Media and militancy
Gulmina Bilal Ahmad
After almost a decade of military rule, today Pakistan finds itself in a challenging transition towards democracy. Unlike previous futile transitional attempts, this transition is unique in the sense that it shows the existence of a newly liberalised mass media.
It has been called ‘societyÂ’s mirror’. Just like the mirror on the wall, to a teenager’s horror, reflects all warts and pimples, the media, it is believed, also shows only what already exists in society. The litmus test for media freedom, perhaps then, is the degree of clarity of the reflection in the mediaÂ’s mirror.
As contemporary societies grow in size and complexity, the dome for communication and public debate has become dominated by the media, which includes radio, television, newspapers, magazines, books and newer media such as the internet and satellite television. A basic axiom of democracy is that citizens must have information and knowledge. People must be informed if they are to play an active role as citizens in the life of their country. A free, independent and responsible media is a critical source of information for citizens who want to choose the best leaders for their country and make sound decisions. Achieving a free and responsible media is a constant, demanding imperative and continuing activity. We must keep in sight the crucial purpose, i.e. citizens being able to make educated decisions that shape their lives.
Citizens of a democracy live with the assurance that, through the open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth will sooner or later win over deceit, the values of others will be better understood, areas of cooperation more clearly defined and the course of progress opened. The greater the volume of such exchanges, the better. Writer E B White once put it this way: “The press in our free country is reliable and useful, not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and dwell in the light. There is safety in numbers.”
After almost a decade of military rule, today Pakistan finds itself in a challenging transition towards democracy. Unlike previous futile transitional attempts, this transition is unique in the sense that it shows the existence of a newly liberalised mass media. This can prove to be a crucial, positive and deciding factor, but only if the media can assume the role as a watchdog of democracy. Even though Pakistan’s media is vibrant, this is a difficult task because the media is faced with a number of challenges. By highlighting these challenges and finding possible solutions to them, the output of the media, both internally and externally, can be made more prolific.
During the last decade, Pakistan has witnessed a media boom that is characterised by greater freedom to report and analyse. Starting from the Kargil conflict, which was labelled as a ‘media war’ to Lal Masjid’s Operation Silence, the judicial movement and, presently, the fake degrees issue, the media has acquired an integral role in our lives. It is, thus, not surprising that now, whether one goes to the railway station or a restaurant or cafÃ©, all places have television sets tuned to popular news channels. Resolutions against and for the media are but another sign of the significance of the media.
Pakistan has developed a vibrant media landscape, where, in spite of political demands and direct bans, the media enjoys autonomy to a great extent. After having been liberalised in 2002, the television sector experienced a media explosion. In the stiff, competitive environment that followed, commercial interests became dominant and value journalism gave way to sensationalism. Although the radio sector has not seen similar expansion, independent radio channels are abundant and considered very important sources of information, especially in the rural areas. The Pakistani media landscape reflects a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and class-divided society. There is a patent segregation between Urdu and English media. Urdu media, particularly newspapers, are widely read by the masses mostly in rural areas. The English media is urban and elite-centric and more liberal and professional. English print, television and radio channels have far smaller audiences than their Urdu counterparts, but have greater influence among opinion makers, politicians, the business community and the upper strata of society. Needless to say, the importance of both is undeniable but the balance between the two has not been achieved.
This newly acquired significance by the media has to come with the responsibility that the media itself is cognisant of. Lal Masjid’s Operation Silence had media teams engaged in ball-to-ball reporting, thus performing the important task of keeping citizens informed. It was the media that showed the havoc created by the Lal Masjid clerics. If media reporters were not there, Lal Masjid would have gone down like another Ojhri Camp disaster for which people still have more hypotheses than facts.
However, in order to ensure that it continues to reflect, and not concoct, it is imperative that the media self evaluates its role. Militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban have increasingly been using the media to create confusions in the public’s mind. Giving prominent coverage and space to poorly researched facts like the presence of private security firms, the ‘foreign hand’ conspiracy serves to distort facts. This is a dangerous trend in any country, particularly in a country like ours where activism is misunderstood as jingoism. It is a tragedy that we live in a country where security agencies are ordered by the judiciary to probe slogans raised by a nondescript political group that alleges that a private security group is responsible for the Data Darbar tragedy. The fact that it was reported in the media and the Lahore High Court has issued directives to that effect distorts facts. A fellow columnist, some months back, also highlighted the fact that in the media there are some who can best be described as ‘media militantsÂ’. They can be perceived as being more of Taliban apologists rather than independent media personnel.
As resolutions against and for the media are adopted in Punjab Assembly and the ayes and nays are counted, it is important that the media’s role in conflict areas is also emphasised. Media personnel have lost their lives in Swat and Waziristan. Indulging in propaganda rather than accurate reporting of facts without any bias or pressure will be akin to disrespecting those lives. The media needs introspection on these lines rather than just staying occupied with partisan politics.
The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Daily Times