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The zero heroes

June 29, 2014


In 2007, during the height of the so-called ‘Lawyers’ Movement’, I received a call from BBC Radio’s World Service.

A reporter from the station who was probably directly covering the movement asked for my comments on the subject, especially on the Emergency Rule imposed by the embattled government of General Parvez Musharraf.

I told her that I kind of supported the Emergency. She was clearly taken aback: “Please, can you repeat that?’ I repeated myself, triggering an almost 5-second silence on the other end of the phone.

‘Hello?’ I said. ‘Are you still there?’

‘Yes, yes, I am. Sorry about that,’ she came back. ‘Does this mean you also support Musharraf’s ban on some TV channels?’

I told her that yes, as a matter of fact, I did support the ban. Another short, awkward episode of silence followed.

‘Hello? Are you there?’ I checked again.

Our vibrant electronic media confronts a critical challenge — mistrust

‘Yes ...’ she replied. Then added: ‘But I am a bit surprised. I was told you were a former radical student leader and against military dictatorships ...’

I tried to explain my point of view to her. I told her that the so-called movement had already been infiltrated and hijacked by radical right-wing elements and politicians who have little or no idea about the violent storm brewing in the country. I told her it would hit every major city. I gave her the example of the Lal Masjid episode.

I’m not sure how much of what I said got aired, but a year later when extremists began to consistently target schools, shopping areas, shrines and mosques, I realised what I had experienced: the naivety that one now often comes across in the shape of excited Western journalists who end up projecting some rather bloated ideas about ‘revolution’; derived from what usually are manifestations of political chaos that do not lead to any euphoric revolutionary resolution, but to anarchy.

A satirical account on Twitter, @Majorlyprofound, often mocks how certain Western journalists and many local ones use phrases like ‘Pakistan’s free and vibrant (electronic) media’. The truth is, it is as free and vibrant as a cheap British tabloid and largely populated by reporters and anchors most of whom have no prior background in journalism and worst of all, their knowledge of politics is no better than a teenaged social media troll.

Even till this day, I continue to wonder, how come during the whole violent Lal Masjid episode in 2007, all those Western journalists who now regularly report on the blood-soaked episodes of terrorism in Pakistan, missed out on how much of this country’s ‘vibrant electronic media’ had actually turned extremists and militants as romantic expressions of some heroic struggle against a dictatorship?

From Pakistan to Egypt and across the Muslim world where uprisings of one kind or the other took place in the last seven years or so, one cringed noticing how Western journalists only saw what they wanted to, but were now puzzled as to why these uprisings didn’t end up like the good ol’ 1989 post-modern revolutions in East Europe or all those circus-like pink, orange, purple, magenta uprisings in the Balkans?

Had these journalists been paying more attention to the cultural, tribal, sectarian and sub-sectarian dynamics of the uprisings in the Muslim world; and had they not entirely tried to understand the phenomenon through post-modernist comprehensions of modern-day political uprisings, they would have immediately understood that what they were seeing were not swirling heroic life-changing episodes.

What they were witnessing was an anarchic bourgeoise implosion in lands where the urban middle classes and petty-bourgeois had grown in economic and social stature but found themselves shut out from entering the corridors of political power. This frustration also triggered a serious crisis of identity within these classes. What were they as men and women who were making more money than their parents, were more educated, had found echoes of their collective voices on private TV channels and yet, were not in power?

Should they be democrats, liberals, pious Muslims or radical Islamist activists to get this power? Such were the questions and thus there was nothing egalitarian or romantic or liberal or democratic about the uprisings. The uprisings were a loud cry of political frustration and of a need to enter the corridors of power in any way possible — through the politically-correct front door, the hidden back door, on the shoulders of the media or even the militants.

It can be both irritating as well as funny to watch a Western journalist cover, for example, the MQM like a film critic would a Godfather sequel or describe a fashion show in Pakistan as an exhibition of some underground anti-extremist tendency in the country. But as far as the country’s own (electronic) media is concerned, nothing is funny anymore.

Gone are the days when masses of people watched anchor upon anchor and TV reporter after TV reporter explaining him or herself as the best thing ever to happen to democracy and freedom and piety and honesty in this country. Because even a casual glance across social media sites these days in Pakistan can make one clearly feel the anger and disgust brewing against TV news channels.

They are regularly being mocked, abused and more startlingly, accused of instigating violence and hatred against certain Muslim sects and sub-sects, individuals and even competing news channels.

Peaking as it did between 2007 and 2010 (as a self-claimed bastion of truth and freedom, and even a political king-making machine), Pakistan’s electronic media is now facing its gravest challenge. It is simply not trusted anymore.

What’s even worse, it proved to be a disorientated lot when after inviting a plethora of reactionary apologists during the peace talks between the government and the militants, none of the news channels seem to have a clue how to cover the breakdown of the talks and the start of the military operation against the militants in the North Waziristan.

So in their confusion they stuck to covering something their minds could actually comprehend: A non-event like the awkward arrival of Tahirul Qadri and his ... errm ... ‘revolution’.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 29th, 2014