Tuesday, January 31, 2012

ROVER’S DIARY: Pakistani media: a microcosm of society —Babar Ayaz

Some of the media persons are often found challenging the benefits of democracy, oblivious of the fact that the present freedom of the press they enjoy is directly related to the democratic system

The media considers itself as the ‘watchdog’ of a society, but the trouble is that this watchdog is free to bite anybody in self-interest without anybody to admonish it. At least in Pakistan where the media is going through a phase of newfound freedom in excitement, the internal and external checks and balances have not developed in the media. This is more true about the electronic media, which is just a decade old.

The Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) for the print media has been reluctantly created but is without the required infrastructure and capability to check some of the outrageous violations of media ethical codes. Just one example of the dangerous violation is that appeals to kill Salmaan Taseer or other alleged blasphemers by a cleric of Peshawar and some trader with offers of hefty head money have been published by many papers. More recently, Akbar Bugti’s son did the same and the newspapers obliged him with headlines. Now luring people to kill anybody — whether the victim is guilty or not — as well as publishing it is a criminal offence. But no court has taken notice of this glaring violation of law. It is like publishing an advertisement in the newspaper’s job and career section that an assassin is wanted against a hefty reward. What are we, a nation of lawless people where anybody can hire killers with the cooperation of the newspapers? Though there is a PEMRA and PBA laid down code of ethics, nobody cares about it.

The demand for the law to take its course against anybody who violates it is the right of every citizen. But offering head money by a private individual for killing an alleged accused, a la the Iranian offer for killing Salman Rushdie, is not even medieval.

Now just take the issue of Maya Khan’s morning programme on Samaa TV, which was rightly criticised by the influential civil society and other individuals mostly on the social media. In this case, Samaa’s CEO Zafar Siddiqi, who is an enlightened and enterprising man, took an immediate action and fired Maya and her team, reacting to the public pressure. Does that solve the issue? Perhaps not. At the same time, “It is important to remember that most newspapers and broadcast stations in the market economy are not in the business because of high and lofty ideals, they are there to make a profit for their owners and shareholder” (Media Ethics and Self-Regulation by Chris Frost).

Pakistan is new to free television communication. The medium of television, in the words of John Fiske, is “the loss of both ‘reality’ and ‘ideology’ as grounding bases for images in another facet of the loss of the ‘grand narrative’. A key consequence of this loss is the fragmentation of experience and its images. Postmodernism culture is fragmented culture, the fragments come together for the occasion and are not organised into stable coherent groupings by an external principle. Television is particularly suited to the culture of the fragment, for its continuous flow consists of discreet ‘segments’ following one another, sequence dictated by unstable mix of narrative or textual requirements, economic requirements and the requirements of varied popular taste” (‘Postmodernism and Television’ by John Fiske published in Mass Media and Society).

Maya Khan’s aberration, called her morning programme, fulfils the last two requirements. She had tried to follow the ‘economic requirements’ and the ‘requirements of varied popular taste’. Add to this another major issue: the prevailing contradiction of Pakistani society between the liberal Pakistan and post-80s conservative Islamist Pakistan. Maya is not the only confused young person in this debate. Some months back, ARY had also aired a programme in which the young presenter barged into a middle class cafĂ© and questioned the couple why they were together. This overzealous moral force TV squad even questioned a married couple that why they visit such cafes. Amir Liaquat on Geo’s ‘Alim Online’ had provoked some so-called religious scholars to say that killing of a sect’s people was justified. Next we found that two Ahmediyya community gentlemen were killed in Sindh. No immediate action was taken against him either by the channel or by the courts, which are usually afraid of the religious militants. However, Geo eventually eased out Amir Liaquat and the MQM chucked him out of the party.

What these young presenters in the media do not realise is that their own freedom to do programmes and mix around with ‘na-mehrams’ during the course of their work can also be challenged by the same set of obsolete and unpractical moral values, which they think they are preaching by challenging the social freedoms of individual citizens.

Undoubtedly Pakistani society is up against protecting its liberal and tolerant values, while there are many in the media who subscribe to the conservative and medieval school of thought. We should have no issue if this debate is carried on on a rational and civilised basis rather than resorting to violence and suppressing the other side in the name of absolute divinity.

The other day a young man asked a question that what happened to the Pakistan where the Islam followed was tolerant and liberal. Yes, such a Pakistan existed till 1977, in spite of the capitulation of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the religious bigots first in 1974 by declaring Ahmedis non-Muslims and then in 1977 by accepting the cultural demands of the religious parties, while resisting their political demands. This gave General Ziaul Haq an opportunity to push his agenda and Islamism inspired by the Saudi school of thought and money. However, during the 10 years of Ayub Khan and three tumultuous years of General Yahya, social freedom existed but political freedom was denied.

Some of the media persons are often found challenging the benefits of democracy, oblivious of the fact that the present freedom of the press they enjoy is directly related to the democratic system. “This year’s index,” of Reporters Without Borders, “finds the same group of countries at its head, countries such as Finland, Norway and Netherlands that respect basic freedoms. This serves as a reminder that media independence can only be maintained in strong democracies and that democracy needs media freedom. It is worth noting the entry of Cape Verde and Namibia into the top 20, two African countries where no attempts to obstruct the media were reported in 2011.

“Many countries are marked by a culture of violence towards the media that has taken a deep hold. It will be hard to reverse the trends in these countries without an effective fight against impunity. Mexico (149th) and Honduras (135th) are two cases in point. Pakistan (151st) was the world’s deadliest country for journalists for the second year running. Somalia (164th), which has been at war for 20 years, shows no sign of finding a way out of the chaos in which journalists are paying a heavy price.

“In Iran (175th), hounding and humiliating journalists has been part of officialdom’s political culture for years. The regime feeds on persecution of the media. Iraq (152nd) fell back 22 places and is now worryingly approaching its 2008 position (158th).”Our television is the microcosm of Pakistani society and so are the people working in it. Extremist social and religious ideology has crept into all the institutions — whether it is the media or the armed forces of Pakistan.

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