Climate journalism: Covering Pakistan's flooding crisis | RISJ seminar with Hamid Mir, Capital Talk
11:30AM Nov 2, 2022
Hello and a very warm welcome to everyone who's joining in from different parts of the world and of course to our fellows as well to another one of our global journalism seminars. We are very, very delighted and proud today to be welcoming our guest Hamid need. Just a little bit of context for those who may not know how many it has, of course, been a journalist from Pakistan for many decades now. He's been a prolific writer in newspapers. He also transitioned into television and has a signature show has been running on GOTV, which we will talk about at length through the course of this conversation. Hamid faced many crises and being a very vocal critic against authoritarian regimes. He has pushed back when journalists have been put in points of danger, and has in fact, had his own life. Pleased to exceed on a few occasions now, which I think is also something that we will chat about. The highlight for us, though, is the fact that Hamid, who has such a significant career in politics, also moved to reporting on climate change. And that happened when the devastating partisan floods hit that region. It wasn't something anyone saw coming in terms of its impact, and really the Havoc territory, even at this point post, the worst of it being behind the country. It looks like many many months will be will be spent in the water moving back. It looks like many regions, particularly the Sindh province have been affected very badly. The last few numbers of course, standard, nearly 500 were in that region. 200 of them are actually children. I want to shine a light on his reportage. But more importantly on his experiences as a journalist, but before that, and before I welcome him to this conversation. Here's just a small sort of slice of all the reportage that Hamid mated to the cause of the floods in Pakistan and the regions that he made it to and made sure that the voices from there
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voices of hope but also voices of pain and suffering. Hamid Saab Salam alikoum, thank you very much for joining in this conversation. We really appreciate you taking the time out for it. I'm sure watching those visuals must have brought a lot of those moments back to you and have probably been made fresh, you know, as we stand now we're looking at more than 2000 people dead 33 million people were displaced. As a journalist when when this began to unfold in June. Could you see it coming? What were the early days looking like in the newsroom when you all began to see the devastation that was spreading across across Pakistan?
Thank you very much for inviting me on this forum. And thank you for the introduction. Good afternoon and good evening to my viewers who are listening to me. This is a very important question because to be very frank, I'm not a climate expert. Yes, I have Goward natural disasters and climate disasters in the past as a journalist, but I cannot say that I am a climate expert. You remember that? There were floods in Pakistan in 2010. And I covered those floods. There was lots of damage and loss in 2010 Floods but this time the loss and damage was four times bigger than the previous 2010 flood. And despite the devastation and the tragedy, unfortunately the Pakistani media was not paying proper attention to this flood. The reason was the political atmosphere in the country. And in in June and July when the rains started, the monsoon started very early. This year. So I was feeling that this year, it may create some problem, but I was not getting space. In in my channel in my newspaper. So in July, I wrote an article in Washington Post. I thought that maybe they will give space to this issue and they publish my article. And I know that climate change is becoming a bigger threat to Pakistan than terrorism. So the headline of my column was very alarming. And many people including some government ministers, they, they they saw me here and there and this started debating with me and they said that you are centralizing a sensor sensationalizing. The issue is it is it is not that important. And this is sensationalism. I said this is not sensationalism, and I hope that I may prove wrong but let's see what happens. And within weeks the the rains start started all over Pakistan, and this time the rains in Pakistan were 3434 times more than the previous years and 1/3 of Pakistan was submerged into water. And then I started leading not nobody was giving me an assignment. Nobody was suggesting me from my own media organization that we should go and cover the floods. I thought that somebody will ask me that you have the past experience of sorry, recovering floods, so this is a time that you should go again and uncover the floods but nobody was asking me so I I requested my management that please allow me to do at least one show. I will i am ready to go in the field. And I want to do one show. If you go through the timeline of my shows, you will realize that I do my regular shows from Monday to Thursday. And you will notice that my first show about flat was on Saturday. Why Saturday because a slot was available from seven to eight, not from eight to nine which is the prime time I do show on prime time from eight to nine. A slot was sorry, please grab a sip of water. So a floor slot was available and I did my first show on Saturday that she will give some message and alarm other people and then I was allowed to do shows.
