Remembering Saneeya Hussain of Absurdistan, five years on…

Saneeya Hussain (1954 - 2005)

Exactly five years ago today, journalist and activist Saneeya Hussain left us. Hers was a needless death that left a deep impression in numerous friends she had around the world. We still remember.

We remember Saneeya as a journalist who took a special interest in environment and human rights issues. All her working life, she campaigned tirelessly for a cleaner, safer and more equitable society for everyone, everywhere.

We remember Saneeya as one who supported pluralism – not just in her own country Pakistan, but everywhere. She hated autocrats and military dictators. She spoke out and wrote against unfair domination and agenda setting by a handful of (usually graying) men. She had the courage to suggest re-naming her country as Absurdistan!

We remember Saneeya as a fun-loving, easy-going if slightly absent-minded friend. She wasn’t the most organised person, but was diligent and relentless on causes and issues that she passionately believed in.

Saneeya’s worldwide network of friends have keep her flame alive, and this blog post is as much a tribute to them as it is for Saneeya. Officially, the Saneeya Hussain Trustcontinues her vision and mission.

In fact, the chairperson of the trust (and Saneeya’s mother) Najma Hussain just wrote us a group email, saying: “Let’s share happy memories of Saneeya and celebrate her life.”

She asked: “If you have any anecdotes to share with us please write back. We will love to hear from you.” Saneeya Hussain Trust can be contacted here.

Read my blog post written on Saneeya’s second death anniversary, 20 April 2007, for more of my own memories

Our mutual friend Beena Sarwar has made a 14-minute documentary called Celebrating Saneeya. Here’s the shorter version available on YouTube:

Celebrating Saneeya (August 2005; 14 mins; language: English; Filmed in Karachi, Pakistan, with archives and footage from Brazil, South Africa and Nepal)

Synopsis: Saneeya, with her joyful laugh, lightness of spirit, striking height and long hair, embodied “feminism” and “women’s rights” in the most un-dogmatic way. Living life on her own terms, she countered the trends that militate against women’s individual freedoms in Pakistan. During the repressive years of military dictator General Ziaul Haq she worked as a journalist and was active in the women’s movement that defied the military rule. She also pioneered environmental journalism in Pakistan. Later, while working with the World Commission on Dams in South Africa she met a Brazilian geographer eleven years her junior. Their love story transcended age, culture, religion and nationalities.

In 2004, a severe allergic reaction stopped Saneeya’s breathing and her breathing stopped during a traffic jam in Sao Paulo, preventing her from reaching the hospital in time and sending her into a coma. This documentary is a celebration of her life and all that she stood for, through interviews with her husband, family and friends, and archive material. Sticker on Saneeya’s fridge: “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first”.

Read more about Saneeya Hussain on the trust website

Mumbai siege revisited: Live television, terrorvision or mass hysteria?



“The attack on Mumbai by ten highly trained gunmen on the night of Wednesday, November 26, and the drama that followed over the next 60 hours, was physically confined to one corner of a very big city. But it extended its ambit to the rest of the city, the country and the world because of the non-stop media coverage.

“For two days and three nights, television channels gave blanket coverage to the drama around the siege of two hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, and the Oberoi and Trident Hotels, as well as Nariman House in Colaba, a synagogue and centre for a Jewish sect. And the entire country watched in horror and fascination.”

This is how my friend Kalpana Sharma, one of the most respected journalists in India, looks back at the momentous events that took place in her home city of Mumbai from 26 to 30 November 2008. In a thought-provoking analysis published on, Kalpana assesses 60 hours of continuous media coverage of the Mumbai crisis and notes the significant gaps.

As Mumbai and India recover from the daring attack, the media continue to play the dramatic images over and over. I was in Hyderabad, in southern India (more than 700 km away from Mumbai) for a few days from November 30 and saw this first hand – especially on India’s several dozen 24/7 TV news channels in English and many local languages. Even before arriving in India, I was following the unfolding events on India’s leading English news channel NDTV 24/7 and their website.

