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Hijacking national discourse in Pakistan

Published Jun 13, 2012 06:15pm

Illustration by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com

The national discourse in Pakistan can be hijacked at a moment’s notice. From memo-gate to family-gates, there is no shortage of scandals that often dominate the national narrative while suspending deliberations on real issues in Pakistan.

In the past few months the print and electronic media in Pakistan have driven themselves silly discussing one scandal after another. The memo-gate scandal, brought about by an American citizen of Pakistani origin, dominated the airwaves and headlines in the electronic and print media for months. The recent verdict by the Commission has held former Ambassador Husain Haqqaniresponsible for drafting the memo in which he reportedly sought the US help against any possible intervention by the military.

Despite the guilty verdict and other accusations of misappropriation of millions of dollars, Mr. Haqqani is back in the US in his full-time job as a professor at Boston University where he has been enlisted to teach a course on Pakistan-US relations in the Fall 2012 semester. While Mr. Haqqani will transition, with some struggle, from being a high-profile, always-in-demand diplomat in Washington DC to being just an academic and a has been, the press corps in Pakistan should have a serious rethink of what it did not report on when it chose to cover every meaningless detail of the memo-gate.

Whereas the memo-gate was still in vogue, the media in Pakistan jumped to another scandal about the stand-off between prime minister Gilani and the Supreme Court. This time around another piece of paper was at the centre of dispute. However, unlike the memo-gate, where what had been written became a matter of controversy, the standoff between the Prime Minister and the Supreme Court was based on what had not been written. The Court wanted the Prime Minister to write a letter to a foreign country’s magistrate to initiate investigations against president Zardari. The Prime Minister refused for which he was held in contempt by the court and was awarded a symbolic sentence.

The media went berserk with the story and speculations about the Prime Minister’s eligibility to serve as a member of the parliament. The story remained front-page news for weeks until the speaker of the National Assembly in her ruling refused to disqualify the Prime Minister. Within days of the Speaker’s ruling the story disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers. TV anchors and armchair political strategists, who were running countdowns for the political demise of the Prime Minister, quickly started the search for another scandal. They did not have to search hard because another scandal was around the corner for the gossip-craving media in Pakistan.

As of late, the scandals in Pakistan have moved from friends (of the President) to family members (of the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice). The Prime Minister’s son, Ali Musa Gilani, stands accused of influencing officials to award ephedrine import licenses to two pharmaceutical companies. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are two key ingredients for making crystal meth, a highly addictive drug, which carries a higher street price than heroin. As details of the scandal became public, the media in Pakistan jumped on the story and started repeating the same story ad nauseam. Again, TV anchors were running wild with predictions about how the ruling coalition will collapse due to alleged indiscretions by the Prime Minister’s son.

There was, however, not enough juice to sustain a 24/7 coverage of the drug scandal involving Gliani Junior. Suddenly, another family scandal broke and this time it involved Chief Justice’s son, Arsalan Iftikhar, who stands accused of receiving millions to influence cases against Malik Riaz, a famous Pakistani businessman. Once again, the airwaves are jammed with pundits, anchors, and reporters speculating on the motives, timing, and every other possible detail that may link the troika (military, judiciary, and the executive) in a hitherto unearthed conspiracy.

What gets covered on the front-page of a newspaper or is highlighted in the headlines of a newscast has a direct bearing on what the masses will focus on. If the masses are continuously fed notes on a scandal after scandal, the discourse in Pakistan will remain focused on digressions. Furthermore, when the news media discuss scandals, they exclusively focus on personalities rather than principles.

In the ephedrine import case, the print and electronic media failed to disclose that in the recent past, Pakistan and Iran have seen a dramatic increase in the import of chemicals used in making mood alerting drugs. Writing for the Associated Press, Sebastian Abbot revealed that “Iran, Pakistan and other South Asian countries are a fast-rising force in the global methamphetamine market, with drug cartels thriving off the weak governance and law enforcement that have long fueled the region's heroin trade.”

According to the Associated Press, Pakistan imported 22,000 kilograms of ephedrine in 2010, 7000 kilograms more than what it imported in 2007. Similarly, a dramatic five-time increase in the import of pseudoephedrine was noted between 2007 and 2010. “There are signs Pakistan could be vulnerable to the synthetic drug trade and headed in the same direction as Iran,” reported the AP.

It is imperative for the liberated media in Pakistan to focus on issues rather than personalities. The ubiquitous hunger, poverty, and disease require the media to debate real challenges facing Pakistan instead of obsessing about the rich and the powerful (famous).


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.