ISLAMABAD: Pakistani television is screening what many call its most controversial content yet in a ruthless quest for ratings: a talk-show host who gives away babies live on air.
A charismatic TV host criticized for giving out babies to childless couples live on prime-time Pakistani television denies he is openly seeking top ratings and insists he is spreading charity.
Amir Liaquat Hussain, one of the biggest stars on Pakistani TV, spoke to AFP amidst further criticism.
Hussain broadcasts a marathon 12-hour show each day during the holy month of Ramazan, watched by millions of viewers across Pakistan. He enthralls his audience with celebrity interviews, game shows, lucky draws and by providing in-studio meals to the needy. The area where his studio is located is jammed to the hilt with traffic every day, owing to the large numbers of the needy that flock to his live show in the hopes of receiving a prize that could in some way change their lives for the better.
On two consecutive weeks in the past however, he managed to equally mesmerize and horrify viewers by handing out baby girls to two childless couples on his show.
The ensuing international media coverage and public criticism has seen him strongly deny that he is pulling out all the stops to maximize ratings in a competitive Ramazan TV market.
“It is not like parents come in the show, and (we) deliver the baby like a prize. What prize? It is rubbish to say ‘who wants to win a baby’?” he told AFP on the sidelines of his chat show.
Hussain insists that the two couples were pre-screened for their suitability as parents, and claims he is right to find good homes for abandoned babies in a country where laws of adoption are not very widely publicized.
“We are trying to create an environment in the society for those people who are needy and want to adopt babies,” Hussain said.
Chhipa Welfare Association, the local charity that was involved in the screening process that took place before the babies were handed over, told AFP it took part in this particular process in order to discourage women from abandoning unwanted children and men from divorcing their wives because they cannot give birth.
“We give adoption to these couples only on merit basis,” said Ramzan Chippa, head of Chhipa Welfare Association. He insisted both couples had been screened and went on the show expecting to return as parents. A third baby is expected to be handed over in the coming days, he told AFP.
“It is not ‘you answer a question on a show and you get a baby’. This is false!” he said.
One of the couples claims to have married about 15 years ago but remained childless. They told AFP they registered with Chhipa and were interviewed by the charity earlier this month, before being asked to appear on the show by the TV programme.
The organization has a large fleet of ambulances, spread over Chhipa Ambulance Emergency Centers that are present in prominent places of Karachi, on numerous roundabouts and near Government Hospitals. Chhipa is known for the large throngs of people that line about by the side of busy traffic roads at Chhipa Emergency Centers or stalls, waiting to be fed by Chhipa Social Workers each day.
“I cannot express in words our happiness, there was a great void in our life and that is filled by having this baby,” said the father, Said Zulfiqar Hussain, a policeman from Karachi.
The mother, Sureya Bilqees, who dreams her daughter will grow up and join the army, declares her child is the “future of Pakistan”.
Hussain, a former state minister for Religious affairs who has been presenting since before 2007, is no stranger to controversy.
In 2008, guests invited to his show said that Ahmadis should be killed. Two well-known Ahmadis were subsequently killed, although there was no evidence linking their murders to Hussain’s show.
In 2011, a controversial behind-the-scenes video was released via social media showing the presenter using vulgar language and speaking crassly with his companions, during different instances of his show.
He was unable to authenticate an alleged degree in Islamic Studies from a college in Spain, where he claims to have received his education. He also insists on having a diploma from a medical college in Pakistan.
After Television was liberalized during Musharraf’s era (1999-2008), there has been constant debate about media ethics and the continuously blurring line between entertainment and religion.
Tauseef Ahmed Khan, chairman of the mass communication department at the Federal Urdu University, said the baby give-away had taken controversy to a new level.
“Unfortunately, they have adopted the role of reformers, whereas they are entertainers,” he told AFP.
But perhaps the most perplexing part of all is the mixed reactions Hussain’s show has garnered from audiences across the country. While people are clearly horrified on the one hand regarding the welfare of these infants and the direction in which this show is heading, on the other they feel compelled to watch his show every day; leading to the private TV channel that hosts his show to claim to have broken all records ever since it started broadcasting.
This claim is backed by huge billboards plastered with Hussain’s face and media vans that are painted with the colors of the show, declaring its place as number one in the TV rankings.
As Hussain puts it, “People love me, and that is why they watch me.”