March 20, 2020; Washington D.C, USA; White House press briefing on COVID-19
NBC Reporter Peter Alexander: “Nearly 200 dead, 14,000 sick, millions are scared. What would you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?
Alexander’s question lasted nine seconds.
US President Trump: “I’d say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I’d say. I think that’s a very nasty question. And I’d say it’s a very bad signal that you are putting out there.”
Trump’s response lasted for about 40 seconds.
The clip of the exchange was a global viral sensation.
March 24, 2020; Islamabad, Pakistan; Prime Minister House Press Briefing on COVID-19
If I were to transcribe the questions and answers of “senior” electronic media journalists and Prime Minister Imran Khan, I’d need to write multiple articles, all exceeding any readable word limit, and yet miserably failing to make a sense of whatever the hell happened in that media meet, pardon my French. This article is going to be long too, I fear.
As the world buckles under the merciless COVID-19, the most developed countries are doing their fatigued best to operate within the limits of their overwhelmed healthcare systems. Italy is removing its dead in army vehicles. Iran, a country burdened under international sanctions, seems beaten, trying to make its emaciated medical facilities work. The USA, with its inexplicably late response to the enormity of COVID-19, is closing one city after the other, agonised where to treat its daily-increasing cases of COVID-19.
The media in most countries has a single-point agenda: COVID-19. In Pakistan, media also has a single-point agenda: how to politicise coronavirus while saying how not to politicise coronavirus.
Past midnight, later that night, after watching in entirety, on YouTube, the March 24 media briefing, it dawned on me: I had brand-new respect for Prime Minister Imran Khan. His patience, his unflustered appearance, his countless “baat toh sun lain” (please hear me out), Prime Minister Khan, today, is a motivational force for all those high on self-imagined power and Twitter following who need to calm the hell down, and ask themselves a question or dozen.
I listened to each and every word. Despite being used to for years to Pakistan media’s theatrics and penchant for sensationalism, the Punjabi chatterbox me was dumbfounded. Hurling expletives at my laptop screen at 2am would have been the reflex, but I’m wary of redundant actions. It was the questions that had me baffled.
It was not that the questions were hard hitting. If that was the intention, they missed the mark by a mile or two. Most of the questions, some of the most well-known talk show hosts asked, were sarcastic, patronising, and meant to mock or demean. They didn’t even bother to word them in a manner that would at least pretend to be the right protocol for an interaction with the prime minister of the country.
If it wasn’t for the timing, it’d have been just another media interaction between the prime minister and talk show hosts, smug in their power of reaching millions of screens across Pakistan, and wherever Pakistani TV channels are viewed. When the world is united in its agony of once-in-a-century pandemic, where almost all the countries of all the continents except Antarctica are watching in terror-stricken sadness their young and old, their rich and poor, their healthy and frail testing positive for coronavirus, and when the international media has synchronised all its coverage and reportage to COVID-19, the March 24 Pakistan media event had questions and remarks that had not much to do with coronavirus.
Some were genuine questions about the governmental steps regarding coronavirus. Some were insults thinly disguised as important queries about COVID-19. The ones that made Twitter headlines were all direct attacks on the prime minister of Pakistan. It was the timing that made the questions–otherwise expected from most Pakistani anchors–that became a huge question mark on the integrity of their profession.
Now I’m thinking why I’m even surprised. The seriousness of Pakistan electronic media’s coronavirus coverage is a daily display, in all its macabre garishness, in its prime time shows, inexorably shifting from an apparent serious discussion on the pandemic to a who-will-insult-the-other-louder-and-dirtier match.
That night, as I watched the PM-media interaction I felt sad. It was if some of the most renowned journalists of Pakistan had come fortified with barely hidden daggers to settle some personal scores. Asking hard questions is solid journalism. Questioning governmental decisions is the prerogative of a responsible media. Demanding answers for every questionable step taken in the time of an extraordinary national crisis is the unquestionable right of the media. What happened in that event was an unapologetic who will-insult-the-prime-minister demonstration.
The questions of those who claim to be the champions of journalistic morality weren’t to challenge the prime minister apropos his decisions regarding the coronavirus handling of Pakistan government. Their attacks were personal: on Khan’s alleged interference in National Accountability Bureau’s actions; on Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar’s alleged incomprehensibility of the coronavirus outbreak; Khan’s “vendetta” tactics against a certain journalist for Khan’s alleged nepotism regarding Zulfi Bukhari, Special Assistant to the PM for Overseas and HRD; Khan’s “inability” to grasp the dynamics of the coronavirus management in Pakistan; Khan’s “flip-flop” on a complete or a partial lockdown. It didn’t stop there.
Although Prime Minister Khan didn't lose his cool and remained composed and answered each and every question coherently, backing them with numbers, facts and solid plans of action, the patronising snubs didn't end. His very able team had answers to all the questions too. But most of the journalists in that room droned on, almost every question laced with sarcasm, negativity, and even disdain. It was a sad farce. Pakistan watched.