Kalpana Sharma

Kalpana Sharma

I could see that the high adrenaline that every channel and reporter drew on during the 60 hours of drama has now changed into a mix of patriotism, jingoism and an incredible suspension of journalistic ethics and norms. This makes Kalpana’s reflections extremely timely and important.

She is not an armchair critic of the media, and understands the tough challenges that reporters and their gatekeepers face on a daily basis. “When such developments hit a city, it is understandable that there is a time lag before the media, particularly the electronic media, can react,” she acknowledges in her essay, and asks: “The electronic media, in particular, has to ask whether at a time when they were the only source of information for most of the city, and indeed the country, there should have been some restraint placed on information given out.”

I have met some professors of mass communication who have never been inside a news room and well-meaning media activists whose naive idealism makes me laugh. Kalpana, in contrast, counts over three decades of mainstream media experience and retired last year as Deputy Editor of The Hindu newspaper.

Read Kalpana’s full essay here: Unpacking The Pixel

Breaking News 24/7?

Breaking News 24/7?

Others inside and outside India are also offering critical analysis of media’s role in the siege of Mumbai, or India’s 26/11 as it’s being called. One is by Anjali Deshpande and S K Pande of the Delhi Union of Journalists who have written an interesting commentary in the South Asian mediawatch website, The Hoot.

They acknowledge how “24×7 reporting of terror has indeed been has also been a traumatic experience for our colleagues” and go on to say that “Some of them really did a good job under the circumstances”. But their piece is are less charitable than Kalpana when they say: “If there is one thing the electronic media helped in particular to do in the last three days was to bolster the confidence of terrorists and to give them a sense of achievement far greater than their action may have provided them.”

They note: “The initial role of some of the media was to grab the eyeballs rather than ask questions and reflect all facets of life as they unfold without adding to the tension strife and trauma in such situations. In some cases the ethics evolved over the years was thrown into the dustbin. Add to it all the fact, that when some restraint began more than a touch of jingoism took over.”

They add: “The media behaved as if the country was so terrified it came to a standstill. As if Madhya Pradesh did not go to polls, as if Delhi did not vote, as if a former Prime Minister, V P Singh did not pass away, as if nothing else happened in the country.”

Read the full essay in The Hoot: Three Days of Mumbai terror reporting.

There are dozens of other debates underway in the passionately argumentative Indian society, some of which are being conducted in the newspapers, news magazines, on the air and online. One that especially interested me was the role elitism played in how the media covered the siege of Mumbai.

The attacks took place at multiple locations in the heart of Mumbai, which included two leading hotels, a synagogue and Jewish centre and the main train station. But not all attacks lasted as long, and certainly not all of them received equal coverage.

Gnani Sankaran, a writer based in Tamil Nadu, southern India, asks some pertinent questions in a blog post titled Hotel Taj: Icon of whose India? “Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of another kind. The terror of assaulting one’s mind and sensitivity with cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called — Hotel Taj the icon of India.

He adds: “It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from terrorists – the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with the Marathis and Kolis

Chatrapathi Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus - the true icon of Mumbai

Chatrapathi Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus - the true icon of Mumbai

“But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No Barkha Dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards. And the TV cameras did not go to the government-run JJ hospital to find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the dead bodies of the Page 3 celebrities.

Gnani Sankaran

Gnani Sankaran

“In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at CST without cell phones and PAN cards to identify them. Even after 60 hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in detail what transpired there.”

Read his full blog post: Whose India, whose icon?

Another interesting critique that touched on elitism in media coverage appeared in The Telegraph newspaper, published from Kolkata on 4 December 2008. Titled “WE, THE PEOPLE: The Mumbai tragedy and the English language news media”, it was penned by Indian writer Mukul Kesavan.

He echoes the same point as Gnani Sankaran about the Victoria Terminus being much more iconic than the Taj hotel, and comes to the same conclusion: “I can’t remember the last time that social class so clearly defined the coverage of a public event, or one in which people spoke so unselfconsciously from their class positions. The English news channels became mega-churches in which hotel-going Indians found catharsis and communion. Person after person claimed the Taj as home. Memories of courtship, marriage, celebration, friendship, the quick coffee, the saved-up-for snack, the sneaked lavatory visit, came together to frame the burning Taj in a halo of affection.”

