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Needless distraction

April 26, 2014

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WITH 24x7 carpet coverage of events following the assassination attempt on one of the country’s most recognisable TV personalities, it was difficult not to be sucked into the often pointless minutiae at the cost of the big picture.

The media frenzy which is so unflattering to the journalists’ (or more appropriately the owners’) community is tugging at us so hard that it is almost impossible to take a step back but, I suspect, if one could, some interesting elements would emerge.

In the normal course, there should have been an outpouring of support for Geo’s prime time star Hamid Mir, and unequivocal condemnation of the assailants. That did happen. But then a controversy erupted overshadowing every other aspect of the episode. Why?

Here’s my two cents worth. In the absence of rules of law, engagement and a code of ethics for all national institutions, what the present crisis represents is a grab for power in the vacuum that perceptibly exists.

Had the ISI unilaterally embraced the recommendations of the Air Marshal Zulfikar Ali Khan Commission report it would have spared itself a lot of criticism it faces today.

I have no doubt in my mind and can come up with many examples of where it has used the third degree against dissenters, journalists being no exception. It’s tasked with protecting national security. The jury is still out on how great a job it has done but it has grown unchallenged to assume the status of the sole arbiter of patriotism, even trying its hand at ‘nation-building’. It has significant say in Balochistan where its alleged excesses and those of its surrogate civilian religious bands are not a figment of the imagination.

The agency has had no qualms about questioning the capability, integrity and even the patriotism of civilian elected leaders, allegedly using sympathisers in the same media which has earned its wrath today. But any criticism directed at it is blamed on foreign masters, handlers, material gain and every unsavoury motivation under the sun. All intelligence agencies in the world need to work in the shadows. ISI is no different. But even the threat of terrorism is no justification for acting like a law unto itself.

Jang group has always been one of the most influential media houses here. The setting up of Geo was the work of an entrepreneurial genius. It became the biggest not necessarily because it was the best but it had the first mover’s advantage. Jang newspaper’s vast newsgathering network and the immediacy of 24x7news allowed it to build a mythical status.

Along with this status, revenues came flooding in. The group was a pioneer in the ‘talk show’ genre and experimented successfully in ‘iman’ to ‘inam’ shows ie programming from peddling faith to sponsored prizes. Of course with this success came visions of grandeur; a desire not only to report and comment from an observer’s perch as the media should but to enter the fray a la Murdoch.

In its ethos, the group also promotes conservatism a bit like the agency it is at loggerheads with today but, not unlike the agency, wouldn’t mind championing progressive causes for a profit. But its pre-eminence in the number of eyeballs also brought with it a huge amount of arrogance. So much so that it pronounced judgement on who was fit to rule Pakistan and who wasn’t, not even shying away from issuing certificates of patriotism or otherwise.

The intense rivalries, in the quest for ratings and revenues, have meant a downward spiral where some sections of the electronic media, one fears, may disappear down the gutter. In the more recent context if Geo has made me shake my head in anger and disbelief at the lack of editorial control leading to on-air anarchy, some of the other channels’ complete abandonment of their journalistic role has made me reach for the vomit bag.

This paper aptly called it cannibalism in a leader two days ago. So, where do we go from here?

I firmly believe that unbridled freedom of expression cannot be traded in regardless of the sin of one institution or the other. I am convinced that many of us, who have had reservations about Geo’s journalism and even discussed it with them, will resist any GHQ-dictated curbs tooth and nail.

Both a free media and national security institutions need to continue to do their mandated jobs but both should not be used or take upon themselves the job of subverting the popular will; both have over-extended themselves and even colluded with each other and even with some over-extended members of the judiciary to undermine elected governments in the past.

Today Pakistan is facing an existential crisis with militants holding society hostage. I firmly believe that the armed forces, and most notably their security services, are the only entities capable of putting this genie back in the bottle. They should be supported and lauded unequivocally in this endeavour.

Equally, curbs on media freedoms, squabbles between various state institutions, and loose-cannon editorial policies would make the shrewd terror merchants jump for joy simply because they divert our attention away from the task at hand.

The valiant soldiers on the North Waziristan outposts, thousands of whom have given their lives for us and equally the thousands of civilians who have perished in this terror campaign must demand we stay focused.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com