Sunday, 6 November 2016

Media Matters

During the height of the last dharna, former Election Commission of Pakistan Additional Secretary Afzal Khan made an appearance on TV & seemed to endorse the allegations of the opposition. The fallout from his remarks wasn’t only confined to TV screens or newspaper columns, it also played out on social media.

The most memorable, if one can call it that, reaction to Afzal Khan’s statement came from journalist & anchor Nusrat Javed. Nusrat took to twitter in an excessively abusive diatribe, even for him. His remarks can most decently be summarised into this: Afzal Khan was a “gay sex” addict, who performed acts of said gay sex in the Islamabad press club, and Nusrat used to watch.

Even the best of us lose our cool in moments of anger, anguish, disappointment etc. and are prone to outbursts we would later regret. This moment stood out not only because Nusrat insisted he was of sound mind, but also because of what it came as a reaction to.

Nusrat, one of the most seasoned journalists in the country, did not lose his cool when the government shot 100 people in broad daylight. Nor did the outburst come when a CM, sworn to protect his citizens, promised to send “truckloads of tissues” in the wake of a massacre. It came when a former government employee piled on more pressure on the ruling family.

The incident has been retold to highlight two things. One is that while journalists often rightly complain about abuse they have to deal with on social media, they partake in it more often than they would have you believe. Second is the sense among many opposition supporters and third party observers that large sections of the media are partial towards the government.

As the opposition headed to Islamabad again, tensions between journalists and opposition supporters on social media became apparent once more. The last sentence is the problem, why should a showdown between the government and the opposition translate into one between large sections of the press and supporters of the opposition?

The media’s explanation of why that is the case was put forward just the other day by an anchor on Capital TV when he described the opposition as “fascist”. Even when opposition supporters were literally being picked up by the state from their homes, this is a view that held sway among many of his colleagues.

What’s the other explanation? .. Nusrat Javed. 

Like the rest of us, journalists find it harder to hide their biases on social media, which is why the divisions are so clear in that medium. However, anyone paying a little attention to what gets said or written in the press can pinpoint how this partiality has translated into their work.

Consider how violence is covered. The government has a long record now of extremely violent suppression of political opponents. It ranges from entering opposition compounds and killing political opponents by firing at them to entering private halls and hitting pol workers with batons. The opposition’s “violence” ranges from entering a government building to gathering in large numbers in the so called red zone. Yet the government’s actions are often described as “mistakes”, “rash”, “strong arm”, while the opposition is allocated “attack”, “siege” & “invasion”.

Not only is the coverage lenient towards the government’s propensity to kill, the whole narrative is dangerously similar to that of the government. For example, the last DAWN editorial on “economic costs” of protest wouldn’t be out of place if it were released by Ishaq Dar’s office. Almost every point made by the newspaper is one the Finance Minister has pleaded in the past; the stock market shock, the need for a steady ship, the confidence of investors. Tellingly, even the onus to prevent government’s draconian act of confiscating containers and using them to block the arteries of the state, is put on the opposition.

An editor in this newspaper wrote a charge sheet against the opposition a few days before the recent government crackdown started. Following are some of the points he made that are verbatim what Rana Sana, probably the most confrontationist minister in the government, regurgitates regularly:

The opposition wants to lay “siege” to the capital. The opposition leader is “non-democratic” and is “delegitimizing” state institutions. The opposition wants to run through government like a “medieval army”. I could go on.

If history is any indication, the words of this section of the press would have become even more visceral than the government’s if the planned November 2 showdown had taken place. Good citation for said indication is one Kamran Shafi, a columnist for DAWN & Express Tribune, who in 2014 represented little more than a microphone for the vilest of government propaganda. In one memorable, again if one can call it that, episode, Shafi remarked that women go to opposition protests to perform “mujra” and men go to watch it. He then shared a video made by ruling party supporters saying we go to the “dharna” because you can grab a girl and disappear in a container, or in the greenbelts. He was made an ambassador by the government not long after.

Shafi is one of many. An ever increasing number of journalists now appear to be formalizing ties with the government through caretaker positions, government posts etc. They include Muhammad Malick, Absar Alam, Iftikhar Ahmed, Arif Nizami, Najam Sethi, Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi & Irfan Siddiqui. Mushtaq Minhas, recently made a ruling party minister, served for years in the executive committee of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists & was the secretary of the Islamabad/Pindi Press club. Clearly the rot is deep.

These appointments are beyond the money government pours into media houses in the form of adverts; Rs 450 million was the bill during 2014 protests. How bad exactly is it? Even Hamid Mir admitted the other day that the reason for government’s confidence is that they believe they have 3 media houses in their pocket.

It is hard to quantify how much influence is bought through these tactics, but the infestation in Pakistani journalism is hard to ignore. At present, many news outlets just serve as avenues for hit jobs, and the opposition isn’t the only target.

Earlier this year the Friday Times, the paper run by Najam Sethi, launched an astonishing attack on an under-age rape victim. Granted that Sethi has been awarded one favour after the other by the ruling party, there was still something shocking about the way he went after a girl just 15 years old and maligned her character after she suffered the heinous crime at the hands of a ruling party office bearer.

Yet while social media saw a huge outcry over his appalling conduct, journalists, barring some women, closed ranks around Sethi. Not much, if any, of the criticism of his attack on a rape victim made it to mainstream media.

Which represents the second part of what ails journalism in this country.  The interconnectedness, patronage, friendships and favours that run in the industry give journalists a carte blanche to abuse their considerable power, without the threat of any scrutiny of their actions.   

Again Sethi provides an obvious example. In 2014 some women playing for Multan Cricket Club had accused the admin of harassment. Anchor Imran Khan of Express News covered the issue. Najam Sethi, who’s been made overlord for all cricket in the country for some reason, simply told the anchor in question to cut it out. The TV host stopped after assurance by Sethi that he would protect the girls and reinstate them. Instead Sethi left the girls at the mercy of the officials they had complained against. One of them, a 17 year old by the name of Halima, committed suicide.

No journalist I know has questioned Sethi over his role, and I don’t believe many I don’t know did either. The nature of their profession means that any criticism from the outside will always be met with a hint of scepticism, called intolerant or even viewed as an effort to suppress speech. Which is all the more reason that journalists question one another & call out the abysmal abuse of their power.

Fool’s dream. 

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