We are so used to them now, the bearded commanders of our television screens.
We know that someone important among them is called Hidayatullah, that their spokesman is Shahidullah, and that they are led by Maulana Fazlullah. We know when the weather is bad or the mood is wrong and their representatives cannot meet the other representatives of the latest negotiation of the newest committee.
Sometimes, when they do not agree, we know about that too, and in detail. When, as happened earlier this week, one faction from among the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan believes that the month-long ceasefire they had declared should be continued, we all wait with baited breath.
If the images on television screens are evidence, then the truth is clear. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan are the current rulers of Pakistan’s television screens.
From a country that knew little about them as recently as four or five years ago, the Pakistani viewing public has become intimately acquainted with the agenda, views, threats, likes, dislikes, punishments, and statements of the group.
The pliant faces sitting before their television screens at home, poring over homework or housework, have had little choice in the matter.
The powers that be, owners of television networks and the marketing departments that sell advertising on them, seem to have decided that near constant coverage of the Tailban is a moneymaker, and morals cannot compete with money.
There are facts behind these observations.
Two weeks ago, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan struck at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, opening gunfire on diners in a hotel restaurant. Among those killed was Ahmed Sardar, a journalist for Agence France Presse. In the aftermath of that bombing, Afghan journalists, fed up of the endless bloodletting of the group, declared a 15-day boycott of news reporting on the Taliban. It was a momentous decision; in the endless condemnations and pleas to halt the killing, the journalists on the other side of the border had realized a change in strategy was necessary.
A few days into the boycott, I wrote an editorial asking for Pakistani journalists to do the same. Hard news of attacks, etc., should be provided to insure the provision of information related to security, but the endless analysis, speculation, regurgitation of inane details of a terrorist group’s agenda, must be omitted.
The response was interesting.
Such a boycott would never happen in Pakistan, many fellow journalists told me, for the simple reason that many within the journalist community were sympathetic to the agenda of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Others argued that a limited boycott would have financial consequences for those television channels that chose to participate, so strong was their belief in the viewing public’s desire for such endless dissection and popularization of the Talib’s intent and purposes.
A few were simply honest. As journalists we do not make a lot of money, they said. If we make a move like this we will lose our jobs to others waiting hungrily in the wings.
In the meantime, another journalist and author, this time a Pakistani, Raza Rumi, was attacked by gunmen in Lahore. But again, as before, few journalists had the guts to consider such action. Even if they realize that the cover of “news” is enabling a whole cabal of journalists to disguise their sympathies as news coverage, they are hesitant and disbelieving in the value of such collective action.
This lack of unity on the side of those that oppose the Taliban’s agenda, particularly the killing of journalists and innocent men, women, and children, is of course a victory for the Taliban.
The result is visible on your television screens: a group that receives free publicity, whose demands, by the very fact of their repetition, are becoming familiar and, in this sense, normalised.
Instead of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan changing or being co-opted, it is the public that is slowly being made passive and hence accepting of their barbarity.
There was, once, not too long ago, a time when floggings and beheadings, bombings and shootings would stun the public, when the massacre of minorities and the extinguishment of women from the public sphere was considered unquestionably wrong, not a point at debate.
The Pakistanis sitting in front of their television sets, watching, listening, swallowing, are also learning. It is a lesson of silence, of injustice witnessed for so long that it ceases to look like evil, and of the transformation of a group of rebels into rulers—at least of Pakistani television screens.