Yawar Abbas: Is the media fanning extremism?

Mar 24th, 2011 | By | Category: Uncategorized

The following thought provoking column by Yawar Abbas raises several excellent points for examination. The piece was originally published in Daily Times on 24 March 2011 and is re-posted here for your consideration.

The assassination of Salmaan Taseer at the hands of a religious zealot threw open the debate over the media’s role in encouraging extremist tendencies amongst the people of Pakistan. The proposition that the media is fanning extremist propensities may be somewhat overstated but is, at the same time, not completely unfounded.

During the last decade, Pakistan’s media has contributed positively to the cause of democracy in the country and also played an active role in the restoration of the judges through round the clock coverage of the famous Lawyers’ Movement. Nonetheless, serious doubts and conflicting views regarding the media’s role in the country have also accompanied these wide-scale developments.

Some of these views rise from concerns that the media is strictly averse to the idea of even the most modest regulation by the government and that it refuses to abide by a unanimously agreed code of conduct or ethics. The media groups in the country have grown into big mafias; they own print as well as electronic media — a situation that is almost unprecedented anywhere in the world. Critics also maintain that the Pakistani media is creating an environment of despair and hopelessness by presenting a very bleak picture of the country. This constant fear mongering and pessimistic outlook on such a broad scale can have its own psychological ramifications for Pakistani society in the future.

The most serious allegation levelled against the Pakistani media is that it is very cautious in reporting about the violence caused by religious extremists. TV channels are dominated by far-rightists and hardcore conservatives. There are very few left-wing journalists. Terrorists are called “militants” or, at the most, “miscreants”. This nomenclature is chosen very carefully. So far, the media has not been able to come up with a well-defined campaign against the terrorists’ extremist propaganda, except for a few occasional songs or advertisements. The media, at the very least, has a very high tolerance for accommodating extremist ideas in its mainstream reporting. A plausible reason put forth for the media’s sympathetic and sometimes apologetic tone towards terrorists is the lack of protection given to journalists and reporters by the government against such extremists. Nonetheless, at this critical time, maintaining such an indifferent posture is suicidal.

The propaganda put forth by extremists has undoubtedly been more effective than that of the government. Pakistan’s war effort has greatly suffered due to the lukewarm response of the country’s media. The media, it appears, is only obsessed with reporting about the death toll of drone strikes and army operations debating whether it is ‘our’ war or ‘their’ war. Blowing trivial issues out of proportion and ignoring issues of vital importance cannot be disguised under the garb of ‘neutrality’ — this is nothing but dishonesty. Sensationalising news, broadcasting hate speeches, inciting anger by inviting religious bigots on talk shows, re-telecasting events that are of a sensitive nature and may give rise to public unrest and a general feeling of helplessness, distorting somebody’s statement by quoting him/her out of context, allowing extremist figures to indoctrinate viewers by glorifying terrorists as jihadis, giving more airtime to apologists and sympathisers of militants and very little time to their critics and exposing audiences to the fanatical views propagated by semi-educated anchor-persons and politicians is by any standard yellow journalism and is reflective of an irresponsible media.

The masses, already susceptible to extremist ideas due to their exposure to fanatical preaching prevalent in society, are easily influenced by such radicalised media items. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the same are gradually encouraged to take the law into their hands, without any regard for the sanctity of the rule of law and the system of justice. There is no doubt that such uninformed decisions emanate from the doctrine of ignorance being fed by such shortsighted political and religious ‘analysts’.

A possible solution to the problem is the development of a clear-cut position by key media players on extremism and terrorism. In this sense a well thought out counter-propaganda policy is much needed. The need of the hour is zero tolerance for extremism. Pakistan is at a crossroads in its history and the media has a crucial role to play in its future. One can only hope that it will play its part responsibly.

The writer is in the Foreign Service of Pakistan

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