A rowdy public debate

Updated 10 Mar 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

BACK in 2005, private news channels were still a new phenomenon in Pakistan and there were just a handful of them. Hence, the channels were experimenting with show formats and topics; and one such experiment on Geo had Hina Bayat, who now acts in dramas, hosting a show on ‘social’ issues.

One evening, in 2005, she bravely picked up sexual abuse and incest. If memory serves one right, she discussed a couple of cases — one of which was of a woman being abused by a close relative — with two guests of whom one was a psychiatrist. It was not a comfortable watch, not because of the details of the woman’s story, which was handled sensitively and ably by the host, but because it was unusual for such an issue to be discussed on television in Urdu.

It was a riveting watch, a show that has not slipped entirely from the mind over a decade later. Shortly afterwards, Geo’s office in Karachi was attacked and it was said to be because of an interview of Shimon Peres that The News had carried. After all these years, in my head, the attack is tangled up with the show which seemed to disappear too.

The show was memorable because as an English-language journalist at a time when print was queen and television was the nouveau-riche, struggling to be recognised, the assumption was that many ‘sensitive’ issues discussed with relative freedom in English were no-go areas in Urdu.

TV will continue to force many issues into the public sphere and the resulting debate will be uncomfortable.

This included rights issues as well as political ones. At a workshop once, a woman reporter (frequently by-lined as lady reporter) said that she was envious of the issues raised and discussed in English-language newspapers.

The lower circulation of English-languge newspapers allowed them a level of liberty denied to their Urdu-language counterparts, we were told. We wrote of militancy, Hudood, blasphemy law, nationalism, two-nation theory etc with a freedom not allowed to the more fettered Urdu press.

Indeed, in some way the fearless English press of Pakistan was not part of the public debate or what in social science is described as the public sphere. In order for an issue to be discussed in the public sphere, it must allow access to the larger populace as well as discussion with as few restrictions as possible. The English newspapers’ limited circulation and limited access, due to the language barrier, brought it closer to what can be described as drawing-room conversations. The Urdu press carried the views of a rather different section of society and never did the twain meet.

At that stage, it was assumed that television would follow the Urdu newspapers — with more access than even the papers, television would work within greater parameters and restrictions. But this has not been the case. Instead, the news channels have taken many issues and the debates around them, which were earlier the domain of the ‘English press’, to a much larger audience. One reason why the show by Hina Bayat is unforgettable after all these years is that it was unexpected. The result has been shock and awe in more ways than one.

In this past week, the furore over the Aurat March can be seen as the result of the debate over women issues entering the public sphere. A march on International Women’s Day is not unusual; it is routine for years now as the women’s movement in Pakistan has been vocal and active for decades. But it has become more high-profile, bigger and better organised for the past two or three years; social media has also helped it get attention in an unprecedented way. This has led to channels paying attention, which has led to it being discussed by those who never really faced it in the past.

The result has been an uneasy and at times uncivil debate when the likes of Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar were forced to hear what the women who marched had to say. Last year, it was an Urdu columnist-turned-TV analyst who roared over the temerity of women who dared complain about the unsolicited pictures they were sent.

For example, another anchor/journalist sat in one show and argued that women speaking of rape as a rights issue were misguided as the former was a crime matter. (If only he would see Unbelievable, a Netflix series based on real life events in the US: a young woman is raped and reports the crime. However, repeated police questioning of the event makes her so uncomfortable that she takes her complaint back and ends up being charged for lying. Struggling with court hearing and legal fees, she ends up losing her job and her place to live. Rape is a women’s issue because of the way the justice system treats those who go through it.)

These are people who have never before heard in detail what women face or how varied the demands can be in a rights movement. Just consider that the debate in either the Urdu or English press is not as rowdy as on television because there is little confrontation of opposing views.

For all its faults, television has forced many issues into the public sphere and the result is far from pleasant at times. Previously, the stand governor Salmaan Taseer took over the blasphemy law was a case in point; what he said was not unfamiliar to those who read or wrote in the English press but for the larger populace perhaps his views were radical. His stand and its coverage forced the debate over the law into the public sphere and he paid a very heavy price. Nearly a decade later, the matter is far from resolved but it was never discussed as widely and as publicly as when he took up Aasia Bibi’s case.

Television will continue to force many issues into the public sphere and the resulting debate will, in all likelihood, be uncomfortable, even ugly. But each time, it will not just be because society has grown more intolerant and uncivil. At times, it could be just because we have never debated the issue before. And it takes time before we can learn to debate. This change, too, will be hard to adapt to.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2020