TELEVISION is a powerful medium. Images, immediacy and, in our case, high levels of illiteracy, bestow a status on the medium and vest it with an influence that is the envy of those working in other media in Pakistan.
Few people appreciate the downside: unlike the human eye, a camera does not possess peripheral vision. It is incumbent on those who appear on the idiot box to frequently remind themselves that there is also a big picture out there where life is actually happening, where reality exists. Not just in their studios where the distinction between fact and fiction gets lost; where the line between balanced journalism and single-source stories can get blurred.
Practitioners of the craft forget this at their own peril and only if they wish to make a habit of eating humble pie.
This may explain the seemingly helpless anger and hand-wringing frustration of most of our TV anchors who appeared to be caught unawares when CIA ‘contractor’ Raymond Davis, who had shot two Pakistanis on Jan 27, was freed by a court a mere 50 days later and flown out of the country before the ink had dried on the court judgment.
Under pressure to produce an hour of ratings-grabbing ‘talk shows’ day in and day out with very small production teams and an even smaller number of researchers, as a fellow professional one can only sympathise with these well-dressed, articulate and handsome men and women. They work in exceptionally difficult circumstances.
A major chunk of these anchors is also very patriotic and nationalistic and must have the best interests of the country and nation at heart. This was demonstrated by their commitment to the movement for the restoration of the judiciary and in seeing the back of Gen Musharraf’s regime.
Nobody questions their good faith when they claim to speak for the nation on a daily basis for the nation only gets to say what it wants once every five years. If they had not been so trusting of some of their sources, perhaps they could have seen the drama unfolding differently.
When the news first broke, police were saying that the two people who were shot dead by the American were armed and suspected of robbing a couple of individuals earlier the same day. In fact, it was also said that the wallet(s) and cellphone(s) of the ‘complainants’ of the earlier episode were recovered from them, posthumously of course.
Then, when the post-mortem reports were first mentioned, there were suggestions that the bullet wounds suffered by those shot dead by Davis were consistent with his stance that he discharged his weapon to protect himself when threatened by armed men. Of course, this did not address the larger issue of what this killing machine was doing in Lakshmi Chowk or even in Lahore or for that matter in Pakistan. And also why were stories suddenly appearing in the media that those tasked with ensuring national security were ignorant about his presence and more ominously his mission?
Slowly but surely additional details started to emerge and the media used them at will and TV channels with even greater relish without properly attributing these. No one said — but everyone could conjecture — where these details were coming from.
At this stage more details started to emerge such as Davis was carrying a phone with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan numbers in its contacts and that his camera showed he had photographed ‘sensitive’ Pakistani installations.
Soon a far more sinister picture started to emerge where certain websites seen as close to Pakistan’s security services went so far as to suggest that Davis was somehow tasked with bringing the security of the country’s nuclear programme into question by having its installations attacked by (pro-CIA) ‘militants’ using radioactive material.
Completely uninspired by the PPP government’s lack of direction, poor performance and alleged corruption, these anchors have routinely expressed disdain for its pro-American stance in every area. As was evidenced at the passage of the Kerry-Lugar legislation, they firmly believe it is their patriotic duty to back the ‘real’ defenders of Pakistan and its interests.
So, when broad hints started to come from the defence establishment that Davis was out to cause serious harm to us and would be made an example of, they accepted this idea as the whole truth. They may have had visions of a long prison sentence if not hanging.
If they had a little more time to reflect, to read even a fictional account of such events in novels, they wouldn’t have lost sight of the fact that foreign nationals who are caught spying are always freed. They are but pawns on a chessboard.Their period in captivity and the gravity of charges against such spies are merely used as bargaining chips in a larger game being played on a much wider stage and across a much broader canvas. So, once the desired result had been obtained in this bigger game the epilogue of the Davis saga was played out at fast forward.
With the possible exception of this paper’s Islamabad-based diplomatic correspondent, whose reports on the ISI-CIA relations and the negotiations between them were indicative of his ability to see the larger picture, almost everyone else in the media went into shock at the speed, manner and circumstances of Davis’s release.
This must be the first occasion in living memory where apart from the elected governments at the centre and Punjab, the army, the ISI and even the judiciary have been named and castigated by TV anchors and their panellists for being a party to Davis’s release.
Over the next few weeks, these anchors will vent their anger at being kept out of the loop, at even having been used. Eventually, they ought to revert to their default position. Many among them feel that buying into the imperatives of the security state is their patriotic duty. And patriotism is often irresistible.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.