Jun 4, 2007
Posted by Saim Baig
Dr Shahid Masood of the jang group writes,
“The media’s power is frail. Without the people’s support, it can be shut off with the ease of turning a light switch.” – Corazon Aquino
By playing into the hands of the establishment, the media wreaks havoc in the name of ‘national interest’— it fails to give the real picture and ends up by only preparing recipes for disaster. And this cuts both ways— creating a blatant sense of superiority of power on the one hand and causing despondency and loss of faith in the system on the other. When the freedom of the press is curbed on the pretext of safeguarding ‘national interest’, it is a clear case of further tyranny being created. Unfortunately, since the creation of Pakistan, the media has been misused, manipulated and subverted on numerous occasions, regime after regime, government after government— all in the name of ‘national interest’.
I often wonder what constitutes ‘national interest’. Is it the realisation of the dreams of a chosen few who are enjoying the fruits of power or the wishes and aspirations of the masses struggling to make ends meet? Is highlighting corruption and nepotism in the establishment not in ‘national interest’? Is protecting those accused of heinous crimes in ‘national interest’? Is twisting facts to suit a political party in ‘national interest’? The jury may be out on what are the parameters defining the real role of the media but it is critical to realise that ‘national interest’ cannot be arbitrarily used as a tool to silence the voice of reason. More importantly, if the message is bad, you cannot shoot the messenger.
The recent decision by the government to impose restrictions on live transmission is another regressive step that will only make matters worse for civil society in Pakistan. Efforts are being made to justify this move by citing Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA) regulations. If the media has to take permission before telecasting live, then what happens to emergency situations in matters of public interest? Imagine the US media being under such a ban when 9/11 was happening. Does it make any sense for the government to disallow going live when pitched battles are taking place on the streets? Another charge against the media is that it exaggerates and sensationalises issues and events. If the O J Simpson case was a classic case of exaggeration and sensationalism by the media, the Pakistani media should take respite from the fact that it has never stretched its boundaries.
I agree that the army should not be made a subject of ridicule and contempt, but what happens if an army chief dons the garb of a politician and is hell-bent on chewing the fruits of labour on both counts? Isn’t that adding fuel to the fire? President Musharraf has always proclaimed that he has championed the cause of the media. He never fails to take credit for the freedom of the press in Pakistan in recent years. What he forgets is that any independence is gained and fought for, and not granted, and that the media in Pakistan has snatched independence from the jaws of autocracy. The logic sounds as convoluted as the British claiming to grant independence to Pakistan as opposed to Pakistan having gained it. And even if such a thing as media freedom exists in Pakistan, why do we hear cases of cable blackouts? Which law of the country allows such throttling of the freedom of the press?
If the media has taken the responsibility of highlighting issues in the larger interest of the society, it is only performing its duty. If the media chooses to debate subjects that would define the future of the nation and help succeed in building a consensus between different segments of the society, it only helps the establishment achieve an objective that would otherwise have been difficult to accomplish. In hindsight, if issues of balance of power, strengthening of democratic institutions and safeguarding of civil rights had been discussed without malice by the media decades earlier, things would not have come to such a pass today.
We must also learn from the pages of history how spreading lies through the media in the name of ‘national interest’ proved counter-productive in the long run and how the country had to pay a heavy price for allowing propagandist elements take things in their own hands. The narration of ‘zulm ki daastaan’ (tales of torture) on national television after the ouster of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is a case in point. Traditionally whenever military regimes have gone out with a vengeance to clip the wings of their opponents, the results have always been calamitous as is happening in today’s Pakistan. The failure to debate implications of successive federal budgets with high defence allocations in the past meant that more important areas such as health and education suffered owing to a lack of resources. If only the media was allowed to play its rightful role during those eventful decades, it would have criticised such a policy and things would have been vastly different today. We would then certainly have had a better pen-to-missile ratio.
Just as in politics, the media too has no permanent friends or enemies. The western media had in the aftermath of 9/11 declared General Pervez Musharraf as its greatest ally in its war on terror. Today, the same media is asking Musharraf to do more, raising questions about the US administration’s backing of the government in Islamabad. That only goes to show that the so-called ‘national interest’ can be a very myopic view of the reality and can induce governments to take wrong decisions.
The argument being used to justify gagging the media is that in the US and in other developed countries it stands behind the government in hours of need for the sake of ‘national interest’. While the basic premise of this contention is inaccurate, if not flawed, the hazards of such an approach has also translated into disastrous foreign policy decisions. The American media had an important role to play in the days leading up to the Iraq war and if it had not largely toed the government line, the Bush administration may have been spared of the ignominy it faces in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Isn’t this a classic example of how bulldozing the media in the name of ‘national interest’ can lead to disastrous consequences and tarnish the country’s image across the world as has happened in the case of the US?
In Pakistan, successive governments have found different, and sometimes innovative, ways of imposing restrictions on the media. Even though it would be wrong to suggest that the media is above board and should be beyond scrutiny, this judgement should largely be left to the viewing public instead of letting the establishment become the final arbiter. Two examples are worthy of mention. Doha-based Al Jazeera television, despite taking on totalitarian regimes and exposing dictators, has gained overwhelming support from the viewing public. It has succeeded in holding a mirror to society, something that is in every society’s long-term interest. In India, the fourth estate has worked as a crusader of justice and has helped expose corruption at high offices, thereby empowering the masses.
The media may lose this latest war to the powers that be but it will at least be known to have put up a fight, in the larger interest of the society. If the media is not performing its role in an unbiased and objective manner, it will only lose respect from those who matter most— the viewing public.
From: The News