Controlling the Media:We want to look Great; Only Good News Please!

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Moeed Pirzada | FB Blog |

So the argument goes that we can use ‘the medium’ to send the message across to the world that we are bold enough, strong enough and determined enough to hang a killer; that we have a determinition to implement the law but we will block ‘the medium’ the same medium, we need for sending the message if it reports back to us that some sections of the society react to it, consider it unfair, are blocking roads, and unfortunately thousands have gathered to honor this killer. So now ‘News’ in Pakistan is something we like or we do but is not something that happens…?

On 4th January 2011, few minutes past 4pm, when this misguided zealot, Mumtaz Qadri, took 28 shots at the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, I, Nasim Zehra and Fahd Hussain were all at Dunya News TV. If today’s logic has to be accepted then our channel should have suppressed the news, kept our mouths shut; should have denied that high and mighty Governor of Punjab has been shot dead by his own body guard; public should have sat in their living rooms or offices and suspected Taliban, Indians, NDS, CIA or his enemies in Punjab government as many in the PPP did.

But No, Fahd Hussain, the then Director News Dunya, went on air asking me and Nasim to join to analyze what happened. I was the first to suspect, to speculate that this must be the work of religious zealots; my reasoning was clear that only inconspicuous fanatic hidden in the governors’ security detail – someone not being seen as a threat – could have done it and given the personalized rhetoric against the governor over the last few weeks this must have happened. As news poured in, minute by minute, we were proved right. Given the legacy or the curse of the free media which we inherited from a so called ‘dictator’ by 4.30pm, whole Pakistan, the whole world knew that Governor of Punjab, of the largest province in Pakistan has been shot dead by his own guard, who was acting alone.

Over the next few years, while speaking to parliamentarians and officers in universities like NDU in Pakistan and while speaking to students of Georgetown and Harvard and other places I always gave the example of this tragic incident as the power of Pakistani media to report the truth, to describe what happened. I explained that in our childhood, growing under the Frankenstein unleashed by Gen. Zia and in the lives of our parents, as long as we can remember, we in this country listened to BBC, to Akashwani, to Radio Moscow, to Voice of Germany, Voice of America and all kinds of ‘voices from every where’ like schizophrenics – because we didn’t have our own voice – to know what might have happened in our own city, may be next bloc.

I remember whenever something ‘political’ was happening, in Karachi, in Lahore, in Sindh, my father, a doctor in Mirpur, least interested in politics, would switch to ‘Saer Been’ a BBC radio program, that was broadcasted from London, at 8.15 pm Pakistan time to know what is happening in his own country – and sometimes in a neighboring town. Given weak and fluctuating signals, we would move, with a radio glued to our ears, from room to room, sometimes from street to street to get a good earshot of what BBC was saying. But in the last few years, in seminar after seminar, I told students in Pakistan and across the world that we in Pakistan have broken this ‘trust deficit’ and now we can tell ourselves about ourselves and that we have kicked out BBC and CNN and VOA and off-course ‘Akashvani’; and we are proud that we are getting a bit more confident, a bit more mature and lot more sovereign — because what is ‘sovereignty’ without the ‘freedom to know thyself’.

Now over the last few months, we are increasingly returning back to our ‘primitive selves’; the hapless nation, informed by Ptv, that did not know in 1970 what Bengalis were thinking of Punjabis and rest of West Pakistanis, that did not know in 1971 that town after town has fallen to Indian forces that are advancing towards Dacca, that did not protest when in 1980’s front pages of newspapers had empty columns, or that did not know in May of 1999, that we have almost started a war with India in Kargill. The level of political discourse is crashing with such a speed – like a jet falling down after being shot – that in the last 48 hours most people failed to distinguish between ‘news’ and ‘current affair programs’. Upset, or hurt or distraught by the ‘agendas’ of some unscrupulous anchors, large sections of public are even prepared to accept ‘blackouts of news’. They have even forgotten that news is an altogether different commodity from ‘gossipy discussions’ and that ‘News’ is sacrosanct. Many activists masquerading as ‘columnists’ and ‘responsible journalists’ are part of this idiocy.

