running high in Pakistan these days. It is difficult to find anyone in the country who will defend an American who seems to be acting ‘highhandedly’ against an ‘innocent’ local. The high number of casualties from drone attacks over recent months have already provoked the people. This incident reminds Pakistanis of the archetypal “Ugly American” of the Vietnam war years. Not surprisingly, the political parties with an anti-US slant are trying to cash in on public anger.
I am shocked at the media’s role in the situation. One channel interviewed the dead girl’s family extensively after her death, interspersing the interview with images of Shumaila grieving at her husband’s funeral. That kind of sensational coverage stokes the fires of public outrage, which may lead to more violence and more deaths.
The same channel repeatedly played up Shumaila’s mother’s suicide threat. She said she was afraid of Shumaila’s ‘sacrifice going in vain’. It seems that some television producers would not mind another life lost, if it provides grist for the mill of sensationalism.
So, I wonder, is human life no longer sacred in Pakistan? The high level of violence in the country, withscores of innocent people being blown to bits by suicide bombers, is captured by television cameras. Horrific scenes of death and devastation brought into people’s homes by television has desensitised the public.
The horror of Davis shooting two men in broad daylight does not warrant the media egging on the bereaved family to take another extreme step. There’s no reason to pile horror upon horror.
The media’s job is to provide information to the public, not to become an actor in the political game. Finally free after decades of censorship and press controls, the media in Pakistan seems to have swung to the other extreme of irresponsible coverage. There is no professional code of conduct for 24/7 television. In their race to win the greatest number of ads, many of the independent channels have thrown discretion and journalistic caution to the winds.