It was quite a sight watching a number of workers belonging to the country’s electronic media protesting against the ‘attack on the freedom of expression’ by the alleged workers of the PPP. The protest rally that I went to was held by angry activists of the PPP at the Karachi Press Club, in the wake of the attack and harassment experienced by the staff, cable operators and hawkers associated with the TV and print instruments of the Jang Group. The attacks and agitation against the media group began the day after the group’s TV channel began running reports of the shoe incident in which (reportedly) a shoe was hurled at President Zardari by a disgruntled Pakistani in Birmingham, England. Though no video footage or any conclusive photograph emerged of the incident, the TV channel went into overdrive, basing much of its coverage of the event on eye-witness reports.
Though PPP members accompanying the President failed to dent the validity of the report, it is true that the TV channel too was finding it difficult to substantiate it. But the reported incident did take place. It’s another matter that it was clearly dramatised and sensationalised by a channel which has (somewhat willingly) trapped itself inside a rather one-dimensional mode when it comes to reporting on matters such as the current presidency and the ruling coalition (that comprises of the PPP, MQM and the ANP). Before the channel went off the air (an outcome of the alleged manhandling of certain cable operators in Sindh and the Punjab by enraged PPP activists) – its reporter in Birmingham was reporting that the person who had hurled his shoes at the President (but completely missing his target), did so because he was angry at Zardari for touring Britain at a time when Pakistan was being ravaged by an unprecedented spell of rains and floods. As it turned out, when contacted by both British and Pakistani media personnel, the shoe thrower (an elderly Pakistani living in Britain) had something else in mind. He said he threw the shoe because he was angry at Zardari for meeting British PM, David Cameron, after the latter’s supposed ‘anti-Pakistan’ comments that he made during his recent visit to India. Interestingly the above concern was actually what the local media had used to begin its onslaught against the President’s visit to Britain. The President was then in the French leg of his tour. However the narrative of the onslaught suddenly changed when reports of devastating floods in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa started to sweep in and critics of the President’s trip began accusing him of abandoning his people in their greatest hour of need and tragedy. It is only understandable that many Pakistanis – already under great stress from terrorist attacks by religious fanatics, economic downturns, ‘ethnic violence’ in Karachi and the Airblue tragedy – identified strongly with the above-mentioned criticism when pictures of the devastation brought on by floods began to pour in. Dog eat dog (eat cat too) Of course, one can safely assume that even if the President had postponed his trip and stayed behind, he would still have been the usual punching-bag for a highly animated media; but one just cannot simply blame the country’s media for the kind of predicament Zardari faces in this respect. To begin, the PPP (which is the largest party in the current ruling coalition in Islamabad) has been rather pathetic in addressing the criticism it’s been facing from the electronic media. As a ruling party it has been creating one PR blunder after another. And in spite of being part of some commendable achievements (the 18th Amendment; legislation about women’s rights and the enfranchisement and autonomy of minority provinces; facilitating a wide political consensus for Pakistan Army’s war against the Taliban; and heading an unprecedented coalition government); it has largely been a failure on most fronts, especially those associated with the judiciary, suicide attacks and especially in reversing the growing perception in the country that it has done nothing to curb corruption. It is true that due to the kind of controversies that Zardari found himself embroiled in long before he became the president, and also due to the nature of the political and media trials he’d been facing ever since he came into prominence during Benazir Bhutto’s first government (1988), it would have been wise of him had he not run for the president and instead decided to linger in the background purely as the PPP’s new chairperson. But then, it can also be suggested that since he has managed to win almost each and every court case that was filed against him for corruption, he had every right to run for the office of the president, especially after his party won the largest number of seats and votes in the February 2008 elections. There was always the danger of Zardari – who has a knack of forming the most loyal friendships as well as the most ardent enemies – would become a natural target of a rampant media in the country - a country in the grip of relentless political, economic and natural calamities ever sine 2005. Again, had wisdom prevailed within the PPP’s politicking, he should have remained in the background. But as I suggested that it was his democratic right to run for the president’s office, but clearly his party should have prepared a more convincing strategy by preempting the kind of criticism he was bound to face. Zardari is a supreme Machiavellian, the best there is. But even though such a talent can do wonders for a politician’s hold over power, this same talent begins to backfire in a country facing a continuous bout of political and economic crises and a hostile media