Breaking News by Ehsan Masood

‘This is your daughter, isn’t she?’ The voice was direct; the question unam­biguous. ‘Is this your daughter; have you tried to sell your child?’ An impov­erished young mother had opened the door of her house to what she thought were visitors. The visitors were actually a TV crew from ARY TV, one of Pakistan’s popular private television channels. She stared in stunned silence through the gap between the wooden door and frame. Standing on the other side was a reporter cradling a baby. Like a volley, the question came again. ‘Is this your daughter; have you tried to sell your child?’

‘No, it isn’t,’ she replied, barely audible. ‘It isn’t my child.’

‘Swear on the Qur’an that it isn’t.’

More silence followed, before she begged the crew to turn off the cameras and she promised to let him inside. A few seconds later viewers to this incident, broadcast in January 2012, were led inside a one-room shack, the cameras still rolling.

Babies and young children are traded all over the world, but in Pakistan child trafficking is believed to be of epidemic proportions. The demand is from a spectrum of society, from leaders of professional begging syndicates, an industry of Bill Sykes in need of their Oliver Twists; to wealthy couples who want to avoid the lengthy process of a formal adoption.

Pretending to be an interested buyer, the ARY reporter had managed to trace one such child back to its mother. Having gained access to the inside of her house the cameras were back on. Speaking slowly, the mother explained that she had given birth to five children and that her husband, a security guard, earned a paltry £40 a month. The family were in debt and on most days there wasn’t enough food to go round: she felt she had no choice but to sell one of her children, which she did for £60. ‘Which mother could ever sell one of her children,’ she said, breaking down. ‘Believe me; believe me,’ she begged. ‘I had no choice.’ At this point the camera zoomed out so that more of the sparse room was visible; except that it wasn’t that sparse. Seated on the bed and on the floor were members of the woman’s wider family, including all of her children.

On that same January day, ARY TV, along with practically every Pakistani news channel, was broadcasting a most unlikely news-flash; unlikely that is for a country officially an Islamic republic. Wars, natural disasters, political events were of no consequence on that morning. Instead, the news ticker at the top of every ARY’s viewer’s screen was carrying breaking news in the life of Lahore-based actress and model Veena Malik. No ordinary model, Malik is in fact Pakistan’s first ever topless celebrity. She posed nude for the December 2011 cover of the India edition of the British men’s magazine FHM. The cover shows Malik sans clothes with the letters ‘ISI’ stencilled, or tattooed in large lettering on her arm. ISI, or Inter Services Intelligence, being the country’s all-powerful spy agency run by the military, which is where Malik’s father once served.

Reporters follow her every move and on that day had traced Malik’s whereabouts to the front desk of a Lahore police station. Her reason for going was to apply for a ‘police character certificate’, a peculiarly Pakistani piece of bureaucracy and a requirement for a citizen who needs a visa to travel abroad. A character certificate is not, as the name suggests, a certifi­cate confirming the strength of the holder’s moral fibre. It is, in fact, a piece of paper confirming more mundane details such as their name, date of birth and home address. Pakistan’s police service holds the right to issue one of these certificates without which citizens are forbidden to travel. The TV networks of course knew this, but no matter: why let the facts get in the way of a good story. ‘Veena Malik seeks character certificate’ is the kind of headline that any editor would find almost impossible to turn down and so, tongues firmly in cheeks, ARY along with many other networks continued to give plenty of airtime to this event.

Television in Pakistan has come a long way during the last decade.

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