I'm going to sort of interject here just for a second because I think that's an important point you're making Hamilton. Share it with other journalists. As you said you've covered you've covered crises of many kinds. Pakistan has been witnessed not just to floods but to earthquakes as well. It has been witnessed to terrible terror attacks, which is also something that you must have reported on how do you as a reporter, equip yourself around issues of climate when you're literally doing it on the go. The floods are unfolding faster than a journalist can imagine. You don't have the kind of support that you would need in a newsroom which I think journalists across many parts of the world, especially in South Asia, perhaps struggle with how we put yourself with some kind of, you know, context climate context while reporting as a tragedy is unfolding.
Yes, this is a very important question that i i When my first show about the flood was aired. So my organization allowed me and I told them that I will go to all the areas which are affected by the flood and it was almost all over Pakistan. So I started from the northern area from Surat, and then I went to Charsadda, no, shara, then south Punjab, and when I reached sin, it was terrible. And when I sent the visuals and reports to my newsroom, they thought we never saw these visuals before that you are the first person and you will be surprised to know that I was the first journalist who reached to some affected areas and the people were telling me that no government no organization, no please no navy came here. They never reach there. You are the first person to reach there. And I was using a boat, a private boat. So then my my organization stood by me and then they said okay, now we are ready to give you whatever you want and they gave you full support. Then they extended me full support. Then there was a problem for me that the devastation the magnitude of the devastation was that so big, it was very difficult for me to cover that. And then I went to Blockbuster and there was water everywhere. destruction everywhere. There was human tragedy, and nobody was there to help the people. So as you know that I have covered wars, all almost in every conflict zone of of the world from Palestine to Iraq, from Kashmir to Bosnia and Chechnya, Syria everywhere. I never wept. I never cried. But in this flood in the in the month of August and September, you see, I cried again and again because there was so helplessness. People were so helpless. There was the government while the rest of the state was submerged in the water. There was no government. Everybody was underwater. I went to there is a district in Rajasthan and disobeyed for call district was underwater and I was moving on the boat and I reached I saw a police station. I saw a board of the police station, it was submerged. So the police officers were standing on the rooftop. So I reached there. So I said what is this? They said this is a police line and here is the police station. And everybody was everything was underwater. And I said where are the prisoners and they never responded. I said where are the prisoners? They said Mr. me actually, they are in the prison. I said, How can you say where is the prison? They said downstair underwater. I said what are you doing? What are you saying? Why don't you bring the prisoners on the rooftop. They said the rules does not allow us. I said this is a tragedy. This is a disaster. This is climate disaster. They said we know this is a disaster. But we don't know what is climate disaster. But there is there are some rules and we cannot go against the rules. So I realized that this climate disaster created a lot of administrative and legal issues. For the state. And then I pushed them that they will die out of waterborne diseases, so you have to rescue them. And then they contacted some high officials, those high officials they were also sitting on the rooftops and when I reached there on the boat, you know, the police officials they were asking help from me.
They were supposed to help the needy people but they were asking help from me what kind of help they wanted me that I should convey the message that they are in problems. They don't have food. They don't have boards. Please tell the bosses that we need these things. So you see this. This that was a terrible experience, especially the sufferings of the woman and children. I was not in a position to help them sometimes. I changed my role. Sometimes I was forced to change my role. I was a journalist. I turned into a rescue worker, but then I realized this is not my job. But you see you are a human being and sometimes your human instincts force you to start helping the needy people that you cannot focus on your on your professionalism. So
you know about it's a double edged sword sometimes for journalists who are reporting on a tragedy that is unfolding versus also shining a light on who is responsible for this action. So you know, while you were talking about the floods, sort of running commentary, also of your coverage was critiquing the government where they had indeed failed. I don't know if people caught it in that video that just played out. But there was a lady saying, My husband is hopeless and my government is hopeless. So either I switch up the husband or I switch up the government. Does that make it more tricky for you as a journalist to be to be reporting on a tragedy but also to be making very sharp critical points about government mismanagement? Did you did you get a free space to do that? Or were you being held back? Were you being advised to hold back while while making dosha Bucha comments
