Media's role in promoting religiosity -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Media’s role in promoting religiosity

When Pakistan Television (PTV) started broadcasting in 1964, the few hours of transmission would commence with recitation from the Holy Quran. It was a short, perfunctory acknowledgement of Pakistan’s status as a Muslim-majority state. Ramazan and Muharram were also appropriately observed. On Christmas, the token programme on the significance of the day was broadcast, though the airwaves remained dominated by programmes on Jinnah’s birthday.

Advertising, too, was free of any religious images and messages. In fact, PTV’s code prohibited the use of mosques, azan, images of namaz, etc in advertising as it was considered an exploitation of religion for commercial purposes.

So when did the airwaves of Pakistan succumb to religiosity? Veering towards religion in programming was really more of a conscious decision. Since all insidious developments are rightly blamed on the military regime of General Ziaul Haq, so should the ‘Islamisation’ of the electronic media. In retrospect it appears that the introduction of the mullah to the idiot box was just the beginning of a trend that would have more dangerous repercussions in the coming decades.

One of the earliest programmes that promoted the most conservative interpretation of Islam and sharia was the series of lectures given by our first televangelist, Dr Israr Ahmed. His programme, “Al Huda”, quickly became popular among those in whose minds Zia had already planted seeds of doubt about what ‘true’ Islam was all about. Women’s rights, even the curtailed version granted to them, were definitely anti-Islam and those women active in the nascent women’s movement of the early 80s were special subjects of his ire.

With the advent of private television channels, the commercial potential of religion as a programming component struck media owners. The ground, as they knew, had already been laid in previous decades. From dars get-togethers to the lecture circuits of Farhat Hashmi, the middle-upper classes had already become deeply hooked on to religion.

The rabid opinions on Islam, expressed on most private television channels, soon made the government-owned PTV appear as a model of liberalism. Moreover, the incessant onslaught of religious programmes (or references to religion) on the electronic media has diminished our society’s capacity for rational thinking. Today, most debates in Pakistan are conducted in the context of Islam and sharia – from matters of every day life to issues of women and minority rights. Even more troubling are the narrow confines within which these discussions are held; the differences that arise are generally over interpretations pronounced by various clerics hogging the airwaves. While religious programmes spread religiosity and consequently enlarge their viewership, channels use this creation of ‘demand’ as a reason for the ‘supply’ of more religion.

The precarious consequences of treating religion as primetime entertainment have not been studied in depth in Pakistan. However, the link between growing intolerance and religion on air has been clearly established. In September 2008, Amir Liaquat in his talk show, “Aalim Online”, on Geo appeared to endorse the killing of Ahmadis. Some days later, three members of this community were murdered in different parts of Sindh. Neither Geo nor Liaquat showed any remorse. Liaquat’s popularity rating remained high and the channel continued to promote his show through large billboards. In drawing room conversations, references to the sayings of Amir Liaquat are even now fairly common. Musharraf is reported to have wept while watching some of his programmes, just as Zia shed tears during the sermons of Dr Israr. However, the nexus between military dictators and televangelists should be discussed elsewhere.

It is not difficult to see where bigoted opinion expressed on primetime television is leading the country. Attacks on non-Muslims are on the rise, as are incidents of sectarian killing. Self-regulation is unlikely as the propagation of religion is bringing in hard cash for many channels.

The writer is a former vice-chairman of the HRCP and has spent over three decades in advertising
Source: The Express Tribune