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When the media falls short

May 18, 2012


OUR Fourth Estate offers such rich pickings that there is every temptation to convert this into a media column but sanity prevents that from happening.

Well not really sanity, if you prefer honesty. Self-preservation is closer to the truth. But occasionally one succumbs to a rush of blood, an adrenaline surge. So here goes. Look at the recent debate or quite frankly the lack of it over the anticipated reopening of the Nato supply routes.

The formal announcement may come as early as next week, even tomorrow, at the Nato summit in Chicago to which a near-last minute invitation to President Asif Ali Zardari could only have been extended after it was ascertained that all obstacles to the resumption had been cleared away.

While parliament, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) and all civilian elements of the government have had an ‘input’ in the decision, it’s now more than apparent that GHQ has decided in favour of the reopening.

Those in the media who had taken to flag-waving, sloganeering and other jingoistic mannerisms first during the Raymond Davis affair, then the OBL raid and finally following the Salala attack and had ferociously slammed what they saw as the government’s pro-US stance now seem to be at a loss.

Perhaps, if their criticism had been well-founded through those episodes, it wouldn’t have been so difficult for them to have remained consistent. But some august members of the media appeared to have relied too heavily on the briefings by Gen Pasha’s psy-ops brigade.

And now that GHQ, one could argue rightly, has changed its mind, the defenders of our sovereignty particularly in the media are feeling short-changed. In fact, they are so embarrassed that they are either accusing the government of mismanaging the issue or they aren’t addressing it at all.

Now, if you ask me who I would blame for poor governance, maladministration, unaddressed corruption charges, the sharpest decline in major public-sector corporations, a breakdown of the law and order in many cities, I’d say the PPP-led government without much hesitation.

Look no further than the recent ‘Lyari’ operation as a glaring example of the PPP’s incompetence. It was launched with so much fanfare but apparently so little planning that nobody knows what it aimed to achieve or did actually achieve in the end.

All one saw was a police officer known for ‘extrajudicial’ killings claiming to the media everyday that the ‘criminals will be finished off by the end of the day’. After this, his men made sure the TV cameras got their dramatic footage share as they fired aimless volleys into the air from different angles.

It was an abject failure which led to pointless, callous and criminal loss of life on all sides. At the same time, it brought misery to innocent citizens who feared getting caught in the crossfire and remained bunkered down in their homes with no power, food and water for days on end.

But please don’t tell me the PPP is to blame for any shortcomings, indecision or outright failure in foreign, defence or even national security policies because rather spinelessly, it slowly but surely surrendered these to GHQ in a process initiated after the furore over the Kerry-Lugar bill.

It can come in for criticism for having hived off to GHQ what should fall in the civilian domain according to the constitution. However, the realities of politics in Pakistan would also help you understand, even if not appreciate, what it means by its policy of ‘reconciliation’.

‘Reconciliation’ for a party that sees itself as besieged and believes it is under attack from every conceivable adversary at all times can best be described as a series of costly compromises to remain in power and build up support from this rather minimalist base.

It is the triumph of realpolitik over ideological, principled politics. Therefore, I have my own, to me, exceedingly valid grounds to attack the PPP. But frankly the reopening of the Nato supply routes won’t form the central plank of my objections.

Wouldn’t you have liked to see an illuminating debate in the media, particularly on the electronic platform, which placed a diversity of views, opinions and analyses before our many confused souls and informed and empowered them to reach judicious conclusions whatever they may be?

What we are seeing instead is an embarrassed lot of media personalities, influential opinion-makers, ducking the main issue and instead discussing topics which are no more than distractions, given the magnitude of what we face.

For example, considerable space on the electronic and social media has been taken up by media professionals debating if it was proper for the prime minister to ask over a dozen journalists to accompany him on his UK tour and for them to accept the invitation.

This, as also official expenses under various heads that have come to light in the Public Accounts Committee meetings, make for relevant topics as they relate to a wider malaise, patronage and lack of accountability, but the sparsely witnessed debate on the Nato supplies is worrying.

At a time when some sort of ‘endgame’ has begun in Afghanistan and our own country is being torn apart by terrorism many in the country link directly to events across our western borders, would it be too much to ask a vibrant media to help us understand the complexities?

All we are getting is the same biased, rowdy and purposeless slanging matches which have become the norm for large sections of our media as they try and trump each other to secure those coveted ratings/sell more copies.

Having witnessed in horror the mainstream broadsheet papers in India taking a nosedive to compete against emerging TV channels thriving on hysteria, one can only hope there is enough integrity and resilience in our media to strike the right balance.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.