Media: The manipulator is manipulated -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Media: The manipulator is manipulated

Undermining the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy has come naturally to the ‘people’s media’

By Adnan Rehmat

Reporting politics is as old a profession as politics. That’s pretty straightforward. However, when it comes to Pakistan, how old really is reporting about the national polity’s dominance of the Establishment? The answer is not as straightforward as one would imagine.

Consider: until only a decade ago, there was no independent TV or television news in Pakistan, which means that only the state-owned PTV was the primary source of formal information as a default. Even as recently as five years ago, there were barely five TV channels in the private sector, which offered any decent news worth its name or real-time information. Now it’s a tsunami, to use the favourite word of Imran Khan, who is the Pakistani media’s idea of a politician and leader, currently.

Until the independent broadcast media came along some years ago, the state media controlled even by the elected governments could not dare offer open opinion that went against the self-assumed extra-constitutional role of arbitrating national destiny by the military Establishment. There never has been uttered the “T” word – treason – on the state media, either under elected or military governments, when it comes to the actions of a few generals who did what is unthinkable in democracies. This despite the fact that there have been three coups d etat in Pakistan where the army chiefs violated the constitution and overthrew elected governments. All of them either died or were discharged with state honours.

No national honours for the elected leaders, however. The state media, including PTV and Radio Pakistan – under Generals Zia and Musharraf – have openly painted the country’s first elected prime minister as a “traitor” who allegedly broke up the country (even though General Yahya, yet another army chief, was the ruler!) and hung him, elected prime minister Benazir Bhutto as a “security risk” and elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif as a “hijacker”, dismissing their governments with contempt.

Which is why high hopes have rested on independent broadcast media – supposedly the voice of the people and the guardian of their democratic interest. Because only about 15m Pakistanis get their information from newspapers and a very large majority of the country’s 180m citizens from TV media, it is crucial that this medium understands and acts out on its principal responsibility as a watchdog of not the Establishment’s interests but the guardian of public interest.

But, is it? With the exception of the summer of 2007, when Musharraf’s fit of soldierly impulse against a Supreme Court packed with his cronies made heroes out of them from the stand in support of the constitution taken by the media, Pakistan’s independent TV has in a big part turned out to be not the educator on and articulator of the real big fight for the people’s destiny as a pluralist democracy that is played out behind the scenes. Accountability of the government – another central role of the media – is one thing but actually taking positions that undermine the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy has come astonishingly naturally to the supposedly ‘people’s media’ of the new millennium in Pakistan.

There have been at least three instances in 2011 alone that have established that the independent TV media in Pakistan have failed in their role of either informing or educating the people and on what really is happening when the people were primed to make up their minds on the issue about who really governs the country. The first was when CIA agent Raymond Davies was caught in Lahore, the second when Osama Bin Laden was found comfortably snuggled in Abbottabad and the third when Nato troops gunned down Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border.

In each of these three instances, the media was manipulated by the military Establishment into taking anti-American sentiments sky high to increase their leverage over Washington. By using the Establishment’s standard narrative of nationalism, religion and patriotism, the media got played into ignoring the basic principles of journalism that demand a professional, neutral posture based on fact rather than opinion. TV in Pakistan is full of opinion-making anchorpersons on primetime talk shows that are always blurring the line between fact and opinion and the line between opinion and analysis.

For any media professional, in its short life of a few years, the prime medium of public’s information in Pakistan has proved an embarrassing advocate of the cliché and the stereotype. “Parliament has failed,” (really? Who has cleansed the constitution of a large part of the legacies of Generals Zia and Musharraf, passed a battery of pro-women laws and got back powers from the president that didn’t belong to him?) “Military is the guardian of national frontiers,” (as if the military is not part of the government and the government and parliament are not the guardians). “The government is corrupt,” (which court has declared the government corrupt?) “Doing business secretly with the US is against the national interest,” (So, if a military government does it, it’s in national interest?)

The media in Pakistan in general has been easily manipulated, with the exception of print media in the past, by the Establishment but what is happening now is that the TV media is openly and unthinkingly strengthening the military establishment and the judiciary against the parliament, which means the media is becoming part of the story and of the manipulation – a political actor itself. How professional is this? The answer is obvious to all, except to the media.

Source: The News