Moving around the dinner guests in that relaxed and somewhat dreamy setting, I sensed an underlying current of anxiety and disquiet. Again and again, our conversations drifted towards the fighting in the north. We talked about civilian casualties and displaced persons and how non-combatants are trapped in a military campaign.
Ah, but this was Colombo, earlier this week. We were there as participants in the Asia Pacific Editors’ Roundtable on Inequality and Hunger, sponsored by UNDP and Panos, a media development NGO. And also because of what we had deliberated during the day, our minds were very much preoccupied by the abiding sorrows of this region, with particular reference to our jinxed South Asia.
Sri Lanka, of course, is passing at this time through a critical phase in its history. After a long and bloody civil war, the Sri Lankan forces have prevailed upon the retreating Tamil Tiger rebels. Coincidentally, the two-day roundtable overlapped with the Independence Day ceremonies of Sri Lanka. Rehearsals for the national day parade, held on Wednesday, had started when we arrived in the city.
Since our hotel was close to the site of the parade, our proceedings, held on Monday and Tuesday, were at times drowned in the roar of fighter jets. All around, tanks and armoured vehicles and roadblocks provided a real backdrop of how our poor countries, afflicted with massive human deprivations, tend to locate their glory and pride in their military prowess.
This juxtaposition of the issues of inequality and hunger that we discussed in the conference room and the intimidating presence of the military in our surroundings was, I feel, very instructive. During our very brief stay in Colombo, our activities and our movements were affected by the arrangements made for the national day. Those of us who were flying back on Wednesday afternoon had to be shifted, on Tuesday evening, to a resort hotel on the other side of the airport.
There, I had time to watch the live transmission of the parade. This Independence Day must have been very special for the government, marking the dismantling of the mini-state that the Tigers had established in northern Sri Lanka. In this process, though, about 70,000 lives had been lost since 1972, when the civil strife began. It was the glorification of the soldier that the parade seemed to portray.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, with a vast scenic treasure. Its people, when you come in contact with them, are easygoing and peaceable. You don’t feel insecure even on lonely beaches. But this serene place has been home to Asia’s longest running civil war and very vicious acts of terror and violence. Swat comes to mind. The story of our patch of heaven for tourists also tells a dreadful tale. Like law and order, we have also forsaken tourism, as evidenced by the appointment of Maulana Attaur Rehman, brother of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, as federal minister of tourism.
I had only a few hours to while away in Colombo and was able to revive some memories with a cocktail they have named Colombian Sunset, right when the sun was setting in the sea. With me was a prominent Indian journalist and we jointly grieved over the latest downturn in relations between our two potentially irrational countries, distinguished not only by the might and the size of their armies but also by the world’s largest percentage of malnourished children.
Media was the main focus of the Roundtable in the context of how it can increase awareness of hunger and poverty issues. We had some very bright and experienced media professionals and the discussions ranged across the spectrum of media’s role in social change. As an aside, I was really pleased by the appreciation that many participants had for the courage with which Geo had confronted the highhandedness of the previous administration.
I am not intending to summarise the proceedings of the Roundtable in this column, also for lack of space. Usually, such deliberations that I have had the opportunity of attending relate to South Asia. Here, we also had editors from Thailand and Cambodia. We thus had a sense of Asia. Having properly done their homework, the senior UNDP officials set the stage with their presentations that were based on research and official statistics.
And the overall picture, within the frame of inequality and hunger, was obviously quite bleak. That also means that challenges, not just for the media, are formidable. One challenge is to resolve conflicts that are raging in almost all countries of the region –Pakistan and Sri Lanka being in the forefront. Our major resources are diverted to security needs and attention is also diverted from the sufferings of the people. Another major challenge is gender equality and Pakistan may want to keep its record in this area in ‘purdah’. Again, Swat stabs our hearts like a dagger.
The latest issue of ‘Newsweek’ has a write-up on the food crisis. This is how it begins: “Fears over global hunger are back, this time driven by both high food prices and plunging incomes. As the global recession deepens, unemployment is rising, but the price of staple foods is not falling with other commodities, like oil”. It has been noted that this crisis will be severe in developing countries.
Our debate on what the media can do to improve public understanding of these issues was intensive and extensive. We shared discerning views about the power as well as the powerlessness of the media and I sought to invoke the recent Pakistani experience to make my points. This is an issue that calls for a separate analysis. With a little regret, I am also unable to recap some very gratifying personal encounters that took place on the sidelines of the Roundable and that keeps me from mentioning names of a few very accomplished individuals I came in contact with in Colombo.
Two days after I returned from Colombo, on Friday morning, I learnt about the demise of Pakistan’s leading journalist Khalid Hasan in Washington. What a great loss this is may be seen in the context of one point I had made in Colombo. Khalid Hasan was exceptional in his access to both English and Urdu. His translations of Manto introduced the great Urdu short-story writer to an international audience. He wrote brilliant columns, with a literary flourish and I always envied his considerable gifts as a human being and as a journalist. The real tragedy is that I see no one taking his place. His death has underlined my constant lament that we are also intellectually and culturally malnourished. It is this deprivation that is not fully understood in a country that is starved of enlightenment and open-mindedness.
The writer is a staff member. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org