By Irfan Husain
28 Mar, 2009
Many talking heads are allowed to get away with espousing extreme viewpoints - File photo.
ON my all-too-brief visit back to Pakistan, I have been flipping local channels to catch up on events. I have found new ones to watch, although not necessarily for any length of time, given the generally low quality of the fare on offer.
The other evening, I caught a panel discussion featuring a gentleman who used to be in the foreign service, together with a couple of other talking heads. The discussion was about last November’s lethal terrorist attacks in Mumbai. When I switched on my TV, the gentleman was confidently asserting that the knowledge of downtown Mumbai the terrorists seemed to possess made it clear that they could not have been Pakistanis. From this shaky theory, he leaped to the conclusion that they must have been Indians who had been trained in their country, and then brought to Pakistan before being put on a boat that took them to Mumbai.
I had scarcely managed to digest this brilliant argument before another panellist, a senior lawyer, chipped in with his stunning contribution. According to him, the killers could not possibly have been Pakistanis because had they been, they would not have attacked Mumbai, but would have gone for Delhi’s Red Fort. 'Why would young Muslims from Pakistan be interested in Mumbai?' he demanded. 'They don’t know the language there, and surely they would not have gone there to ogle Bollywood actresses.' Both expressed their outrage that our government had accepted that the attacks had been launched from Pakistan.
In one discussion on minorities, a Pakistani Sikh guest told the audience how he had once been forbidden by a local maulvi from dangling his feet in a stream as Muslims downstream might use the water to perform their ablutions before they prayed. He also complained that he was not served tea at roadside dhabas because other customers might object to drinking from cups that had been used by a non-Muslim. An angry maulvi on the panel tried to reassure the poor Sikh that Islam enjoined its followers to treat minorities well.
On another evening, I caught a bit of a solo discourse by a gent who thundered: 'Allah’s curse be on those who criticise Pakistan! I want to tell all Pakistanis that before long, their current trials will be over, and we will soon re-conquer India!'
During such surreal discussions, many anchors fail to challenge the outlandish views being expressed by their guests, or ask them to produce evidence for their assertions. On the contrary, they are invited to explore their bizarre notions at length.
I have begun to realise the extent to which our media has become an active player in Pakistani politics and society. During the recent movement to restore the chief justice, millions of viewers across the country were mesmerised by the sight of the black-coated lawyers poised to take on the power of the state.
The problem with this kind of in-your-face TV journalism is that moving the camera into the action makes the crowds seem much bigger than they are. Also, in a competitive, pressured environment, there is little time to reflect on events and what they mean: the audience wants to know what’s happening every minute of every day. And to offer opinions, there are armies of pundits waiting to get invited to TV studios to hold forth. Most of them are retired diplomats, generals, judges and civil servants who are happy to leave the tedium of their lives for the glare of publicity. Unpaid, and with no professional reputation to protect, many can (and do) get away with the most absurd views.
In most cases, we do not really know who is behind which channel. Judging from the extreme views being pushed on many of them, the source of funding takes on a slightly sinister overtone. For years, question marks have hung over several journalists, and whispers have done the rounds tying them to our ubiquitous intelligence agencies. Given the role of these organisations in Pakistani politics over the years, I would not be surprised to learn that they are financing some of the channels that have proliferated recently.
Another problem is to do with the qualifications of the anchors and hosts of the many talk shows on offer. Selected for their looks and fluency rather than for their knowledge and education, they are ill-equipped to challenge their loud and self-confident panellists. When somebody voices an opinion as a fact, the anchors let him get away with it because they just do not know any better.
My personal theory is that their lack of a grounding in politics, economics and current affairs is a direct result of the poor education they have received. Without wishing to be lofty or patronising, I can safely point to the poisonous brainwashing an entire generation has been subjected to during the Zia era. Already reeling from Bhutto’s nationalisation of education, millions of Pakistani children then had years of religious studies rammed down their throats by Zia. This was supplemented by reactionary propaganda aired by state television and radio. In those days, there were no private channels to break this monopoly of the airwaves.
The current generation of Pakistanis reaching positions of authority and influence is the product of this brainwashing. Of course many have escaped its worst effects, but unquestionably, public discourse in Pakistan has moved to the right, and we now wear religion on our sleeves to a greater extent than ever before. Secularism is now a label few are willing to accept, even though many privately agree that it’s the only way Pakistan can rejoin the rest of the world.
When private channels first began operating in Pakistan’s stultified environment, I had hoped it would be a liberating force, opening a window to the world for millions of Pakistanis. In reality, it has worked to serve the opposite end by reinforcing existing prejudices, rather than challenging them. Owners of channels have their own concealed agendas, and poorly educated producers and hosts do little to separate opinions from facts.
Source: Daily Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan. The author can be reached at: