After talking of the dangerously concocted narratives peddled by the state, government, and religious parties of Pakistan that I mentioned in my last blog, let’s now turn our attention towards the political and social narratives emerging from the country’s highly animated electronic media.
Still basking (nay, indulgently bathing) in the sudden spat of freedom provided during the early years of General Pervez Musharraf, the private TV news channels, initially in their attempt to differ from the confining traditions of state-owned television, emerged sounding largely progressive and remaining as close to ‘objectivity’ as was possible – at least until they discovered the commercial wonders of what is called the political ‘talk show.’
It wasn’t until early 2006 that many of these talk shows started to devolve and mutate into the kind of rampant and anarchic ogres that they are today. Many of them actually did a wonderful job passionately reporting the tragic 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, in the process also facilitating the unprecedented interest that common Pakistanis exhibited in helping the quake victims.
But, alas, it seems this episode, which, I believe, finally brought the private electronic media into the forefront, had a rather disastrous impact on the nascent egos of various talk show hosts and TV reporters.
Suddenly, they took the noble idea of missionary journalism, and instead of continuing to tread on the ‘objective middle ground,’ began moving way towards the populist right. And what’s more, once their bosses decided that this new trajectory was actually generating better monetary results (à la FOX News), the channels never looked back, sloganeering all the way to the bank!
Personalities such as Shahid Masood, Hamid Mir, Talat Hussain, Kashif Abbasi, Ansar Abbasi, Zaid Hamid, Shireen Mazari have all emerged from the abovementioned scenario. As part of this largely reactionary and at the same time monetarily cynical phenomenon is the transformation of non-media personalities into regular TV feasts.
These include men and women who have become mainstays on talk shows as ‘guests’. Retired generals, small-time politicians, vernacular columnists and urban maulvis whose job it is to maintain the duration of their individual 15 minutes of fame by sounding off the talk show hosts’ populist and flammable innuendos.
Since the Taliban and the inhuman havoc they’ve been perpetrating is the single most critical issue impacting the country at this very moment, let’s evaluate the popular news channels’ handling of this ordeal.
Recently, many TV talk show hosts and their favourite sounding boards (‘guests’), have come under fire from certain ‘liberal’ sections belonging to the print media, academia, and in the blogsphere.
The more sensationalist and unsubstantiated accusations against some talk show hosts of being ‘ISI agents’ and ‘extremists’ can be put aside as subjective groaning. But then so can what usually comes out of the mouths of many hosts and their guests.
In the last three years at least, TV talk shows have openly thrived on building whole ‘debates’ and arguments on what almost entirely belongs in the floozy and demagogic conspiracy theory sphere.
The topics of the show may have a ring of intellectualism and serious policy matters, but it does not take much time for the so-called ‘debate’ to spiral down into sloganeering, wild theory casting (by the ‘guests’) and self-righteous preaching (by the hosts).
I use the word self-righteous because even though most talk show hosts are having a heck of a time being this new kind of TV celebrity with impressive material and social perks, their rhetoric seems to be surfacing from a besieged mindset. Without having any qualms or need for humility or modesty, they are quick to present themselves as heroes, besieged by the powers that be.
The truth is, the media has never been in the kind of free-floating situation it is today. Though the Musharraf regime blundered by putting an old-fashioned authoritarian cap on it in 2007 – not for entirely wrong reasons, mind you – the current coalition government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), is actually the one finding its democratic credentials taken hostage by a hostile electronic media that is sumptuously feeding upon the many lingering misconceptions about popular democracy that still linger in the minds of Pakistanis.
So what is that narrative echoing in the corridors of the TV news channels that is making some of us suspect the ideological and political dispositions of so many talk show hosts? One way to find out is to track this narrative’s evolution, especially in regards to the matters of terrorism and extremism.
Till 2003, when, comparatively speaking, suicide bombings were a rare occurrence in Pakistan, they were reported by the newly inaugurated private TV channels as part of a simple narrative: the bombings were being undertaken by indigenous sectarian organisations in cahoots with Al Qaeda in reaction to the United States’ post-9/11 action in Afghanistan.
The narrative was simple, but there was a lot of truth in it as well. Even till this day, sectarian organisations such as the (supposedly banned) Sipah-Sehaba and Lashkar-e-Taiba are believed to be doing the ground work for the Taliban and shady Al Qaeda elements.
In the wake of Pakistan’s more aggressive involvement in the US-run ‘war on terror,’ the above narrative began being tempered by talk show ‘guests’ – mainly from the Jamat-i-Islami, and certain retired generals who still seemed nostalgically stuck in the 1980s’ ‘Afghan Jihad.’
The Pakistan Army’s half-hearted operations in the sensitive Taliban-infested territories too did not help in this respect, and neither did the right-wing provincial government of the NWFP (MMA) that attempted to ‘keep the peace’ by playing the sympathetic ostrich in the volatile province.
As one started seeing talk show hosts and their guests now condemn Pakistan’s involvement against what were clearly monsters, one was left baffled when the reason for their outrage had something to do with ‘tribal Pathans having great honour and appetite for revenge!’
Of course, it was conveniently forgotten that the ‘honourable’ tribals from whose ranks the Taliban were emerging found nothing so dishonourable about slaughtering not only fellow Pakistanis, but also their own Pushtun kinsmen?
But just when this contradiction and the utter feebleness of it started to become apparent, Musharraf blundered by delaying taking action against the violent Lal Masjid clerics and their army of self-righteous thugs.
The Musharraf dictatorship clearly manhandled the whole issue. But it is also true that electronic media coverage of the Army’s action against the terrorists at the mosque is yet to be paralleled in its utter show of irresponsibility, including in-studio and on-site reporting and ‘comment’ by reporters and hosts that sometimes bordered on actually eulogising and applauding the violent holy thugs.
I still wonder how much of the manic and rabid reactionary sparks that one saw flying around the TV studios at the time contributed to the construction of minds seeking violent revenge in the shape of suicide bombings against the common citizens of Pakistan?
The entirely lopsided and irresponsible coverage of the Lal Masjid is clearly the local electronic media’s darkest hour, one that was only partially rectified by the same media’s following fetish: The Lawyers’ Movement.
With the rise in terrorist attacks on Pakistani civilians, the narrative that put the action of Muslims seeking ‘justified revenge’ against fellow Muslims began weakening, until the sudden appearance of the likes of Zaid Hamid (on a struggling news channel and a music channel!) and Shireen Mazari.
Conspiracy theories about Mossad/RAW/CIA involvement in the matter that were once restricted to obscure crackpot websites suddenly exploded onto the Pakistani mainstream media scene. Some suggest this was done to justify the Pakistan Army’s operation in the north-west, making it look like a fight against infidels (as opposed to it being a civil war against monsters created and ignorantly tolerated by us alone).
So the following has become the new narrative, not only on TV talk shows, but consequently, and dangerously, within much of society: ‘Those conducting suicide attacks on common men, women, and children in Pakistan, cannot be Muslims. They have to be infidel foreigners, most probably funded and trained by RAW, Mossad, and even the CIA. These agencies want to take over Pakistan’s nuclear assets and control the imminent rise of Islam.’
Much psychosomatic gibberish emerges from this unsubstantiated and delusional narrative peddled every single day on talk shows. And if this is the only answer that these ‘experts’ have for the besieged people of Pakistan, then, I’m afraid, we truly have become a wretched nation which has decided to hold on to half-truths, myths, and fantastical stories as a means to safeguard our ‘honour,’ instead of depending more on reason and a positive exhibition of self-criticism. There is no bigger honour than saying and respecting the truth, no matter how disturbing it might be.