Confessional box

Published October 10, 2023
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

“In that shame, still live my sorrow’s rage” — Shakespeare

TELEVISION’S prime is over. News channels that is. But in Pakistan, like many other truths, an artificial ecosystem keeps it alive, as it does other industries. However, the reality escapes everyone. For artificial resuscitation has everyone who wants to be fooled in a state of denial.

Consider an interview that made waves last week. Someone who was missing suddenly appeared at someone’s home, gave an interview, and disappeared again.

I say disappear because gossip aside, there is no real information on where he is. Information that would be provided either by the man himself or by a credible platform. He could be home or not. What do we know?

As the cult television programme X-Files once said, the truth is out there. But as an aside, the series also taught me that in the absence of an official and credible view, a conspiracy theory is easy to believe.

Once the interview was aired, its content predictably made it to the headlines, sensational as it was. However, the reaction to it away from the screen was not as one-sided as it appeared to those watching television.

But then, such is the universe of electronic media that it sometimes can exist without colliding with the world of plebeians at all. And this is why I fear, its age is over.

We have lost not just our purpose but also our soul.

There is a second concern for those of us who entered this profession when it was less glitzy and work meant writing and weighing words, rather than just pontificating out loud. It didn’t matter if the hair and skin were greasy, but the words never were.

This lament for the past is a personal one, and a silent one. Silent because it might just be heard by no one. But I do know that silently many others also weep for journalism’s loss. The loss of the role we thought we were meant to play by speaking for the weak and the vulnerable. And not simply become handmaidens of the powerful.

But in our transition from ugly newsrooms lit up by tube lights to studios dominated by lights and cameras, we now worship at the altar of the influential, which more often than not is built upon the crushed bodies of the weak and the vulnerable. And in the process we have lost not just our purpose but also our soul.

In recent years, it has been our infamous achievement to have broadcast the interview of a man who belonged to an organisation banned by the state of Pakistan for being a terrorist outfit.

In the same manner in which at times politicians and government officials are interviewed. How was it ensured that he was not glorified? And why did it have to be an hour-long interview rather than simply run as a news item? Did anyone ask how those whose loved ones died in attacks carried out by his organisation feel when they saw him on television?

No one asked these questions. Not even us journalists. We never bothered unpacking that moment, for ourselves and our future.

But our shame didn’t end here. We have run video confessions of a man condemned to death. Why he decided to suddenly confess to his crimes from his death cell on a camera still remains unknown. Who brought that camera to his cell and recorded the statement never came to light.

And an investigation ordered into it — by the caretaker interior minister who was then holding the same portfolio in Balochistan — was handed to a committee that was later dissolved.

However, regardless of what the powerful did, the media — a word which has replaced the far smaller and more ethical press we were once a part of — ran it with very little debate on the ethics of running a ‘confession’ of a prisoner.

In that moment, Saulat Mirza, a convicted murderer, was a victim because those with power over him could well have coerced him into giving that interview. But in Pakistan and for its journalists, victims have rights only if they are deemed ‘mazloom’ enough or innocent enough. If the victim is unpalatable, rights don’t matter.

From here onwards, it didn’t take us very long to journey to interviews of people who are alleged to have taken part in financial crimes of politicians and now the politicians themselves.

And if we think it will stop here, we are living in la-la land. It will be the journalists next. And those who own the channels. If one was arrested a few years ago, the next time around, he or she might be ‘convinced’ to confess their sins.

So speak we must. Not for the terrorist, or the murderer or the politician but the fear that one day we too end up in their place, coerced into confessing our sins, imagined and real.

Perhaps this is also a moment for journalist organisations to step up. Instead of blaming media owners or hobnobbing with information ministers, could not discussions at least be held on the ethics of such interviews?

Sometimes, it is important to simply state the obvious and condemn the condemnable, so that those who come after us know we tried to do the little we could. It may not have been enough but at least we didn’t capitulate entirely.

An abject surrender cannot and should not be the only legacy. Especially because it appears many among us do not even understand the difference between good and bad journalism.

And this perhaps is the reason why those who watch and read us are losing their faith in journalism. As with much else in this society, the survival of the media will depend not on the artificial ecosystem but the faith of the people of Pakistan.

Eventually. Money and power can and will continue to change hands but trust is not this easily lost and found.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2023

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