When it comes to diversity in storytelling and viewpoints in Pakistan, a right-wing man is pitched against a progressive woman and the anchor of the TV show just looks on as the fireworks go off.
This was said by Muna Khan, who moderated a webinar titled Unpacking the Media Coverage of Aurat March organised by the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA in Karachi on Tuesday. Journalists Asma Shirazi and Zebunnisa Burki were the guests.
The webinar discussed anti-women bias in reporting in Pakistani media, as well as the fraught experiences of women in journalism.
‘Diversity in coverage doesn't require a Khalil ur Rehman Qamar’
When editors send a reporter out to cover Aurat March, they have an idea about the nature of questions he or she will ask around in the field, said Zebunnisa. “But this year has been finer as far as the coverage is concerned.” She remarked that diversity doesn’t mean having “Piers Morgan talk about racism”.
“Eventually, the responsibility for all of this falls on whoever is sitting in the newsroom, print or on TV."
Having someone on the show who is right-wing is not the problem, but having someone "rabid" is. There is usually a young woman organiser and a lot of drama, which then becomes a clip used by people according to their own ideologies, she said. “Diversity should be there, but it doesn’t have to have a Khalil ur Rehman Qamar.”
Speaking about digital coverage of the Aurat March, Muna Khan said there were a number of bold discussions this year. “A reporter was questioning two young men about homosexuality and they conveyed their message so passionately despite the pushback.” When the reporter remarked that supporting homosexuality represents Pakistan in a negative light to the world, the interviewees retorted by questioning about minors being raped in madrassahs and Pakistan being on the FATF’s list. “Are we losing out on the young audience because these conversations are happening on digital and not in mainstream media,” asked Muna.
‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi is still misunderstood’
The Aurat March slogan Mera Jism, Meri Marzi (My Body, My Choice) sparked countless debates on morality over the past three years. When asked by Muna if the audiences have understood the meaning of slogan as journalists are still questioning the march organisers, supporters and detractors about it, Zebunnisa said: “Honestly, I think if they [women] were to say anything else with the word jism in it, it would have been a problem.” She said it is not just about the audiences’ understanding, but society’s objection to a woman using the word jism because [to them] it somehow denotes sexuality and is automatically labelled as that."
“I used to think until two years back that the slogan could have been packaged better, but finally figured out that nothing can be done about it because people will think what they think,” said Zebunnisa. According to her, the burden on women to explain this slogan is unfair and it is now the media’s responsibility to spell out its true meaning to the people.
“I don’t find anything wrong with it [the slogan],” said Asma Shirazi. “But it has been portrayed in a way that has painted the women raising their voices in a very different light.” Ours is a conservative society, she added, that thinks women have no problems and they are being given their rights.
There have been a number of shows that sided with screenwriter Khalil ur Rehman Qamar’s narrative, who is known for his misogynistic views and intolerance towards those who don’t endorse his opinions. But this year, such programmes were discouraged by newsrooms and the march organisers too played a positive role by removing controversial material from their campaign.
“People I have spoken to are taking this year’s march as an event that allowed women to express themselves,” said Asma.
The Aurat March disinformation campaign
Muna remarked that the youth is Pakistan’s largest demographic, but it is ignored by the TV to cater to older audiences. The conversation then shifted to false propagandas against the Aurat March organisers that made headlines. Muna said this year saw several journalists tweeting out misinformation which was dangerous to the organisers' lives.
“Anything can happen in Pakistan,” said Asma. “You can sell conspiracy theories here and they have sold really well, especially after Bin Laden’s operation [May 2, 2011].”
"When Orya Maqbool Jan and other senior journalists share these conspiracies," she said, "people listen because such material has a charm to it."
“I don’t think it was simple, it was all very well-organised,” she said, wondering about the groups who first dig out old videos, listen to them, edit them accordingly and then propagate the doctored material. “We all ignored it except Shahzeb Khanzada. Honestly, I myself was afraid I might spread misinformation more by discussing it on my show. We shouldn’t give these narratives bigger platforms.”
Asma revealed she herself has been at the receiving end of misinformation campaigns and that it is debatable as to whether such issues should be brought to the screen or adopted silence about. When people are tweeting doctored material even to create awareness about it, she said, no one can guarantee how people will take it. “The propaganda is stronger against women,” said Asma. “Take Meesha Shafi’s case. There are groups out there working minutely and rigidly on these campaigns.”
