Managing the maverick media
By: Elf Habib
The media’s reckless race for ratings and breaking news had fallen foul of the very Supreme Court they had so passionately exalted to crush the elected icons.
Pakistan’s media, particularly the style, substance and slant of its silver screen anchors and programmes that had been long resented by and miffed a majority of our people for being incensed with the puffed up notions of national prestige, sovereignty and defence and overriding obsession for overshooting on the regional and international stage while ignoring their real needs and miseries, is now also being prodded by the superior courts for its conduct, reform and policies.
The action by the Chief Justice of Pakistan first surfaced on Friday, June 16, 2012 when the chairman of the electronic media regulatory authority, PEMRA, was summarily summoned before the full constellation of the superior lords and pointedly asked about the policies related to the performance of the channels and the respite offered to the aggrieved against its transmissions. The step by the superior lords evidently was precipitated by an interview of Riaz Malik, the Bahria Town tycoon who had been alleging some gargantuan investments made on the scion of the Chief Justice in exchange for various expectations from his father.
The answer, almost incoherently mumbled out by the chairman, ironically exposed the mess, quandary and contradictions that plagued the channels, perturbing even the most puissant stakeholders. PEMRA evidently failed to reform, regulate and monitor the media because the government, battered and beleaguered by a bombastic and blistering media momentum against it, had preferred a façade of self-regulation by the channels.
Its equivocation and incapacity masked its vacillation wrought by a weird media strategy to squelch, satirise and humiliate the elected icons, and hence hammer, obfuscate and obliterate the popular faith and trust in the elected institutions like parliament. It was also to apotheosise the unelected auxiliary institutions like the judiciary, agencies, their surrogates, exponents, and the ecclesiastic echelons that had traditionally ruled and ruined the nation for most of its existence. The anchors brigade seemed to be specially detailed to drub, denounce, derail and hence hasten the demise of democracy, heralding the dragons of the uber-honest judge-general-journalist inquisitions invariably let loose at the advent of every dictatorship.
The Supreme Court, under the cloak of that crusade, had been idolised as an infallible divine authority bolstered by the mullahs, minions of the military rule and the cognate unelectable zealots. It was meant to roast and revile the elected representatives, relegating all constitutional and democratic imperatives to the backburner. Their sprints, at least until recently, seemed to be a roaring success. Yet the media mavens’ lust for clout and commercialism had flubbed even the basic tenet that commercialism could often kill even the most meticulous missions. The media’s reckless race for ratings and breaking news had fallen foul of the very Supreme Court they had so passionately exalted to crush the elected icons.
With the Supreme Court still pursuing them, proceedings against the private channels for sensationalism were also started on October 5, 2012 by the Islamabad High Court. The subsequent hearings on the 15th, 19th, 26th and 30th of the same month required the PEMRA chairman to produce the code of conduct for the channels, inform of the action taken against the errant, and allegations against a particular channel for defaming the superior judiciary. Issued to PEMRA simultaneously was also another edict from the Lahore High Court on October 16, enjoining it “not to allow any TV programmes or talk shows containing malicious material against the judges and the judicial institutions.” The avalanche of directives by the superior courts demonstrates their concern about the media’s antics.
The fundamentalist and obscurantist forces so fondly raised and foisted on the people by the media seem equally piqued. Their aversion reverberated on August 8, 2012, in an epistle by Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Justice (Retd) Wajeehuddin to the Supreme Court, urging action against the vulgar and obscene programmes aired by private channels. The notions about obscenity and vulgarity and their nuances in various societies and at stages in human thought have certainly been widely varied, vehemently debated and diversely practised. Sizzling Indian dances, duets and dramas may be quite repugnant to some of our puritanical viewers, yet they bring billions to the channels besides the Bollywood songs and sequences to be recycled or parodied to spice up their flagship spoofs to pillory the ‘pariah’ politicians. Without surmising on the strategy or success of the Supreme Court to excise evil and obscenity from our screens, the case points to the disenchantment of our pompous diehards against the channels.
The discord and discontent of some stalwart anchors, dubious dole-outs as well as doubts on the impartiality and authenticity of the information furnished by the media similarly emerged in a writ filed in the Supreme Court by two journalists. Leaving aside their craving for some coveted commendation from the court, they sought strictures binding the anchors to reveal their assets and the owners to affirm their political affiliation. The hidden agenda of various owners obviously contradicts the claims of their non-partisan conduct. The spat between some press clubs and the APNS, the conversion of lands meant for offices into multi-storey plazas, pocketing millions merely through their rents, evading the appropriate taxation and the conditions and wages of the media workers are some other poignant concerns. The dissatisfaction of the armed forces, functioning as the unassailable super sovereigns steering our destiny, similarly emerged in the appeal General Kayani made to the media on November 5. Almost every part and pillar of society and the state thus seems to have been ruffled by the ongoing media thrust and tactics.
The common people, however, have been their worst victims. Ignoring any rational analysis of their plight to propose some contemporary pragmatic salve for them, the media has been misleading them to an unrealistic, unattainable and make-believe imaginary world, mired in utter emotionalism, anachronistic notions of honour, grandeur and confrontation with the emerging realities. The corporate patrons, the establishment and the judicial potentates have been already asserting their influence and dominance through it. The masses, seeking some rationality, restraint and direction in this scramble, however, have been left utterly at the mercy of their government. Media codes and watchdogs for requisite responsibility, monitoring and accountability have been operating even in the advanced and established democracies. Britain recently launched the Leveson inquiry because of complaints and pressure for tighter media control that has been mounting. Pakistan’s fledgling democratic phase, traumatised by terrorism, intransigence of the extremist forces and excessive activism of the unelected echelons, requires a reasonably robust regulatory regimen balancing media rights against an appropriate access to fair; independent, unbiased coverage and reporting with compliance to explicitly stipulated codes for its conduct, propriety and accountability.