Analysis: Tamed media to hurt Pakistan

Updated 23 May 2014


File photo
File photo

AFTER battling a mounting charge on its policies, practices and credibility for over a month now Geo and its parent group Jang have claimed the television channel is finally down, even if temporarily. Cable operators in most parts of the country appear to have pulled the plug on the channel. Why was this media giant targeted, how has it been felled and what does it signify? Considering Geo’s iconic influence, trademark cockiness and its leadership of the sectoral market and ratings, an answer to this question probably lies in the framework of Pakistan’s grand national theatre where power, politics, religion and business collide, rather than viewing it through a media prism alone.

Yes, it was the murderous attack on Hamid Mir that started it all, triggering a chain of events that quickly snowballed into something entirely different, along the way collecting charges of treason, blasphemy and fatwas of being haram for Geo. But it was really the channel’s philosophy of overweening brashness that found it overreaching one time too many by miscalculating its ability to push back limits that its most other rivals keep an unclosing eye on. Such as calling out the ISI and its chief in the way it did as being the alleged mastermind behind the assassination attempt on Mir.

Irrespective of the merits or demerits of this allegation and the manner in which it was made, what happened next is a fascinating case study of not just who the principal players in Pakistan’s power matrix are but, more revealingly, what their place and power is in the scheme of the national polity and how they exercise it. And how they test and exercise their powers to re-arrange their limits of influence and interplay. Not everyone wins.

Consider: Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which also happens to head the government and which in the past has itself a bruising and bitter history with the military, stretched its silence to the Geo’s accusations to long hours. Was the government gleeful that its old nemesis, which had only the week earlier piled pressure on it to sack Khawaja Asif and Khawaja Saad, was put in probably the worst public spotlight discomfort ever in its history? Or was it that the government was genuinely unable to make its mind on what public position to take on the issue considering its sensitivity? Both reasons are frightening in their implications.

The ISI struck back after a few hours first in the shape of a short statement through the ISPR refuting the charges and then a day later in a lengthier follow-up statement blasting Geo and counter accusing it of treason. And then Sharif visited Mir in hospital in Karachi, a posture seen by the military as the government taking the wrong side in the row. The result: the army chief then visited the ISI chief at the latter’s office in an astonishing override of protocol. Shortly thereafter an application was filed with media regulator Pemra, through the Ministry of Defence no less, requesting that Geo be shut down and penalised.

Things had become ominous: it was a mistake by the government to not react within the first hour of Geo’s allegations by taking the public position that it would be premature to make such allegations, assuring an investigation into the charges nonetheless and defending the security establishment against being condemned unheard. After all intelligence agencies are part of the government and the government should have at the minimum defended them against the unusual charge backed by an announcement to set up a commission to probe the attack on Mir. Win-win on both sides; the ensuing escalation would have been pre-empted and the law would have taken its course without the massive chaos that soon followed.

Since intelligence agencies don’t have the luxury to get involved in slanging matches in public, and that too with the market leader in TV news with a pervasive cross-media ownership, they will inevitably speak through proxies if they are condemned unheard, or beyond a point. And sure enough the security establishment did. Imran Khan and his PTI suddenly found a voice several days after the attack on Mir and as soon as the complaint was filed with Pemra. Militant groups, sectarian entities and jihadi types that have thinly disguised and well-documented ties with the security establishment crawled out of the woodworks and swiftly became omnipotent on thoroughfares across the country waving pictures of the ISI chief and the army chief. The PML-Q, with its proudly transparent affiliations with the GHQ, was also pressed in service to promote an exaggerated dose of martial patriotism.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Geo, which until last week had been unrepentingly unrelenting with its stance on ISI, tripped up big time with its Shaista Lodhi morning show and its controversial content. In Pakistan no one escapes charges of blasphemy unscathed. It is telling that sects that would otherwise fight each other over which one had been offended and which was being foolishly critical have banded together against Geo. The religious groups are the easiest to be mobilised into frenzy and so they have been. Geo was quick to apologise over the morning show but it was never going to be enough because the blasphemy charges are supported by the same quarters that have pressed treason charges against Geo. That’s a deadly cocktail.

What does it all mean? The felling of Geo means a clear warning to all other TV channels and would also mean a drastic reduction in the public margins to criticise the security establishment for ills both real and imagined. The space will, likewise, shrink for the government to dissent against the establishment on priority public policy issues such as the Taliban, Afghanistan and India, the flip side of which is re-asserted and re-expanded dominance of the establishment over the body politic. The parliament will remain under pressure — the ongoing questioning of its legitimacy at the hands of alleged rigging is a part of the same pressure on political forces resulting from the Geo episode.

What should be done? The media has been the easiest to pressurise and manipulate into delegitimising its own freedoms (demands and support for ban on Geo by most of its rivals) and compromise on its fundamental function of being the guardian of public interest. Both the existing media regulations and media regulator Pemra have spectacularly failed to prevent the media from plunging into a crisis of credibility. No less than an urgent overhaul of the regulations and the regulator, both of which mostly predate the media sector they regulate, is required.

We need to have an industry endorsed set of minimum standards of professionalism, including journalistic ethics, as well as an enforcement mechanism that while embracing best practices and higher ideals of freedom of expression and access to information also incorporate complaints and redressal mechanisms to preempt extremist positions. Good examples of regulators that incorporate both ideals and enforcement regulations overseen by effective mechanisms are Ofcom of the UK and FCC of the US. Failure to do so hurts Pakistan’s aspirations for a pluralistic, tolerant and open society and a delay only exacerbates the situation.

The author is a media analyst and media development specialist. He tweets at @adnanrehmat1.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2014