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Journalists Have Learnt Nothing From The Dreadful Phenomenon Of Suicide Bombings

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Umer Farooq describes how reports on suicide bombings in the urban centres of Pakistan lacked the political and security understanding of the events. He delves into the reasons why such reporting took place and argues that not much has changed. 

Initially, the phenomenon of suicide bombings came as a shock to Pakistani society and generated a sense of disbelief and state of denial among the intelligentsia, media and state machinery. Public discourse that came out as a response was that of incomprehension. The initial columns in the Pakistan newspapers written after initial episodes of suicide bombings discussed the phenomenon from the perspective of Middle Eastern societies, which is considered the place where suicide bombings took their birth as a form of terrorism. It seems Pakistani intelligentsia was not ready to accept that this scourge had hit Pakistani society.

As Pakistani society came to be in the grip of wave of suicide bombings in the wake of July 2007 military operations against Lal Masjid militants, there appeared many signs on the horizon that the society was not prepared to deal with the threat. In fact, the public discourse indicated that the intelligentsia, media and state machinery were in a state of denial and were reacting as if this was not happening. One clear sign that Pakistani society was ill-prepared to deal with the threat became visible on the pages of newspapers and the way news outlets reported the incidents of suicide bombings, especially those that took place in the urban centres of the country like Lahore and Peshawar.

Lahore and Peshawar became the main targets of the terrorists and suicide bombers. Terror incidents in these big urban centres created quite a spectacle and became the focus of local and international media outlets. Ironically, throughout this period, Pakistani newspapers continued to treat suicide bombings as ordinary crime stories.

Most of the time, the crime reporters of the newspapers were assigned to cover the suicide bombings, with the obvious result that the stories next day were completely devoid of the political context in which these suicide bombings were taking place.

Interestingly, most of the time, this was not the case with the reporting of incidents of suicide bombings in tribal areas and other troubled areas like Swat, where, the person reporting the incident was usually well versed in the politics of the region, with the result that the stories of suicide bombings in tribal areas were usually supplemented by the political context in which these bombings were taking place.

A second more plausible reason for the inclusion of political context in the reporting of suicide bombing in the tribal areas, perhaps, was the awareness among the tribal journalists about the tensions between the military and the tribal militants that provided the backdrop of these bombings.

For example, a news story about suicide bombing in Mingora, Swat, on January 8, 2008, in Daily Dawn contained the background of the tensions between the military and Mullah Fazlullah-led militants in Swat valley, which, according to the report was the most plausible backdrop of the suicide bombing. In this incident, the suicide bomber blew himself up in an explosive-laden vehicle near a military base camp in Kabal on January 7, 2008, injuring 10 people including eight soldiers. The attack took place during curfew hours.

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A paragraph of the report of the bombing in Daily Dawn reads, “On Sunday, Maulana Fazlullah, through his FM radio, asked his followers to launch attacks against security forces…. The security forces have been consolidating their positions in upper Matta tehsil and bracing for a final assault on the hideouts of militants in Ghut Peuchar, Shore, Chuprial and other areas.”

In other words, the reports from the tribal areas about suicide attacks clearly explained the political and military situation in which these bombing attacks were taking place. The situation of reporting of suicide bombings incidents in the big urban centres was completely different.

For example, a report of a suicide bombing attack in Lahore in The News International on January 11, 2008, contained no background information about the political or security context about the situation in which this bombing had taken place.

At least 20 policemen and three civilians were killed and more than 73 others were injured, some of them seriously, on Thursday, January 10, 2008, when a suicide bomber blew himself up amidst policemen deputed at GPO Chowk outside the Lahore High Court to provide security to a lawyers’ rally.

In this report, the incident is treated purely as a crime event, where the reporter quotes officials – both policemen and intelligence officials –  about the nature and timing of the bombing, the intended target, the number of killed and injured, the rescue operations of the district administration and the initiation of investigations by the police and intelligence agencies. But there was not a word about the political or security context in which this bombing took place.

Another example of this type of reporting is a report in The News International on February 5, 2008 , about the incident of a suicide bombing in which an attacker rammed his motorcycle into an Army Medical Corps (AMC) coaster in RA Bazaar, killing at least 11 persons, including six uniformed and civil personnel of AMC, and critically injuring over 45 others. This report contains everything that would make it a good crime story, but nothing on the political and security conditions prevailing at the time.

It is not that Pakistani newspapers gradually learnt how to report the incidents of suicide bombings and in the later period added political and security context of the bombings in their reports.  The reports in the newspapers in the later period continued to be devoid of political and security context. Can this be described as negligence on the part of the newspapers and news reporters? Or is it simply the lack of knowledge among the reporters of urban areas about the tensions in the tribal areas, which most plausibly defined the context of those bombings, that led to such flawed reporting?

Precisely speaking, Pakistani society doesn’t seem to be on the learning curve as far as the phenomena of terrorism in general and suicide bombings in particular are concerned. They just seemed to have endured a dreadful experience and tended to forget about it in the long run. The society doesn’t seem to have created a database of knowledge at the social level to meet this threat at any future point in time.

Newspapers and their systems are one primary example of this social amnesia – they seem not to have evolved any new model of reporting the suicide bombings incidents. A careful reading of the bulk of news reports about suicide bombing incidents indicates that the newspapers have adhered to the old model of reporting an accident or any spectacular crime event, without taking into account the shockingly terrorizing pain these events inflicted on the society. These shocking incidents demanded a new model of reporting, which should have contained not only the political and security context of the bombings, but also the entire new experience of terror which society underwent.

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The absence of a new model of reporting for suicide bombings could be explained at two levels:

A)   Newspapers treating the incidents as ordinary crime stories: The lack of interest among the senior political and security reporters in the newspapers to directly report these incidents is one of the main reasons which prevented the development and evolution of a new model of reporting. Crime reporters lack knowledge about the security and political context of the bombings. Some of the senior crime reporters like Shakeel Anjum of The News International do possess the required knowledge. But strangely enough, even his reports don’t contain information about the background of these bombings.

The question which still remains unanswered is why the newspapers and their reports continued to treat these suicide bombings in urban centres as local events, when all the indications pointed to the opposite. Pakistani newspaper readers did deserve better reporting of suicide bombings that happened in their vicinity.

B) Officialdom’s influence on the form of news reports: Officialdom greatly influences the form news reports take, especially where the reporter is completely dependent on the concerned officials for access to information and access to the places of events. Authors of badly written reports in Pakistani newspapers about suicide bombings may hide behind the excuse that this is all the information Pakistani officialdom shared with them about any particular incident of suicide bombing. However, Pakistani newspapers cannot be excused for keeping the public in the dark about the political and security context of the bombings. All the politics of suicide bombings was not happening behind closed doors; it was happening in the open.

It is an irony that the terror groups in our society can improvise to inflict the most dreadful pain on Pakistani society. But the society cannot innovate and improvise to create a response to the dreadful phenomenon of suicide bombings that can match and equalize the pain.

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