unfortunately, I faced a lot of pressure during my flood coverage because the main problem was in St. And Bridgestone and the governments and St. And Blodgett Stan and they were not in a position to provide the immediate relief to most of the victims. So it was understandable for me, but you see, I was in the field. And especially when I reached to the bow, home town of this chief minister of the same province, you see there was 16 to 18 feet water in his constituency. And the the water was touching the the electric electricity wires. And when the chief minister saw that program, he was very angry. Because most of the people in his constituency they were complaining that the never received any, any relief, or any help from the government and then the people were complaining about the courts, the thieves. So, you see, I faced a lot of problems and in some of the areas in the south Punjab, the local, feudal landlords, they used criminals to terrorize me and they tried the level best that I should run away. And frankly speaking, on some instances, I ran away because I was not in a position to confront the criminals who were armed with weapons. Also, I never had any weapons. I had only one cameraman and one producer and one driver one week or so. And as some places I was moving the boats. But I made it possible that wherever the local feudal landlords or the government organizations, they were creating problems for me and they forced me to run away and I ran away. For the time being, I went back again, in three, four areas. I, I went back there again, and I spoke to the local people that they were very happy to see me and I reported that and you see, I realized that it's not only the politics in Pakistan, which is a very sensitive area and the security agencies and the powerful people in Pakistan, they are very sensitive on political issues. They are very sensitive on the security issues. This time I realized that they are very sensitive on the climate issue, and they are not ready to accept that. There is a lot of flood water there is climate change. And I gave you an example in Colombia, you must have seen the images of a hotel, the honeymoon Hotel, which was collapsed. So I lived there. And I investigated that why this hotel was collapse, like toilet so the hotel was constructed inside the river River area. The same hotel was demolished by the flood water in 2010. And the owners gave a bribe to the local administration and they were allowed to rebuild the hotel inside the reverse bar inside the reverse bar. And when I reported that, so the habit of Muhammad was very angry with me. And then I said and the local people were very much they were they were telling me and I learned a lot during this flood coverage. I learned a lot about climate issues from the general public. They told me, they said, we'll tell you why there's this lot of devastation and destruction. I said tell me, they said deforestation. Deforestation is the main main issue. Then a very old man. He was about 80 years old. He he was a school teacher, right school, he said, The blessures on the top are melting very fast. I said how can you say that he said, Because this year, the lakes in different mountain areas they are
blasting, the lakes are blasting because there is a lot of water and the glaciers are melting very fast. Then I realized, oh the issue of global warming, what is global warming, why glaciers are melting very fast. DEVAR and the deforestation and then another person again, he was not a climate expert. He said, Why don't you give attention to a to an issue of the presence of the Pakistani and Indian troops on search and blush. Don't you think that the presence of two big armies on a glacier is creating problem for the whole area. So then I you see from Calum and SWAT, I got an idea and I moved other areas in other areas. And I tried to learn it was you see not a reporting assignment only it was a learning. It was a learning process for me. I learned a lot. I learned that the what are the big climate issues in Pakistan and South Asia. Global warming the melting of the glaciers, the deforestation, and then another old man, he said the rivers are taking revenge from the humans. I said How how can I please explain I cannot understand. He said that the humans tried to grab the land of the river, the human strive to encroach the rivers they built housing cronies. They will farm houses inside they build hotels inside the rivers inside the canals. So now they are taking revenge and they are teaching us a lesson. So we should not fight with the nature.
Let me ask you, perhaps a more critical question how many then I think it sort of turns a light on journalists as well and how we cover our reportage You know often what happens in tragedies like this is that there is a huge amount of focus and reporting while the tragedy is underway. As you said in the same province, things are nowhere near normal. You know, some of the data that I was looking at, for instance, from UNICEF indicates that many of the children under five have been admitted into hospitals as severely malnourished. This is just part of the problem. Of course, they've lost their livestock, they've lost their farmland. Economically, they are devastated. What happens when the brunt of the event is gone. How do you keep a light on what is important and this goes for international media and for local media because there was a period of time when there was so much reportage even globally around the Pakistan floods and around the support they needed. But what happens when the worst is over and everyone walks away from that story?
