Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


What to Make of the Pakistani Media.

18 May 2010

The Musharraf era brought the Pakistani media into a whole new age. I just finished reading Salman Ahmad’s autobiography Rock and Roll Jihad, and it mentions Salman’s first meeting with PM (as Musharraf now goes by on his Facebook page). He talk’s of PM as someone fresh, this was early in his tenure. He saw a friendly man, one that was committed fighting corruption and the like that had plagued the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif before him. Musharraf’s last few years ended in a series of controversies, from dismissing the Chief Justice (that lost him Salman’s support), to imposing emergency rule to messing with the media which he himself had helped rise.

A little ironic yes, call it what you will. I remember watching Musharraf’s resignation speech in a crowded McDonald’s which usually favors cricket matches over politicians in its TV priorities. To say Musharraf was a great orator can be an understatement at times. You’d hardly run into a mockery of him as we did when we saw Prime Minister Gillani with George Bush at Camp David. I’ve had the honor of being in the same room as Gillani sahib, and he seemed a nice guy. He’s also much more imposing in his physical stature than I assumed from the telly. Our team’s conversation with him didn’t go quite as planned considering we had no idea how to tell him the debate he thought our debate team was going to have about Benazir Bhutto’s murder was not going to happen. We still debate amongst ourselves how the semantics of that debate would pan out but then realize we have work to do.

Back to the point.

The media is back in a little mess now. Journalists are again fighting for survival, as reported in this Dawn Editorial by Syed Irfan Ashraf, from the Department of Journalism at the University of Peshawar. Journalists are frequently caught in crossfire. from Daniel Pearl to the Long March in well, March 2009. Governments have been busy trying to figure out who does what in the parliament, and have been unable to figure out a common ground as to what sort of free speech they would like to see in Pakistan. As a result journalists can say or do only as the current government pleases.

Throughout all this though, the media has managed to remain constantly anti government in the past few years. From the Musharraf era to the PPP “democracy”. It’s wrath for the opposition in parliament varies, but now has gotten strong enough to make coverage just a mockery of the way the country is run. So much so that columns now quote news about brawls in Parliament from East Asia to Europe and then surprise the audience by saying something to the likes of ‘you might think this is Pakistan, but it’s not’. Am I relieved.

Meanwhile, as no one knows what to do, more controversy has surrounded the media. This time Hamid Mir, a journalist for the Jang Group which manages Geo TV, The News and Jang among a host of other electronic and print publications, is accused of assisting the killing of Khalid Khawaja, ex(current?) ISI/Taliban man. The punctuation in the last sentence gives you an idea of how clueless I am at how all of this is supposed to work. The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is notoriously intelligent and I am notoriously ignorant.

Anyway. Hamid Mir shot to fame as one of the few journalists who managed to interview Osama bin Laden in person. He is known for his harsh treatment of politicians on his night time talk show Capital Talk. Often brash and with some wit, Mir has made a name for himself. Hamid Mir, like all Pakistanis who face some sort of accusation, has labeled this a ‘conspiracy’, which is somehow related to now Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, whose record for notoriety is no less polished I assure you. Actually his political views are quite obvious on his Twitter feed where he unabashedly speaks against other politicians. Confused? You ought to be.

The Five Rupees blog goes as far as to call Hamid Mir “intolerant, bigoted and hateful liar”.

Interestingly enough, opinionated as it is, Five Rupees has been my only major source of information for this whole saga. While little coverage of this could have been expected from any publication of the Jang Group, Mir’s employers, one would expect some news would come out from elsewhere. This reminds me of another part of Rock and Roll Jihad, where Salman narrates a story of some sort of blast in the Zia era, that the residents of the area felt and feared, but knew nothing about as the only news source, state owned PTV didn’t care enough to tell anyone. Pretend everything is fine and it will be goes the motto. And for many Pakistanis who are abroad for various reasons, Pakistani media can often be troublesome to get any accurate news. I remember a recent blast at an FIA office in Model Town, a residential area in Lahore. The office was right opposite my best friends’ homes, so I knew the area well, but nowhere could I find any description of the news less vague than “the blast occured in a residential area”.

Tides have changed once again. If you read the Five Rupees article linked to above, you’ll notice how public opinion is beginning to Change against Geo TV, owner of the nation’s largest news channel and television network (Note: I understand one blog is not ‘the public’ but I think public opinion is changing in that direction). Geo traces its roots to the 2002 elections, where it shot to fame as a new channel with a hip show that it would run between news called Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain (We are all with hope), a satirical show consisting of mostly impersonations of politicians which are very popular in the country.

Geo went on to become a staple everywhere in Pakistan, an accurate news source, a crowd favorite. It had the biggest names in journalism, and if it ever saw a bigger one it was known to buy them up very quickly. It used an attack on its offices a few years ago by law enforcement officials shamelessly to gain more public support and this self centered attitude extended into smaller things. From the big watermark on every picture shown to advertise themselves everywhere to the wrath of much of the public to the cries over everything that happened to Geo that was played over and over on the news. Its a walking talking ad for a news network. Again, you have to see it to understand how it works.

And now, from crowd favorite, the tides are turning against Geo. While many still have a religious following to the news, as well as the controversies and sensationalism stirred up by shows such as Shahid Masood’s Mere Mutabiq (According to Me), others are beginning to turn to competitors that have recently taken the game to Geo.

From the black and white of who is bad and who is good in this battle of journalist and politicians, more gray areas are beginning to emerge. Unfortunately the white areas are also beginning to recede, a little journalistic ethic remains. The political turmoil and the journalists’ struggle to do their reporting is an excuse, but its just that, an excuse. The government’s hands will remain full with the War for some time to come, and you’d think the Pakistani media would think up some way to self standardize. Everybody is waiting.

Update: So Dawn finally gets to this whole Hamid Mir Controversy. Hamid Mir continues to label it a conspiracy and President Zardari’s name is also dragged in. Salmaan Taseer is being accused, apparently because he is the owner/publisher of The Daily Times, one of the major newspapers, famous for its infotainment sections. I’m not sure if the news broke in the Daily Times. Regardless, the pandora’s box has been opened.