THE already deeply worrying events in the media landscape have taken a frightening turn with the reaction in several quarters to the Geo morning entertainment show debacle. The Geo programme, Utho Jago Pakistan, made a critical error of judgement by trying to fuse sensitive religious material with crass entertainment.
Arguably though, it was an accident waiting to happen. With no real professional editorial control at the channel and owner-management dictating what goes on air from another country, the channel is always likely to trip up now and again. Realising its error, Geo issued a serious and unreserved apology to its viewers — which is where the matter should have ended. But the lapse occurred at a time in which the media house’s rivals are trying everything to cut the channel down to size, perhaps even see it taken off air permanently.
Yet, for several media groups and their on-air and in-paper henchmen to deliberately, repeatedly and violently inflame religious sentiments in a country with an already alarming extremism problem has shown a shocking escalation of hostilities. The alacrity — some may say glee — with which the religious right has pounced on the Geo morning show debacle is impossible to miss, and ought to alarm even those media houses, led by ARY and Express, that have vigorously fanned the flames of religious hatred and bigotry.
The religious right would like nothing better than to have a veto over the Pakistani media, to decide what can go on air and in print and what must remain unseen, unheard and unread. But that dangerous and dark place is precisely where the national media seems to be dragging itself, oblivious apparently to what it would mean for everyone involved.
Certainly, Geo/Jang is far from blameless: for years, the group has given space to ugly and hateful views in the name of freedom of speech. Now, those very views and many of their rabid proponents are being used against it.
Two sets of actors must bear primary responsibility for events leading to what, arguably, is the logical conclusion of years of irresponsibility and a free-for-all in the TV news industry. The first set is the publishers and news channel proprietors themselves. While there is often a tendency to romanticise the past, there is a case to be made that once upon a time proprietors were more aware of the news business being different from other businesses and media ownership being a public trust of sorts.
Gone are those days. Now several media barons seek to use their media outlets for increasing their power, influence and wealth. And they do so by structuring newsrooms and programming operations in a way that they personally dictate what goes on air, and even in print. The recent wretched events in the media are a direct result of the excessive editorial control proprietors have accumulated.
Yet, the senior professional journalists working in the agenda-twisting media houses must surely bear some of the guilt, and shame, too. Powerful as the proprietors may be internally, a united journalistic front could surely put up some resistance. The proprietors need the aura of legitimacy professional journalists endow a media group with and so they cannot afford to totally alienate or lose that journalistic core and still hope to stay relevant or credible as a news organisation nationally.
But far too many senior professional journalists seem to have simply abdicated their basic responsibilities to their profession and their peers. Despite all its problems, despite the many controversies, the Pakistani media had grown to be a national institution that many could be proud of. But what dictators, anti-democrats and right-wing extremists could not achieve in decades, the media seems to have done to itself in a few short weeks. It is time for the few good men and women left in this profession to stand up and be counted.
Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2014