There was also a ten-minute tirade that opened with a direct assault on Khan’s “handpicked” cabinet–a global practice but in 2020 Pakistan an arrow to target Khan—and on Khan’s “mismanagement” of Pakistan’s economy. It ended with words that shocked all decent Pakistanis. That if the economy went bust, “Maine Imran Khan ka girabaan pakrrana hai ya… (Am I going to take Khan by his collar or…)
The monologue was on Khan’s “bad” economic advisers and their shoddy handling of economy. It had nothing on the global pandemic that since COVID-19 had threatened to bring the global economy to its knees. The global situation and that of Pakistan vis-à-vis coronavirus is worsening. But that wasn’t on the agenda of that gentleman. The outburst ended with Khan’s collar. That is probably when the journalist-turned-economist decided to stop to take a sip of water. Melodrama dries up the throat, it has been known to happen.
As Pakistanis, confused, terrified in self-isolation during the two-week long government-ordered lockdown, waited for a comment on coronavirus, the journalist-turned-economist became the representative of Pakistan’s business elite. Questioning the economic policies of a government that inherited an emasculated economy on the verge of a complete collapse is a very serious matter for media. It is always relevant. But not if, at the moment, it is on anything other than Pakistan’s present financial capability to handle the coronavirus pandemic that doesn’t have any foreseeable itinerary. Inserting a long, caustic commentary on economy in the middle of a coronavirus media engagement was simply an attempt to make the prime minister uncomfortable. The ploy didn’t succeed.
Prime Minister Khan announced a relief package that was clearly the outcome of long, exhaustive and well-planned work of Khan’s “handpicked” team. Imran Khan the politician and Imran Khan the prime minister has always been deeply concerned about the wellbeing of the people of Pakistan. Coronavirus, so far, is the biggest test of his leadership as the prime minister of the country with very limited resources.
On March 24, most of the media persons didn’t focus on the historic “economic relief and stimulus package of approximately Rs 1.2 trillion to support the poor and help local industry to offset negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.” In their prime time shows, they had politicians from different parties bicker like mean-spirited schoolchildren. That is the circus on our televisions every night. Coronavirus debates are political battles to belittle one another.
On the day of the media briefing, on their shows, they had one or the other “brave” journalist who had “challenged” the prime minister, interrupting him so many times it wasn’t like any government-conducted media engagement in any country that was fighting the virus that could be the mirror to the rarely-acknowledged aspect of humanity: the inessentiality of human existence. Pakistan’s media laughed and autopsied the unimportant aspects of the briefing. The package, the first of its kind, became a footnote.
On March 25, I attended my first-ever media briefing of Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. As the newly appointed Focal Person for English Print Media to Minister of Information, I was keenly interested to see the media interaction of the chief minister who had been since his swearing-in a constant topic of ad hominem criticism.
Attended by Minister of Health Dr Yasmeen Rashid and conducted by Minister of Information Fayaz-ul-Hassan Chohan, the briefing was a solemn event on a serious subject. Bureau heads of various TV channels asked brief, precise questions. Chief Minister Buzdar having ensured personal supervision of every coronavirus related step in Punjab answered every question calmly, backing every statement with the details of the work his government was doing all across the province regarding the prevention and treatment of coronavirus.
Pakistan media is not interested to highlight the work of Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. If they do that, who then would they have as their subject of gratuitous criticism?
Any conscientious media person in the time of a global pandemic doesn't need to be given tutorials on the do's and the don'ts of their duty. Using their power to reach millions, they report, inform, advise, warn, comfort, and unite. They describe the reality. They don’t hide the positivity. Emphasis is on awareness of coronavirus prevention. Highlighting the good work that is being done is also on their agenda. Is Pakistan media doing that? I leave that question to their consciences.
On March 27, Pakistan has 1,179 reported cases of coronavirus. The number of patients who have been successfully treated is 21. The number of the deceased is 9. The lockdown, in some places violated, is a silent reminder of how bad things are. Most of the roads of the big and small cities are deserted. Azaan is heard at midnight. Special prayers are offered in mosques, which have very thin attendance, and would perhaps be closed for large congregational prayers soon.
In the time of coronavirus, Pakistan’s media is playing politics-politics.
Pakistanis need to hear that despite it being a global pandemic that by now has affected 500,000 people, coronavirus will end. In four months, the cases went from 0 to 250,000. In one week, from 250,000 to 500,000. The terrifying reality of coronavirus is staggering. It is beyond the comprehension of most humans who thought every virus was fightable. Every day, the billions of us are proved wrong. Every day, we become a little more scared. We need reassurance. That it will end. We need someone in a position of power to tell us to be strong, that this too shall pass.
In every speech, Prime Minister Imran Khan consoles his nation. In every media interaction, the prime minister of Pakistan tells Pakistanis not to panic. In his tweets he advises the nation to chin up, observe prevention guidelines, practise self-isolation. In every address, he reassures the economically weak of Pakistan that he is there for them.
Prime Minister Imran Khan tells Pakistanis who are scared that he is there for them. He always is.