Media’s Role In Undermining National Unity

Apr 16th, 2013 | By | Category: Dawn, Ethics, Threats to Journalists

The role of media is to inform and perhaps to entertain. We look to news programmes to give us insights into what is happening in the world around us, and we look to dramas and other entertainment programmes to give us a momentary distraction from the pressures of daily life. Sometimes, however, the media can be manipulated and used for less pure motives. Entertainment can come at the expense of information, distracting the people from important events, and news can give not facts but opinions designed to project and promote a particular ideology. Sometimes, these two failures can occur together such as when misinformation is intentionally injected into media in order to distract from uncomfortable or inconvenient truths. In a piece for Dawn yesterday, freelance journalist Huma Yusuf examined how media played such a role in the aftermath of the Raymond Davis fiasco and how it is the responsibility of journalists like herself not to allow such misuse of the media to occur.

As diverse and feisty as they are, Pakistan’s independent outlets have not cast off the historic role of broadcast media in the country: to perpetuate a narrative that serves national interest as defined by the security establishment. As such, sections of our so-called free media remain a tool, one that was used to great effect during the Davis saga, following the 2008 Mumbai attacks and after the 2011 Abbottabad raid.

Ironically, media proliferation — which should boost truth-telling, debate and critical questioning — has instead distracted from back-end shenanigans.

The media amplifies nationalist narratives that cloak the security establishment’s contradictory policies, particularly vis-à-vis the US: while the security establishment courts Washington, the media whips up public sentiment and places the blame, as it were, for Pakistan’s flawed engagement with the US on civilian actors.

Gen Pervez Musharraf’s admission last week that the Pakistan Army approved certain drone strikes, for which the coalition government has since taken much flak, further highlights this double speak.

This strategy served our authorities well in earlier negotiations with the US, particularly as resultant anti-American public sentiment consolidated Pakistan’s bargaining position in Washington. Former US diplomats Teresita Schaffer and Howard Schaffer have described how the media is used as a pawn of foreign relations: officials cite stories from the media to argue that Pakistan cannot do something Washington wants, or to pressure US officials to adopt a particular course of action. But the strategy has also discredited too many civilian actors in the public’s opinion, a factor that matters at election time.

In the age of the internet, when media from around the world is accessible in an instant, it is easy to find sources that do not have a direct interest in influencing public opinion one way or the other. If an issue of disagreement exists between Pakistan and the US, for example, we can fact check stories that appear against reports in the media of other, unrelated countries. In such a global media environment, manipulations and planted stories become as obvious as the sun and only discredit the sources of the misinformation. The result is ironic: By trying to inject a nationalist narrative into the media, those behind such plots actually undermine the nationalist narrative and national unity. Rather, the media should be free to report the facts without threat, harassment, or planted stories. Only when the people are given the facts and left free to make up their own minds will the nation grow stronger.

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