Clash of the titans

07 May 2014


MUCH has been written about the media crisis that has gripped Pakistan in recent weeks. It should not take anyone by surprise considering the environment we live in. These are not normal times and there are political cracks in the economic and social systems that conventionally hold state and society together. Thus the institutions and their functionaries have lost the coping capacity that is supposed to keep them going in times of crises and that helps them emerge from them unscathed.

Had corrective mechanisms been in place, corrective measures would have been taken a long time ago — when the first stone was cast. Matters have now come to a head. We have seen a running battle between a media house and the premier security intelligence agency. The government is trapped in the crossfire of its own making.

The need of the hour is to protect the lives of journalists and to resist arbitrary methods to suppress the media. On this we must be united. Having said this, I would add that we also need to revisit our history so that we do not make blunders again. We have always responded so belatedly to a long-brewing problem that we have allowed interested parties to exploit the situation.

Now look at the present crisis. It is being described as a collision between the ISI and Geo that is, in turn, interpreted as a struggle for power between civilian forces and the military, given the backing the government extended to the media house. This has divided the media with no consideration of what is at stake. We should understand that our basic freedoms are under threat.

That would explain the knee-jerk reaction from many of those who have struggled for press freedom for long. How can anyone support the move by the security establishment to muzzle the media via ham-handed methods? But in the current war of words, the biggest casualty has been the ability to view the situation dispassionately and holistically.

I would unconditionally support the journalists’ right to freedom of expression — albeit within an impartial and fair regulatory framework that would pre-empt any abuse of that freedom.

When Gen Musharraf decided to ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ and television channels mushroomed, Pakistan leapfrogged into the electronic media age with unprecedented freedom. This appears to have been dangerous if one recalls that the Pakistani media had always been in chains and had never operated in a period of normality that would have enabled it to develop healthy traditions.

One cannot learn responsible practices when the sword of Damocles is constantly hanging over one’s head. Professionalism and maturity are not cultivated easily when professionals are burdened with press advices and censorship.

Hence, while no doubt it boosted the freedom of expression, the move to open up the media with no regulations or mechanisms inevitably resulted in licence of the worst kind. Gen Musharraf had believed that he could manage the risks by manipulating the TV channels to his own advantage as his predecessors had done.

The establishment-journalist equation had for decades been marked by the ignoble practice of ‘buying’ willing journalists — remember the infamous lifafa journalism of the Zia years and the information ministry’s secret funds? It was not difficult because even politicians could be bought. This time the security establishment’s strategy to exercise controls — the so-called soft power — didn’t quite work.

Economic conditions have changed with the deregulation of the economy. Corruption has gone up by leaps and bounds. For the media houses it has meant less dependence on the government for their advertisement revenues. The ratio between advertisements from the public and private sectors has also been reversed.

The proliferation of media outlets has led to competition giving popular anchors the opportunity to negotiate their price. They can switch jobs and each change brings them a raise of hundreds and thousands. In the environment generated by the ratings war, the breaking news syndrome and sensationalism fostered by them, can one expect healthy journalism to be nurtured?

We forget that voices have been raised earlier against the misdoings of the electronic media. Human life lost its sanctity and violence was freely televised. Health professionals complained about what the media was doing to our children’s psyche. The struggles of the people to live a life of dignity were relegated to the back-burner. The calls from a few concerned individuals — media persons and other professionals — for a code of conduct based on ethics fell on deaf ears.

The security establishment is now taking us back to square one. This is no solution. In the war of the titans, the more powerful wins but it crushes the common man in the process.