How can television channels be advised or forced not to tell the public that sizable crowds have protested in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi and other parts of the country; or that roads remained blocked in different parts of different cities? How could lens be blocked from registering that these crowds are much smaller than what could have been expected if the country had not moved ahead in its thinking on these issues? How could simple physical facts happening in major towns of the country just disappear from our screens and from our consciousness?

God forbid, if we expect this logic then Pakistani tv channels should not have reported that a man existing by the name of ‘Ajmal Kasab’ belonged to Faridkot, that hundreds of people are missing in Baluchistan, in Swat and across the country; then courts will have no basis to admit petitions and take actions; then we would not known that terrorists and sectarians and insurgents of one or the other kind have struck hundreds of times in the last few years; perhaps thousands of Pakistanis just disappeared, vaporized. If this logic expands then soon all things considered bad, ugly and dangerous will disappear from ‘the news’. Since ‘news’ is about ‘happenings’ then those ‘bad things’ will not be happening. Since corruption, nepotism, kick backs, abuse of authority by government agencies are all ‘ugly things’ that bring bad name and discomfiture to the government then surely these should disappear. What about gang rapes, rapes by policemen and those connected politically, surely these unsavory things don’t sound good to our ears and may be banished as Plato once set out to banish poets and Ayub Khan ordered destruction of goat and sheep. Politicians in Sindh already complain that children have always been dying in Thar; why such fuss now?

When I was in nursery, my aunt told me that in Iran or Japan or somewhere during a tremor, earth shattered and people fell into the crevices; shocked devastated and sleepless, I asked my mother: could this happen? She replied: No! aunt is lying. Later a driver told me that babies are born from the bottom of the mothers; my mother found out and driver was sacked. Just like the Media in Pakistan – dismissed. Its embarrassing to admit that till how late in my life I kept on believing that babies are delivered by female angels in hospital, and I used to wonder: why Angels come only to hospitals?

So people of Pakistan are children. At least someone in Prime Minister’s Office, in the Ministry of Information and PEMRA is convinced that public be given as much information as it can absorb or digest. But this ‘discovery’ certainly predates the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri. The advisories being issued from PEMRA, over the last few weeks, are getting more and more ‘interesting’. I will request all colleagues in media to make copies and file them for posterity; for these ‘advisories’ built around ‘arbitrary authority’ instead of the logic of law and constitutionalism increasingly sound like the hand outs issued by Colonels in a martial law regime. Perhaps the genius of our state institutions still fails to distinguish between ‘control’ and ‘regulation’. This is why today I saw headlines that ‘PM has reduced oil prices’ So what is the regulatory authority doing?

If one wants to purposefully act naïve then one may persuade himself to believe that since hanging of Mumtaz Qadri was an unusually sensitive decision so the censorship was justified. Qadri after all was a killer but not an ordinary criminal. He was a zealot mislead by clerics and politics of the day whose actions polarized the society and his execution may add to this polarization. Why forget that Salman Taseer was PPP’s governor in Punjab, an outspoken, fiercely independent mind and spirit, someone who was not impotent of expression like governors these days are supposed to be but a hard-hitting, articulate force in himself who was appointed governor with a purpose. He was a man with a mission. And the atmosphere of hatred unleashed against him after his visit to Aasiya Bibi in jail, was not merely a work of clerics but had serious political overtones. It was in this atmosphere in which an impressionable ‘Mumtaz Qadri’ did the cruel horrendous act. Qadri believed that Taseer was doing the unthinkable; insulting the Prophet (PBUH) – something still believed by countless men and women across the country. This is how the public was deliberately misinformed. It was dirty politics. Reality as known to all those who followed the events, by the day, and as amply documented by high courts and supreme court is that Taseer never uttered anything that could be remotely construed as ‘blasphemous’; his conflict, a battle of egos, was with powerful clergy and the politicians playing mischief. TV programs and newspapers of few weeks before his tragic assassination in Jan 2011, will amply document the politicians who were inspiring hatred and contempt against him. But that is beyond the scope of this writing.

