HAVE you watched a show, movie, press conference and then heard someone talk about it and wondered whether you both saw the same thing? It is not about having different opinions as much as it is about different realities. Or, as I like to ask, what did I miss?
I witnessed it play out recently after watching a two-episode town hall-style TV show hosted by Talat Hussain wherein he invited students and politicians from various parties. Young people asked questions of the politicians in one episode and then shared their views in the other. I was especially interested to hear perspectives from students across a spectrum in Punjab, ie, not just my Karachi-based liberal arts students.
I enjoyed the show because of the interaction between students — a large voting demographic — and the men (always men!) aspiring for their votes. Election coverage in the media doesn’t go beyond covering jalsas so this town hall format made for a refreshing change from the screamfest that often masquerades as analysis on prime time. Here, you heard directly from students as opposed to hearing about them. I am sure it provided many teaching moments to political leadership who, I’m convinced, are disconnected from young voters.
Students asked questions about job security, their mental health, suicide, about what to do after getting a degree, who they should vote for, why minorities are treated badly, about the media, and also about the elections.
All political parties are guilty of stooping to new lows.
I was surprised then to see the PTI and its leaders tweet clips from that show and package it as an endorsement for Imran Khan. While there were PTI supporters and questions about Khan as well as the absence of PTI leaders on stage (Hussain clarified the new chairman was invited but did not attend) by no means were either of the sessions a ringing endorsement of any one political group. If anything I saw disenchantment and frustration at the state of affairs — one young man came on stage to ask how many of the participants wanted to leave the country and lots of folks raised their hands.
For once, the media is not at fault for any partiality or lack of context in its attempt to portray what this small sample size of students was thinking.
But the out-of-context clips on X did not tell the whole story.
Many on social media lauded students for their ‘bold’ comments but not how some of the questions showed their lack of understanding of history. The onus of blame for this falls on schools, parents, community elders, the media and policymakers who benefit from keeping young people in the dark. I ask my students to reflect on why they’re so willing to swallow their family or political party or teacher’s narrative whole without questioning or investigating further for themselves. I’m yet to be convinced by their answers.
This campaign on social media isn’t the only one duping people. Someone used AI and voice software to create a doctored video of journalist Javed Chaudhry saying Bushra Bibi’s sons were stripped and beaten by the security establishment into giving evidence against their mother. This is dangerous territory with damaging consequences that go beyond elections. The media must raise awareness on how to spot ‘fake news’ and not spread it. All political parties are guilty of playing dirty games and stooping to new lows in a quest to grab power.
We’re all too familiar with this picture.
This is one of the reasons I’m adding my name to a petition asking for the inclusion of ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) on the ballot papers. Just like you have the right to elect
a candidate, you should have the right to reject all candidates and have that count. This is different to spoiling a vote or abstaining.
Since writing about NOTA in January on these pages, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people across the political divide who have said they will come out to vote NOTA. Of course, I’m not naive enough to think NOTA is a sizeable vote bank but I believe many Pakistanis are frustrated, if not fed up, with the political engineering, manipulation and electoral alliances with extremists. And, of course, keeping one political party out. There are no good choices at the time of vote.
I believe NOTA will provide a wake-up call for political parties and their handlers who only see constituents when it’s time for elections where they make promises which they never make good on. Some voters are fine being governed by dynasties and some want to refuse being governed by any of the names on the ballot box. Give everyone a right to choose and then respect that right. This too is democracy and NOTA can play a role in strengthening the democratic process.
The writer is an instructor of journalism.
Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2023