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LLF: Boundaries of reportage

March 01, 2015

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Panellists at the session, ‘The Future of TV News: Journalism or Mirch Masala’  

Photo credit: Tariq Mahmood / White Star
Panellists at the session, ‘The Future of TV News: Journalism or Mirch Masala’ Photo credit: Tariq Mahmood / White Star

THIS year’s LLF paid a great deal of attention to what cartoonist-journalist Joe Sacco calls “the seams of journalism”. The excess of news media in Pakistan is often an assault on the viewer’s ability to process and comprehend information. Whether print, graphic or visual, our relationship with the news media has become increasingly complex, pushing the ‘truth’ — a vague and often disputed ambition of journalism — deeper between the lines of entertainment, objectivity and populism.

A plethora of questions that often evade our scrutiny formed the crux of two fantastic sessions, titled ‘The Future of TV News: Journalism or Mirch Masala’ (Fasih Ahmed, Saad Mohseni, Arif Ni-zami, Munizae Jahangir and Fahd Hussain), and ‘The Incredible World of Comic Journalism’ (Shaima Khalil, Rabbih Alameddine, Sabir Nazar and Joe Sacco).

Ahmed, the editor of Newsweek Pakistan¸ emphasised the need to discuss the future of TV journalism by questioning some of the most baffling choices that our TV channels make on a daily basis. Just a few weeks ago, almost every news channel had dedicated 40 minutes of airtime to Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif’s attendance at a hockey match. Ahmed emphasised the banality of the footage; no words were spoken, no speech was made — Sharif offered nothing more than a sturdy display of ceremonial handshakes.

“For the record, I want to state that Sharif seems like a lovely man,” said Ahmed, as the crowd chuckled nervously. “But I question the wisdom of representing the chief of army staff, virtually, as the head of state.” The crowd applauded, and we were off to a bold start.
Ahmed then opened the floor to his guests, who went on to tackle some interesting questions: How do we tackle the commercial compulsions that impede upon the editorial process? How do we draw the line between censorship and patriotism? And how burgeoning sources of alternative media are changing the way we relate to journalistic enterprises.

Opening the discussion, Nizami, a veteran journalist and chief editor of Pakistan Today, said that anyone who has ever experienced the taste of Pakistani food will know that “if you use too much mirch masala, you lose your taste. This is what is happening to Pakistani journalism today. It is rating-oriented, it is tasteless, and it is too scared to tell the truth.”

Powerful media groups own a conglomeration of news channels, tabloids, entertainment outlets, and — according to Nizami — “McDonald’s franchises”. Many of their shareholders are ex-military men, politicians, or pure business people who are motivated by profits rather than politics.

Ahmed emphasised on how the existential threat posed by terrorism causes most editors to think twice before publishing any controversial material. The fact that these terrorists are the adversaries of security agencies on whom we depend on for protection, he said leads to difficult choices for news agencies: say something about the terrorists and they kill you. Try to say anything about the army, and you’re accused of being a traitor. Hence, a bland and populist analysis becomes both, a commercial temptation and a survival mechanism.

Pandering to stakeholders, giving in to populism and dumbing down debates makes news coverage self-centred, but it keeps people on air and it helps them make a lot of money. Agreeing with this analysis, Jahangir lamented that today’s media had become the voice of the powerful, rather than the weak.

Hussain, a columnist and TV journalist, was less cynical than Nizami and Jahangir, claiming that things are fast changing in his line of work. Every day, power is being renegotiated and boundaries are being pushed. However, people need to have realistic expectations from news media. Sure, it is supposed to inform, but it has a slightly different purpose. “It doesn’t go deep but it goes wide. When I was studying journalism in the US, I was taught to take complicated issues and simplify them ... make them digestible, not to be condescending or lecturing, rather appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

Jahangir was quick to point out that negotiation should not be about procuring favours from the powerful, but to get the truth out. She pointed out that the ‘lowest common denominator’ does not really exist — most people are painfully aware of the political structures that oppress them. “The problem is they just don’t know what to do about their oppression. Perhaps, here media can empower, but does it want to? And isn’t it truly condescending to treat the illiterate of this country as if their default state was one of chronic stupidity?”Jahangir also pointed out that due to today’s wild race for ratings, places like Balochistan, which require urgent attention, have been blacked out of mainstream coverage.

Similarly, during ‘The Incredible World of Comic-Journalism’ session, questions came up about the limitations panellists have had to deal with in order to get their point across, especially in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders. Whether humour can be used to tell tragic or sensitive stories, questions were raised about how must we respond to censorial violence and what is the potential of alternative mediums to re-frame our intellectual expectations from standard journalism.

Alameddine exclaimed that one of the greatest virtues of cartoons is their insidiousness. Due to associations with childish simplicity, cartoons or comics have the potential to catch people off-guard and get under the skin. This is a quality that cartoons share with jokes — when done in good taste, jokes make their recipients susceptible to otherwise indigestible truths. Humour is an often much-needed and unsentimental way of talking about tragedy or sensitive issues. In his matter-of-fact yet provocative way, Alameddine regretted the fact that the envelope isn’t being pushed far enough. “I think some of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo did were stupid and racist. I would have thought differently had they been funny. However, if we allow people to react violently, we are allowing anybody who feels strongly about anything to claim a greater stake in reality.”

Sacco said that while we must champion free speech as an inalienable right of every human being, we should also question the way people exercise it. Why did Charlie Hebdo aim their provocations at one of the most marginalised groups in France? Shouldn’t satire punch up, rather than punch down? Sacco was passionate in insisting that the reaction of those who are offended or enraged must not resort to a nihilistic form of violence, but greater political engagement. “While the Charlie Hebdo incident has brought to the limelight some important questions about free speech, and what we consider to be offensive and why so — the fact that these issues have been raised at the cost of human lives is what is truly offensive about this whole thing.”

Alameddine suggested that religions have the most to benefit from peace. In their humble beginnings, all religions were a target of intimidation and “we would not have had religions or the freedom to practice them if we had given in to violence”.

Concurring with this view and denouncing self-censorship as a dangerous invitation to overbearing editors, satirical cartoonist Sabar Nazir described some of the difficult choices he has had to make in the line of duty. After drawing a cartoon about the Lal Mosque siege, Nazir found his office ransacked by over-zealous protesters. He did not know what to do after the threats started pouring in but decided to go to work every day, so that his colleagues wouldn’t think he had deserted them. He said he would not have been able to live with himself if any of his colleagues had actually been killed in response to something he drew.

In spite of their bleak premonitions, all the panelists expressed their hope in the future. Sacco highlighted the need to expose the limits of journalism in being objective and telling the truth. Afghanistan’s largest media owner, Mohseni provided insight into the way technology is reshaping market dynamics and opening space for newcomers, but insisted that Pakistan’s ban on YouTube is counterproductive and must be lifted.

To an extent, Hussain is also correct about how boundaries are being pushed: power dynamics are shifting as media groups have outgrown some of their political and financial partners in terms of negotiating power. New forms of subversions are gaining ground; comic journalism is coming forth as a serious challenge to the tyrannical worship of both, subjective experiences that demand objective allegiances, and objective cold ‘facts’ that lack human context. There is work to be done, but if we keep pushing the envelope there is a good chance that we will uncover truth as what it is supposed to be: a public property — something that cannot be owned, but only shared.