By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Is it legal for a Pakistani state institution to maintain secret funds for influencing attitudes and opinions regarding individuals, groups, and political parties? Is there not a constitutional obligation to protect citizens from fake news, character assassinations, and hate campaigns?
Eighteen months ago the intrepid lawyer-activist Asma Jehangir filed a petition in the Supreme Court – so far without a hearing – wherein she challenged the state’s media behaviour on multiple counts. The petition identifies three media-related power centres: the information of ministry, privately owned media (overseen by Pemra) and ISPR. This public relations organisation, in contrast to private media, is apparently immune from all existing regulations.
According to her petition, ISPR’s media cell controls broadcasts in over 55 cities through its commercial FM-89.4 and FM-96 networks. It pleads that the extent of public resources committed to this purpose must be revealed. It further claims that a commercial licence was refused by Pemra in 2007 but revenues obtained from advertising, or taxes paid, are not available for scrutiny.
Given that Article 19A of the Constitution asserts the public’s right to authentic and unbiased information, this petition conceivably carries weight. How the Supreme Court reacts to a matter where waters can easily be muddied in the name of national security will be interesting to watch. To be sure, no Pakistani law restricts ISPR’s role in the public domain. Equally no law prohibits disclosure of resources spent upon media outreach. But what has gone missing is transparency – a quality crucial to good governance.
In the furious race to grab the public mind, the military is but one of many contenders. Those who pursue some specific personal, financial, institutional, or ideological agenda know well that the media is indispensable to shaping minds and outlooks.
In 2007 Mullah Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio, had inspired the population of Swat valley through his mobile transmitter broadcasts supporting the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). His fiery sermons led to the cessation of such ‘un-Islamic’ activities as shaving beards, women leaving their houses without a guardian, singing, and education for girls. Soon the valley was drenched in blood. Ditto for the gang wars in Karachi’s Lyari area, stoked by inflammatory local newspapers. These turf wars had raged since 2002 and claimed hundreds of lives yearly before grinding to an end in 2015. Earlier, gangs would transmit blood-dripping warnings and ultimatums through newspapers they controlled. Images of brutalised corpses adorned the front pages of rival papers such as Janbaz (which came to be known as ‘Don Akhbar’!), Anjam, Mahaz, etc.
Countless other examples also provide proof that disinformation and propaganda can reduce a society to bestial savagery. But the right lessons have apparently not been learned well enough.
The ongoing media campaign against a lawyer and civil rights activist, Jibran Nasir, by a well-known TV channel is a case in point. Owned by a company that sells fraudulent college degrees around the world, it is directing a series of extraordinarily vicious propaganda programmes against this young man. This campaign followed his appeal to the Supreme Court for justice in the Shahzeb Khan murder case. The confessed killer, Shahrukh Jatoi, had spent time in jail with the company’s owner and the two jailbirds are said to have developed a close rapport with each other. I have watched these programmes and am appalled by their grossly uncivilised and defamatory nature. In another country such a channel would have been immediately shut down and the operators punished. In one of these programme a fully masked man with a deep voice, Mr Qaum, alleges that Nasir works on a foreign agenda, is an enemy of Kashmiris, mocks Islam, and is a blasphemer – the latter because Nasir allegedly refuses to accept that the dead man’s family has the right to pardon the murderer, the son of a feudal lord. In fact Nasir vigorously refutes all these allegations including that of having challenged the religious notion of blood money. Of course, like Nasir, most Pakistanis are outraged that a murderer has escaped scot free just because he could buy his way out.
While PTV has often been criticised for uncritically carrying the state’s narrative, Pakistani private TV channels have taken broadcasting to a new low. Most channels only thinly mask the agenda of their owners or sponsors. Sadly, all are dismal copies of each other – not one stands out. There is little interest in issues such as climate change, global politics, science, or even culture. Instead the near exclusive focus is upon political entertainment – evening talk shows. In contrast to dramas and documentaries, these require no financial input or prior preparation.
The standard formula is to bring together different talking heads. The more abusive and aggressive the anchor or the guests, and the louder on-site reporters scream, the higher this drives ratings. Anchors do not permit the free flow of ideas; for the most part a scripted play is acted out. Several anchors have deliberately stoked violence against religious minorities and murders have sometimes followed their inflammatory statements hours or days later. Free from ethical pressures, they ruthlessly exploit social pathologies while suspending conscience and good sense. While Pakistan has benefited from private TV to an extent, more has been lost than gained. Popular anchors have frequently given space and sympathy to murderers and terrorists, and broadcast every lie, rumour, and idiocy that could sell. You just have to mentally flip through some sickening images of past years: one stood outside Lal Masjid echoing the calls of the insurrectionists; another gloated over the Mumbai massacre; a third justified Malala Yousufzai’s shooting. Gutter journalism on several Pakistani private TV channels has visibly reduced and degraded national cultural quality. It has heightened aggressive behaviour and rudeness in people’s daily interactions. While this is reversible, virtue will not descend from the skies. Instead, libel and defamation laws need to be vigorously enforced by the courts. Transparency of ownership, disclosure of financial information, respect for truth and evidence, and adherence to basic journalistic ethics must be insisted upon.
(The writer is geo-political and social analyst. He teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.)
By Pervez Hoodbhoy