Zebunnisa believes the detractors of Aurat March resorted to disinformation because they didn’t have anything else this year. “These people had their constituencies waiting for them, so they had to do something.”
She too praised Shahzeb’s show on Aurat March and the way he brought in fatwas against false blasphemy accusations. “But they were all really walking on eggshells,” she said, referring to how sensitive and heated debates get when religion comes in. “There are so many men in our organisations, most of them reasonable human beings. But there are people whose actions and words are causing danger to other people’s lives. Shame from within the circle and calling them out will help. There has to be some peer pressure.”
Digital vs mainstream media
Muna said this year’s coverage saw two streams happening simultaneously: people doing journalism not only from their news organisations but also from their YouTube channels. “Is this opinion masquerading as journalism?” she remarked.
“Let’s face it,” said Zebunnisa. “There has been mass censorship over the years. It has become virtually impossible to give out a report to present whatever you want to say.” She said she wouldn’t take away the right to have a YouTube channel, but digital coverage of the march has raised questions. “There is a man who runs a YouTube channel and the way he behaved with a woman at the march was disgusting,” said Zebunnisa. “You can’t afford to go completely wrong unless you really are on the extreme end of the right.”
Asma remarked a specific perspective has been given space on YouTube over the last few years. “It sells chooran,” she remarked. “If you are watching a campaign on social media, you always need a counter-narrative to a narrative. People eventually turn to TV or papers to confirm what they see on social media.”
Expression is very important, she said, but the way an individual voices his or her expression is also equally important. “Express yourself, create your channels but act responsibly.” She denounced sensational headers and clickbait. “You have to balance things out, but voices that support the constitution, democracy and human rights should not control themselves. We created YouTube channels to avoid the censorship imposed on us. You have to break the censor, talk about it.”
“There are a number of topics that TV and the print are not covering,” said Asma. “Digital is getting powerful every day, and I think it has worked more on the march, negative or positive.” She mentioned the couple from the University of Lahore, whose proposal viral video shot on campus went viral, leading to their expulsion. “It was everywhere on digital. YouTubers were covering it, but the mainstream media didn’t cover it like the digital did,” said Asma.
She added that a specific tone has been set for conventional media, due to which audiences aged between 18 and 35 are drifting away from it. If these discussions are brought to the mainstream media, we will have greater audiences, Asma added.
"Digital has been categorised for stuff that doesn’t involve PDM or marches,” said Zebunnisa. “We have to catch up with it. TV, I think, is more restricted than newspapers. In papers we can still get away with a turn of phrase or tweak and the language, but it still involves a struggle at times to say something that would be bleeped out on TV. For instance, if a woman wants to write about menopause, Zebunnisa said, there’s always hesitation. “We have to bring politicians and legislators into these discussions because linking all of it to politics is also important.”
‘Women can make a difference in reporting’
When asked if having more women reporters on field could have made a difference in reporting, Zebunnisa said: “Women in senior editorial positions matter. It does matter only because your prism to view a story changes.” Talking about irresponsible reporting, she said an editor will only send out their most odious reporters if they themselves subscribe to problematic views and want a bad report. “The responsibility solely lies on the editor,” said Zebunnisa. “You can’t say oops later on. It’s bad journalism.”
Asma said more women are needed in newsrooms. “Women are not considered appropriate by managers for higher positions in newsrooms,” she said. “I was told during my pregnancy that I couldn’t do my show five days a week. They consider pregnant women useless.” Owners of media houses think women in newsrooms can’t work under pressure.
Asma believes women are more careful because they have to struggle harder trying to prove themselves. “They have to justify positions,” she said. “They try to balance things out.” Talking about people calling for balance in stories related to women’s issues, Asma said: “How are we going to balance a story about a woman who has been harassed, or women told they can’t march? You take a stand on certain issues.”
“The term neutral journalism irks me a lot,” said Zebunnisa. “You can’t endorse the slogan mera jism meri marzi and support its detractors at the same time. This is not balance.” She added that women come out and raise slogans for their rights only on one day of the year. There are rich, poor, working women and homemakers. Some placards were provocative, others were not. Unless women set out provoking people or sensationalising something, there’s nothing with marches.
“And women are already at the end of the ladder,” she remarked.