Very good question. And my response is that the worst is not over yet. And I have stopped going in the flood areas due to the political atmosphere in Pakistan, even when I was forcing my producers and management that I want to go in the flood areas. Some of my colleagues followed me, but most of my colleagues never followed me because the flood coverage was not giving a lot of ratings. So this is you see, we are working. I have a working journalist and I cannot fight with the this reading problem. So I did a lot of hard work and my reporting in the flood areas give a perspective to the government and donor agencies. That what kind of help they should send to the victims. But you see, even today when I'm talking to you, they I know the the areas in Balochistan and sin which are still underwater. And you see you see those areas where the water is gone. Now they are fighting with the diseases and hunger and other problems. And again, the problem is the waiting and the arrival when I'm talking to you the minister Imran Khan, very popular politician of Pakistan, he's moving towards Islam. He wants fresh elections. And the government is taking cover of the flood situation the government is saying that Oh there are two provinces. In Pakistan which are badly affected by the floods and the water is still creating problems in many areas of those two provinces. So we cannot hold elections. But the government which is taking the cover of the flood waters is not providing relief properly to the victims. And Imran Khan, who want fresh elections is not ready to understand that how an administration in abroad in a province or in a district, how can they manage an election when not 1000s But But millions of people are affected and millions of them are still homeless. Even today. Not 1000s but millions of people. They are facing problems in not only in Sindh and Balochistan, but also in South Punjab and in the habit of Tonga areas from Serato Mushara and, and Joshua. And the problem is that the media is not paying proper attention to to this issue. They are giving more focus to Imran Khan versus Shimbashi. This is the main issue. The political drama is the main issue of all the TV channels, all the newspapers. And I think that when this political drama will be over then they will realize because now the weather is changing. So right now I am receiving complaints from Balochistan and Sindh province that the millions of the flood victims who are still living under Open Sky Now, decades lot of problems. because winter is coming. They don't have blankets. They don't have warm clothes, even most of them don't have tents, and they will and they're also facing mosquitoes and snakes. So in few few days, not not weeks, in few days, the weather will change. And unfortunately, God forbid if they start dying. It will become a big scandal. Then maybe it will become a big story for the media. And then they will go there to cover the dead bodies.
I want to change the sort of the direction of our conversation for a bit Hamid sir, because I think some of your experiences are also extremely important for journalists who are functioning in not ideal circumstances around the world. A few weeks back we had a guest on this seems seminar whose name is John Alana mu. And it's interesting that at one point in time you were both tweeting about the same issue, which was the very, very unfortunate death of Asha Sharif in Kenya, who was there in exile. You yourself have itself had faced instances where your life was under threat, you faced assassination attempts. I want for you to share your experiences as a journalist in Pakistan where it's a little different where for many decades now journalism has functioned not only under the pushback from government but also the very real presence of a military establishment and how much control it has over what it would like or not like to see reported.
You see Pakistan is a security state and in this region, especially in South Asia. There are many countries in South Asia, which are called democracies, but there are not democracies. So I must say that Pakistan is a democracy but it's not a democracy. Yes, there is an elected parliament in Pakistan, but this elected parliament is powerless. Yes, there is judiciary in Pakistan, but the judiciary is not independent. And yes, there is media and Pakistan and the media is fighting for this for its independence. Well, one may differ the differ with the views of archieve. And he was a very good friend of mine. He was I was working in GGO he was working in air why we were in the opposite news channels, but we were very close to each other. And I remember that when I survived an assassination attempt in 2014. And a three member Inquiry Commission was established, headed by the supreme the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. And that inquiry commission never released its report. So as he filed a petition in Islam about high court and he pleaded that the inquiry commission about the murder attempt on Hamid mele must release in support. And for for many, sorry for many, not much but three, four years for three, four years, especially was moving from one court to another court. He was keep filing petitions. But nobody was ready to release the report. And last year, I remember I asked him, Why are you running after the support? He said at least there should be one report which must see the light of the day because most of the enquiry reports are not released. So I said okay, thank you very much. But now you see, now you are talking to me about Asha Chief Joe just a few hours ago this morning. His mother wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of Pakistan that she is not satisfied with the Inquiry Commission announced by the Government of Pakistan headed by a retired judge of the High Court and she pleaded that the Chief Justice of Pakistan should establish a commission headed by a serving judge of the Supreme Court. So I don't know. The Gita says the Pakistan will listen to the mother of Versace for not but you see, this is the especially this is not the first time that or she is assassinated. Many associates were assassinated in Pakistan in the past and if we will not be able to investigate the murder of this actual Chief, I fear that more associates will be assassinated. So Pakistan is included in the 10 countries which are very dangerous for the media journalism is a very dangerous profession in Pakistan. And I think that the most important question in this case is if we are not bothered about the shooters who killed especially in Kenya, we are more concerned about the circumstances in which our shirtsleeve was forced to leave Pakistan. When he left Pakistan, he was facing 17 different cases you can disagree with his opinion. You can disagree with his position. But you see last year, I was facing the same position I was facing. Treason charges sedition cases. I was getting from here to there this year or she was facing this case. So you see, the problem is that the main provide this is a main question why media is not free in Pakistan because there is a fake democracy in Pakistan the parliament is powerless and judiciary is not independent.
What makes you carry on how you know and things have changed in the sense that journalism and establishments have never been on the same side of the pole as they should not the job of journalism is to question everyone and all establishments and you