THE epic struggle for democracy being waged by the media in Pakistan has now reached a critical crossroads. Or so we are told. After the attack on Hamid Mir, the rhetoric has become so shrill that it’s hard to make out truth from fiction. On both sides of the (apparent) divide the democratic imperative is being trumpeted amidst cries of anguish for our embattled motherland.

It is a measure of just how influential the TV anchor has become in Pakistan that so much reaction followed the attack on the ‘Capital Talk’ host in Karachi last week. First, there was condemnation, and rightly so. Then the war of words began in earnest, with one side openly identifying the ISI chief as responsible for the attack and the other side taking issue with the deliberate slandering of our state guardians.

It is striking that the names and reputations of institutions and individuals that previously enjoyed sacred cow-like status here can now be dragged through the mud. Even a few years ago it was unthinkable that the ISI and its chief could be subject to such accusations. Regardless of whether or not greater care could or should be taken in such matters, surely all principled democrats would reason that this is a sign of progress?

Actually, we have experienced such ‘euphoric’ moments on many occasions since the TV media erupted into our daily lives a little over a decade ago. If many were excited by the impact of live television during the anti-Musharraf agitations, we have since become ‘breaking news’ junkies. It is widely believed that the media reports on anything and everything, with the competition between channels a major explanation for the no-holds barred approach. It is thus that a popular myth has been created that Pakistan is a much freer and democratic society with the emergence of the private TV media.

I think not. While there are positive consequences of media ‘freedom’, we overlook the alarming political ramifications. What a TV channel presents as an explosive conflict between defenders of freedom and status quo forces actually looks quite different when we move beyond surface causes and consequences.

One need only consider that corporate media houses have been party to power games numerous times in the past to understand that the present episode is likely no different. For its part, Pakistan’s establishment spends as much time manipulating popular discourse as actually effecting its will through concrete actions. I don’t want to suggest that either the media or the establishment, independently or in tandem, seamlessly produce intended outcomes whenever they so desire, but there’s little question that they never tire of trying.

Dissidents the world over, Chomsky arguably foremost amongst them, have written extensively about the manner in which the corporate media and ruling elites forge all manner of narratives to lend moral and political logic to state policy. Sometimes the train of thought being peddled can be profoundly counter-intuitive; so, for example, the majority of Americans believe there’s unbridled freedom of expression in their country in large part because the media and government endlessly claim that the US is a bastion of liberty. In fact, substantive dissent is not possible within the American political and intellectual mainstream.

With this in mind, I submit that the present ‘stand-off’ involving numerous media houses and state institutions is a classic case of fighting in the corridors of power and that the supposedly principled position being taken against ‘the agencies’ should instead be thought of as parody.

Indeed, there is something fashionable about knocking ‘the agencies’ these days, even while remaining true to some of the most fundamental precepts of the ‘national security’ agenda that the intelligence apparatus so diligently works to secure. A lot of change has taken place in this country, and one of the consequences is that it is not possible to completely insulate the rich and powerful from public scrutiny. But it would be naïve to assume that the establishment and media houses that have historically remained loyal to the state have not adapted their means and methods to the changing times.

Until such a time as ‘the agencies’ are actually brought to book, apparently principled sloganeering is likely to obfuscate as much as it illuminates. Indeed, we need to expose those who propagate politics as parody if we are to take the first steps towards building a genuinely anti-establishment politics.

In the first instance, should we not be asking why the attack on Hamid Mir is more condemnable than the many more attacks and everyday injustices faced by ordinary people who do not enjoy celebrity status here?

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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