Malala Yousafzai first gained attention at the age of 11 when she started writing a diary for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban. Using the pen-name Gul Makai, Malala won international recognition for highlighting the brutality and atrocities of Taliban in Swat. After a military operation the Taliban were ousted from Swat valley in 2009, but her family regularly received death threats.
On Tuesday, the teenager was attacked by two armed men as she was returning home from school in Mingora in north-western Swat. The Pakistani media reacted speedily and angrily with the story being news headline on most Pakistani TV channels. The extensive round the clock dramatized media coverage of the tragic incident similar to Americas 9/11 was never seen before on Pakistani media. Everyday, an impressive array of stories on Malala appeared in both print and broadcast media. This massive exposure was significant in reshaping public perception about the Taliban and their brutal ways. The constant media coverage of the shooting helped in prompting outrage and protests across Pakistan. Both the political and military leadership across the country including media anchors and civil society showed their outrage at the incident. Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who visited Malala in hospital in Peshawar, said it was time to “stand up to fight the propagators of such barbaric mindset and their sympathisers”. Raja Pervaiz Ashraf the Prime Minister of Pakistan asked other political leaders to join him in showing solidarity and termed the incident as an attack on national and social values. Most interestingly within couple of hours of the attack, Washington’s spokesperson appeared in the media, condemned the attack on Malala and reaffirmed that US mission to fight against Taliban will continue in the region. US President Barack Obama termed the assault on the young rights activist as disgusting and tragic. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed “outrage” at the life-threatening attack on the girl and called for the perpetrators of the “heinous and cowardly” attack on Yousafzai to be swiftly brought to justice. Such has been the coverage of TV channels on the shooting of Malala Yousafzai that some media commentators had to call for restraint and question media ethics for coverage of kids at risk.
The recent events like the protests against the film on YouTube “Innocence of Muslims” followed by the success of peace march against drone strikes in Pakistan and the timing of Malala attack raises some very important questions like why Malala was not attacked earlier as the Taliban could strike at will in the area? Why she was attacked soon after the success of peace march against drone strikes? Why media is giving so much hype to the issue? Why the other girls that were injured with Malala in the cowardly attack not given due coverage by media? Where are media ethics for coverage of kids at risk?
In Pakistan, terrorism related violence have contributed to security instability in the country. Everyday many girls like Malala are being kidnapped, raped and killed by criminals. Children have been killed throughout the seven years of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan but they fail to get the media attention or coverage. Dozens are being killed and dumped everyday in Karachi and the brutal violence in Balochistan continue to worsen but all this gets very little media attention compared to media coverage given to attack on Malala.
Agenda Setting Theory can be a perfect explanation for how the media approached its coverage of the issue. The attack on Malala itself was the most inhuman act of terrorism and needs to be condemned at all levels but the hyped media coverage of the issue ultimately raises questions on the vulnerability and risks of putting children in the media spotlight. The extensive coverage of Malala helped put her at risk before the attack and with the media coverage being given to her now, she along with her friends and family have been made more vulnerable than before.
Only time will tell whether the media coverage given to her was orchestrated to shape public perceptions and opinions on the government intended operation in North Waziristan and are we again witnessing the media being used as a strategic weapon of war to shape the minds of public.