that is hell-bent on giving credence to a desperate narrative that holds certain individuals and forces as the reasons behind whatever that is going wrong in and with Pakistan. This narrative is ever-present in almost each and every TV talk-show or a column in the Urdu press, where individuals and foreign countries are blamed, and little or no effort is put into understanding the dilemmas ripping Pakistan apart on an institutional, historical and analytical manner. The rot settles What Pakistan is facing is a crisis of the state. It is the state that has been wobbling and its writ eroding. Almost every challenge being faced by the country – from religious extremism, to sectarian and ethnic violence to the break down of law and order, etc. – is linked to this crisis. Any head of state – corrupt or a shining example of piety – will struggle to keep such a fragile state and its equally fragile institutions intact. So it should not be about individuals. Understanding this crisis in black and white, which the media often uses, is a dangerous precedent, if not entirely ignoramus. There is no other way but through democracy that such a rot can be arrested. Promotion of democratic plurality and a consensual respect for the rights and traditions of all religions, sects and ethnicities present in Pakistan can do wonders for a damaged state to begin healing itself. Because the greatest damage done to it was by a long-ruling narrative that insisted that only one version of Islam and ‘Pakistaniat’ was required to unite a vast and diverse sectarin, ethnic and religious milieu of Pakistan. The constant ethnic, sectarian and now extremism-related fissures that the country’s body-politic and society has for long been facing is almost entirely due to the empty and one-dimensional understanding of Pakistan’s political, ethnic and spiritual bearings that the state tried to develop – mostly through military regimes. There are no instant solutions to the magnitude of problems that this country is confronted with. Populism in this respect or the kind being flaunted by the local electronic media can only generate a damaging mixture of desperation, fear and false hope. Democracy is still too new a phenomenon in this country. It will take time to settle, or more so, settle things. Also, even though it is the media’s right and job to highlight the in-competencies of a government and the state, but at whose expense? The media is not a political party. It is not a judge. Nor is it a preacher. Raging bull Looking at media people gathered at the Karachi Press Club and rightfully protesting against the attacks a large media group has been facing by those incensed by its coverage of Zardari’s trip was a heartening sight. I too was part of that protest rally. The attacks were a highly undemocratic act and supposedly coming from members and supporters of the country’s largest political party made it even worse. However, if everything about this condemnable act was undemocratic, one must also ask exactly how democratic and wise were the following acts that the same media group has been embroiled in? How wise and democratic was the role of one of its religious talk-show hosts who blatantly instigated violence against a minority sect in Lahore in 2008? How wise and democratic is the fact that one of its many anchors was accused by the son of a slain former ISI man who was kidnapped by a group of extremists and allegedly killed on the suggestion of the anchor? The anchor has pleaded that he was not involved and the voice on a taped conversation between an extremist and him was not his. How far has the channel gone to fully investigate the issue – even though personally, I am a fan of his and would be most happy if he proves his innocence once and for all. How wise and democratic was the way one of its former talk-show hosts – with an obsessive habit of making outlandish predictions about the downfall of the current government – ridiculed the Sindhi folk culture on the occasion of the Sindh government’s ‘Sindhi cap day’ early last year? The list can go on. I am part of the media myself, but refuse to toe the line many of my contemporaries at the protest rally were toeing. But what was this line? Briefly put it goes something like this: Sensationalising (on air) an event that sees a man throwing a shoe at the president is freedom of expression; but getting the same treatment from those incensed by the nature of reporting that the event got on your channel is an attack on this freedom? Same way, suggesting that the president’s tour of Britain amounted to him ignoring the floods but forgetting about the floods yourself at the wake of the shoe-throwing incident was OK? The channel did begin to obsess about the ‘issue’ like an excited group of high school pranksters. ‘What floods, where? Get me that shoe story, now!’ The above are just questions that I aired during my meeting with some contemporaries of mine at the rally. I fully appreciate that some of them are taking their status of being the society’s watchdogs very seriously. But many of them know as much as I do, that within our community of crusading, pen-pushing do-gooders can be found a number of characters who are as lecherous, fraudulent and arrogant as those individuals each one of us loves to bring down for being corrupt and deceiving. What’s more, recently the local electronic media has grown another edgy tentacle. That of constant self glorification, self-righteousness and peachiness, all queerly entangled with a huge persecution complex. Exactly when or who gave us (the media), the mandate (and the audacity) to become judge, jury and executioners?
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