In his closing para, Kesavan also touches on how the foreign media covered the Mumbai attacks: “English and American papers treated the terror attack as an assault on the West. The terrorists had, after all, specifically looked for American and British citizens to murder. Ironically, even as NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now put hotel guests at the heart of the horror and bumped train commuters to its periphery, older English-speaking peoples counted their dead and dimly regretted all Indian casualties as collateral damage. In that residual category, if nowhere else, the Indian dead remained one People.”

Read full commentary by Mukul Kesavan

Another dimension in the media coverage following the Mumbai attacks is how it is affecting the relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. As The Hindu reported on 1 December 2008: “The escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over the Mumbai attacks have led to the declaration of hostilities in unexpected quarters – Pakistani media has declared a virtual war on Indian media for its ‘knee-jerk’ finger-pointing across the border, and its unquestioning acceptance of the Indian government’s ‘Pakistan-link’ theory.”

Moderate journalists and media-watchers across South Asia are calling for more restraint, self-reflection and plain common sense. On 4 December 2008, Himal Southasian – the independent and outspoken voice of South Asia – ran a special editorial which opened with these words:

“There is an attempt on to generate mass hysteria in India as television channels compete for ratings. The channels are using the Bombay attacks of last week in a dangerous game of TRP-upmanship which can well derail the political process and set back the India-Pakistan peace train. Going far beyond what is required of them even in times of crisis, some media houses are leading campaigns to get citizens to take pledges of patriotism. They are pushing a brittle, monochromatic vision of the resilient country we know as India.”

Read the full Himal editorial: No to mass hysteria

My journalist friend Beena Sarwar, based in Karachi, voiced her concerns in an op ed published in the leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn on 3 December 2008:

Beena Sarwar

Beena Sarwar

“Media might have brought the people closer but when nationalism rears its head, the beast of 24-hour television news also fuels conflict. This is where the commercial aspect comes in. When something big happens, the public seeks answers. The channels which cater to this need improve their ratings. Sensation sells. With viewers glued to the screens, channels keep them there with a continuous virtual reality show. They fill the time with speculative commentary, ‘expert’ guests and whatever footage is available. Sometimes such footage is repeated ad nauseum — like when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, when the Marriott hotel was attacked, when the FIA building in Lahore was struck.”

She adds: “Some Indian channels are running the Pakistan factor like a movie trailer, complete with sound effects and watch-for-the-next-episode commentary. This obviously fuels Pakistani indignation. However, this indignation could be tempered by being less reactive and empathising with the Indians’ pain and grief that many Pakistanis share. Zealous commentators could also recall the times that their own media houses sensationalised an issue.

“Journalists may argue that they are just the messenger, reflecting official or public opinion. But the media must also question, and get people to think. The stakes are high in our nuclear-armed countries, in a post-9/11 world where the major players include armed and trained men around the world who subscribe to the ideology of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Full op ed by Beena Sarwar: Media falls into old trap

Ordinary people outside the media industry have also started expressing their concern.

“Media on both sides of the border has stopped reporting and started indulging in senseless rants. The media, particularly in India seems to have thrown logic to the wind,” wrote Anand Bala from Bangalore, in a letter to the South Asian mediawatch website The Hoot. “The screaming for war on the Indian side has reached a din. The media is manufacturing consent for a war and manufacturing consent for the very people who they are blaming – the politicians.

I would give the last word to Kalpana Sharma: “Media rarely pauses to analyse itself as it hurtles from one breaking story to another. But the Mumbai terror attack shows us that it is essential that reporters be trained to handle such extraordinary situations, that they learn the importance of restraint and cross-checking as at such times the media is the main source of information. Professionalism and accuracy will ensure that we don’t contribute to prejudice and panic.”