Sharks and Zombies
By Irfan Husain
June 21st, 2014
WHEN a shark is wounded, others in the school detect its blood in the water, and turn on it in a vicious feeding frenzy. It’s not a pretty sight.
This is what we have been witnessing over the last month as a number of TV channels, led by ARY, have savaged Geo. So when ARY’s anchor, Mubashir Lucman, was barred from the airwaves by the Islamabad High Court, I didn’t shed any tears. But now that the Supreme Court has reinstated him, I suppose he’ll be baying for Geo’s blood again.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no dog in this fight, and nor do I support either our intelligence agencies or our judiciary interfering with the media. In fact, there are moments when I miss the days when PTV and Radio Pakistan had a monopoly on broadcasting.
One only has to look and sound good on the box.
When the private sector was allowed to enter the electronic media some 15 years ago, I doubt if any of us realised that a Pandora’s box had been opened. Where there had been a single boring voice giving us news and views, there is now a veritable cacophony deafening us with a 24/7 babble.
In the scramble to carve out their own space and attract the highest viewing numbers and the biggest slice of the advertising pie, media houses recruited ill-informed anchors. The only criterion was that you had to look and sound good on the box.
Almost immediately, the new TV channels became addictive; they also poisoned the political discourse. Apart from Geo’s Apas ki Baat, chat shows became platforms for rabid views. Democratic institutions were mocked, and elected leaders demonised at will by guests with axes to grind. In this character assassination, several anchors became cheerleaders.
PEMRA, the supposedly independent regulator, was unmoved. When Dawn launched an English-language TV channel, and tried to inject some sanity into the media scene, it soon crashed and burned. Clearly, an audience used to red meat was not going to readily become vegetarians.
But more sinister is the role our intelligence agencies have played in shaping the discourse. Just note, for example, the lack of protests in our TV studios over the latest series of US drone strikes. Now when our armed forces have finally launched an operation, it is clearly to their advantage for the Americans to take out as many militants as possible.
Compare this media silence with the hysteria that accompanied each drone attack until a few months ago. Anchors and their guests — mostly retired generals and diplomats — joined in a chorus condemning these strikes as violating our sovereignty, and causing civilian casualties.
Or take Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to India. Obviously, refusing the invitation to Narendra Modi’s inaugural as the newly elected prime minister would have been an unforgivable snub. But many of our TV chat show hosts saw our prime minister’s acceptance as craven surrender. Worse was to follow when it was reported that Modi had urged his counterpart to control the jihadists who had launched attacks against India.
Clearly, this televised hysteria was orchestrated, and followed the agenda of the very agencies that had created these militant monsters in the first place. Our spymasters have pulled the strings, controlling and massaging the message sent out by the media for years to suit their murky ends.
A couple of years ago, a retired brigadier who had headed Military Intelligence in Karachi in the 1990s declared on air that he had personally paid one of the most popular anchors a fixed monthly amount from his agency’s budget. The story soon sank without a trace, but does serve as a reminder of the role these puppet-masters have long played.
Worse than dancing to the music played by the establishment is the unprofessional and unethical coverage of terrorist attacks. Gruesome images are displayed, and condemnation of these atrocities is often muted. Instead of demolishing the ideology that drives terrorists, there is a sub-text of justification. How often have we heard studio guests declare that the jihadists are motivated by American drone attacks, as well as by the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Then there is the regular drumbeat of extreme views on display as if there wasn’t enough religiosity in Pakistan. Time and again, we hear guests on the verge of hurling accusations of blasphemy at those unable to defend themselves. Given that some have been killed due to this charge, one would have thought anchors would step in. But driven by the imperative to boost ratings, many of them egg on their panellists.
In a largely unlettered country like Pakistan, TV plays a very powerful role in framing the public debate and in shaping public opinion. But in the hands of rich and powerful business magnates who want to amass more wealth and power, it’s all about the bottom line.
Unless PEMRA plays a more active role in checking TV’s excesses, we will become brainwashed zombies unable to think for ourselves.