Eye on Arab Media: Give Pakistan a Break

Eye on Arab Media: Give Pakistan a Break

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Millions of Pakistanis who were displaced by floods and who are in desperate need of shelter, food and clean water are not getting enough help. That’s the general message Arab media conveyed in their coverage of floods that have left 1,600 people dead and one-fifth of the country underwater.

A month after the floods, the Organization of the Islamic Conference finally announced that Muslim countries have pledged $1 billion in aid to Pakistan. But why did they decide to increase their meager donations one month after the catastrophe? The timing of the pledge, coming after world wide outcry, strongly suggests that they were shamed into changing their position.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of Aug. 26, 2010, the United States was still the leading donor countries, contributing nearly $156 million. In comparison, Saudi Arabia gave more than $74 million, Kuwait gave $5 million and The United Arab Emirates gave about $2 million. Iran gave $751,502, less than a million.

Arab broadcast media have managed to emphasize the human suffering and the urgency of situation, but for the most part they refrained from criticizing Arab governments, especially the oil-rich Gulf countries for their small denotations. Instead, Arab state-sponsored media such as Dubai-based Al Arabiya or the Tehran-based Al Alam aired reports bragging about generous donations from their respective countries -- planes with aid supplies and big containers of dates.

However, when ordinary Arabs were given a platform to express their views, they expressed frustration and anger towards their own governments’ lack of generosity during these critical times.

On Riz Khan’s talk show on Al Jazeera English, a caller from Tanzania said, “Why aren’t Muslim countries helping Pakistanis as much as America and Britain?” Another caller, Wasem Akram asked, ”How come rich Arab countries have not given much aid?” Similar comments were made on the website of BBC Arabic as well as many Islamic websites.

John Holmes, United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, who was a guest on the Riz Khan show agreed with the callers, saying they had made a “fair point.”

“Other governments contributed considerably very small amounts considering their prosperity,” Holmes said, during the radio program. “That is one of the reason we are appealing to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries and other Muslim countries to step up further.”

Arab media coverage has focused on the human suffering dimension and the gravity of the situation. For example, Al Jazeera English devoted an entire news show entitled “Flood of Misery” to the mounting desperation felt by flood victims.

While Arab media is reticent about criticizing their own governments, they are quick to blast the United States. “Most of the coverage in Western media has emphasized the ‘Taliban angle’ to the disaster relief while covering the aftermath of the flooding,” wrote Sana Saleem wrote on Al Arabiya’s website. “Human stories were overshadowed by the threat of Muslims extremists.”

“Recently, a BBC News report noted that over 14 million people may have been affected by the floods. In one of the sentences of the report, however, it was claimed that charities connected to a group with alleged Al-Qaeda links have been providing victims of the flood with relief,” Saleem added.

Jeff Jarvis, the host of the Listening Post on Al Jazeera English, said that one of the reasons for the lack of public response is the failure of the American media to convey the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. He said, “In the week after the earthquake in Haiti, 41 percent of news stories in the United States were on that subject. In the first two weeks of the Pakistan flood story, it never moved above the 3 percent figure.” He continued, “this is a huge disparity in air time and ink when one considers that twice as many people are now homeless in Pakistan than live in Haiti.”

Pakistani flood victims had to deal with not only the lack of international emergency aid from Muslim and rich Gulf countries as well as the West, but also continued attacks by U.S. unmanned drones and local bombings.

Last month, Al Jazeera English reported three bombings in northwestern Pakistan, including one at a mosque, killing more than 30 people. Another blast took place on the outskirts of Peshawar killing the leader of an anti-Taliban militia. The third one went off at a market as people were buying food to break their fast during Ramadan.

Also, the United States has continued the missile strike from unmanned drones in North Waziristan. The attack allegedly killed armed fighters, but it also killed seven civilians: four women and three children.

So far, the 53 drone attacks in 2010 have killed as many as 500 people, including dozens of civilians, according to Al Jazeera.

The government estimates that total losses from the devastating floods could reach $43 billon. If this is to be added to the costs of the so-called War on Terror, which the government estimates to be around $35 billion, the cost is around $78 billion.

In addition, Pakistan’s debt is $53 billion on which the country is paying back $3 billion annually in interest. The devastation that was caused by the floods especially to the agricultural sector will inevitably have a strong impact on Pakistan’s exports and textile industry, which is the backbone of its economy.

Considering all this, doesn’t Pakistan deserve a break? Pakistan’s external debt should be canceled altogether. The hearts and minds of Pakistanis are won only by helping the country recover from the worst natural catastrophe in their modern history.