What should matter to all sane minds in media, politics and civil society is that ‘Qadri Hanging’ has been used as a successful experiment – a kind of testing waters – in ‘News Blackout’ by a government that has been sending these signals of ‘controlling airwaves’ for the past several weeks. The most interesting, rather provocative part of this irony is that those who ruthlessly exploited the platforms of free media to advance their political goals and careers between 2002 and 2008 and those who again used these platforms between 2008 and 2013 to undermine the PPP government are now using a charge sheet against media to deny public’s right of information and its ‘freedom of expression’. This is called: politics of self-interest and dictatorial mind set. Dear Media and civil society, its time to wake up and smell the coffee! Party was not in 2007; party tu ab shuri hoi hay!

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6 COMMENTS

  1. You well written article made me think for a while as if government is just a small child (named as ‘Pure’), got enrolled in Oxford medium school as his parents (Alpha & Linda) wished to see him as maturely behaving, serene gentleman to live in this world peacefully, less chaotic with its neighbors and far other regions. Pure also had one younger brother but faced death during his childhood in 1971 during cock & bull fight. Since then, Pure decided to become powerful by inflicting pains in those who were among voices of defiance. ‘Pure’, whose parents were from rural area with no education background rather from landlord agricultural family history, found him landing among kids from elite class whose parents taught them world history, evolution of human civilization and vision of developed technical world. ‘Pure’ now started trying to familiarize himself with those kids who wear trousers and shirts and whereas he, throughout his childhood saw people wearing either loincloth or shalwar kameez with long turbans. In beginning, he felt unease wearing those western clothes that made him uncomfortable & bumpy in that attire as most of his fellows back in village make fun of his ‘artificial outlook’. His height was short among others with sharp nose, big head and pale color. Despite all of this, Pure was ardent to be part of this race and competition as he felt that his other class fellows were far ahead of him in terms of intellectual growth and understanding. Slowly and gradually, as he grows old, he learned all those tools and tactics that can keep him in power be it class room, college or university or head of an organization. He learned that “containment of information” is main tool to be in powerful and suppression of all those voices that present ‘other side’ point of view may weaken him. On one side, he wanted to show the world that he has learnt to be part of post-modernism but at the same time, he don’t want others to know what his people think so that all those efforts that he made to show that he has become ‘parha likha’ ‘liberal’ ‘modern’ should not look like as an eye wash. He run his own organization that becomes so brawny that it was mandated for his people to listen each morning ‘sub acha hai’ show to highlight positive image. He failed to understand that in portraying positive image, he was actually suppressing those voices of defiance that could uproot him. He failed to realize how hard for his people to fathom, as they were poor, sad, helpless and suppress. The more he inflicted these pains, the more his head becomes bigger but mind shorter. Over a period of time, he suffered from inferiority complex and his growing insecurities of losing power, made him losing his insight and one day while talking to death angel, he realized that the superficial dream that technology would solve the world’s social problems has transformed into a nightmare of information available to his people and they are acquiring tools through which they can co-ordinate their emancipation. Today his organization was competed by spectre of other organizations like WA, FB, TWTR, it became very hard for him to keep telling lies of ‘sub acha hai’ and it was all sinister perfection of order that led towards his own self-destruction but then it was too late. In the end, all his class fellows, with whom he started his journey of adapting himself to neo-liberalism, were far ahead and started living on another planet as they discovered another world (through research) to live whereas he went back to his village. Pure died of a disease where his head became so heavy that his shoulders couldn’t bear the burden and his skull became empty of mind but full of green water.

  2. What do You want to say! Should be left open to publish whatever you want to be. Media manipulation leads Nation nowhere. They just fantasies news without caring the mass impact. Exaggerating news leaves no positive impact to the society and this doesn’t restrict to Media but also Our religious activists.

    As being a observer, I feel yes to the decision of not publishing this happening on Media because unfortunately in our country Media is NOT playing the role as it should be. Media must re-consider their policies and some procedural changes must be done focusing the impact audience took from them.

  3. this website should have an option to follow it; there should be a button at the end of the article, where options to share are provided which also provides the option, ‘follow Mr. Pirzada’; browsers should be able to fill in their email addresses and become followers; however for writing comments there should be a ‘Membership Option’ in which anyone wants to offer a comment should be able to either join through his/her Facebook, twitter, Gmail etc or should be able to fill a simple form and become a member, choose a alias name, an image for himself and so on….hope the webmaster will look into these suggestions….

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