Media and Civil Society
There is no dispute about the efficacy of the free media in nurturing an informed society, which is a prerequisite for the functioning of a democratic system. The outreach of the electronic media is phenomenally broader than the print media, because of its ability to overcome the barriers of illiteracy, lack of purchasing power (newspapers, etc.) and availability of time to read. Moreover, the packages of information carried by the airwaves are far bigger than those that could be packed on a newspaper broadsheet.
Pakistan had never seen the kind of expansion and freedom in the news media before the first private news channels was allowed to operate by the present regime in 2002. The advancement of information technology (internet, mobile phones, etc.) has not only eroded the ability of governments to suppress information, in the era of globalisation the possession of a strong local electronic media has emerged as a necessity in the absence of which nations lose their voice and get drowned by stronger voices of their contenders.
This was amply demonstrated during the Kargil war when the entire Indian news media stood behind its government. The truth was brought to the public and was flashed across their television screens as it was happening. It was a major setback for the planners of Kargil, because due to the absence of an independent media voice in Pakistan to present and support their point of view, the Indian electronic media had a field day.
It has been cited by many as the reason that convinced General Pervez Musharraf to allow the development and growth of private news channels in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s relatively young and yet-to-mature electronic media has shown that it can achieve the critical mass of public opinion in far less time than that required by the print media. It was not because the Pakistani press has not been alive to its role to bring the truth to the public, but because it has always been brutally muzzled.
Only when President Musharraf unwittingly let the genie out of the bottle did everyone realise that it was there to haunt them forever! The journalist who had learned to let his voice out even when gagged, cried foul full-throttle when handed a microphone.
That the free media can provide play a vital role in educating and organising the public first became visible in the 2005 earthquake, when extensive coverage by the media not only highlighted the failings of the government, it motivated the entire nation to unite and help the affected. The hapless and voiceless had suddenly got a powerful supporter and the negligent found themselves in the dock.
More recently, during the lawyers’ movement, the impartial and intensive coverage of events by the print and electronic media shaped public opinion into a critical mass, which came out on the streets and expressed support for the Chief Justice. It was not the first time that a group has raised voice against an illegitimate regime.
Far bigger sacrifices were offered during the Zia regime by the journalists, political activists, the working class and others who opposed the government. But the commitment and sincerity of those movements and struggles could not be widely publicised to invoke public support. The martyrs of that era live in the memory of their comrades, but their sacrifice of blood did not create a revolutionary change.
During the lawyers’ movement, the media catalysed the strengthening and expansion of civil society in which even the illiterate and the downtrodden were given a voice and significance. Their presence on the roadsides to welcome the Chief Justice counted on the television screens. The widespread public support for a principled stance has initiated a process that is hard to roll back.
The judiciary has asserted its independence and the media is constantly pushing and nudging other state institutions and sections of society to perform the role they are supposed to play.
In the absence of a legitimate political class that draws its strength from the masses, there are many who express skepticism about the potential of the lawyers’ movement to bring a meaningful change in the political culture and system of Pakistan.
But seen together with a relative free media, its meaning has entirely changed. The power struggle between the military and the political elite under the watchful eye of the media and a new-born judiciary is a process Pakistan’s polity and society has to undergo essentially to evolve.
This time the informed and the educated are not the exclusive observers of these power games. This is common knowledge, courtesy the media.
The awareness spread by the lawyers’ movement was a step towards converting Pakistan from a feudal state, which it actually is, into a capitalist state, which it pretends to be by striving for a new social contract with minimum guarantees of basic human rights.
Without going through this process of evolution, we cannot achieve the dream of a revolution.It was not a betrayal when civil society congratulated General Musharraf on ousting Nawaz Sharif from power in October 1999; such were the atrocities of his rule.
To welcome Musharraf has not turned out to be a bad deal, because the quid pro quo he offered has done us a great favour. But however much General Musharraf believes he is to be credited for the work the media is doing today, had not the Pakistani journalists stood steadfast for the cause of the truth over decades, today’s electronic media too would have been beholden to the powerful as are other institutions.
It is manned by the same breed. Let’s believe, however much the darkness, there is light too.