The myth of media freedom -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

The myth of media freedom

By: Afiya S Zia

The writer is an independent researcher who has also written for The News, Dawn, The Friday Times and EPW. She is also a member of the Women’s Action Forum

Ironically, ever since the Pakistani media was ‘liberated’ by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, its content, quality and personalities have become restricted to simplistic, distracting and damaging standards. Religious conservatives, who used to be limited to communicating their hate-inspired messages through informal channels, such as mosques, madrassas and the vernacular press, are now able to ‘freely’ and formally broadcast their hate-laced moral pietism against non-Muslim Others.

Their ideological neighbours, the political conservatives, target liberal politicians in the same style. Both sets are now ‘free’ to even post messages inciting the murder of minorities or sympathetic politicians on the mainstream electronic media.

Meanwhile, self-important and injured liberals have never quite recovered from the Zia censorship years such that, their sub-consciences remain self-censored. Better still, many have realised that continued refuge in the world of NGO-ised cultural and media productions is too lucrative to abandon for the mainstream. The conservatives’ sweeping control over the media restricts the liberals to twittering and tweeting their outrage, as well as taking pride in their appearance and work with the foreign media. Occasionally, they get to be self-congratulatory about their fringe influence via social media.

Interestingly, the conservatives bear no qualms about their armchair rhetoric and tactics, while liberals engage in bitter in-fights in their competitive drive to discredit each other. Accusing each other of being armchair activists is especially ironic as ‘active’ liberals tweet such criticism from the comforts of their securitised homes while tapping their wireless devices from, the armchair.

Both conservatives and a section of liberals, who are locally educated, dismiss the foreign educated ‘burger’ liberals or NGO-ised liberal elite. However, foreign educated conservatives, who work with Arab-funded organisations or charities, do not similarly caricaturise each other. This split amongst liberal thinkers is not based on political ideals but more on personal perceptions, professional envy and/or what used to be known as, false consciousness in the old days. This split de-legitimises and weakens the case for a liberal society even further.

The irony of ‘media freedom’ continues on other levels. On the occasion that a vigilante TV host may have been fired by a media house for an ‘excessive’ view, s/he has been promptly rewarded and re-hired, at a higher salary by a competing channel. In the case of one large media group, it even re-hired a foul-mouthed, hate-inciting but populist figure, after a hiatus! Meanwhile, opportunist liberal/moderate anchors working at the offending channel, not wanting to be left behind, used their principled outrage at the ‘questionable media ethics’ by threatening to resign. But instead, such threats have worked as leverage and allowed them to negotiate higher salaries for staying on. Not to be outdone on the media wall of fame for hypocrisy, editors and producers say they can’t argue The Ratings and so, instead of submitting to a military dictator, this time they are content to defer to the dictates of The Market instead. A reality show on the lines of “Survivor”, which pits people of different sects and faiths against each other may just be the ultimate rating success that we can look forward to.

The ‘free’media has created a limiting political construct of the ‘jihad-loving conservative’ and the ‘America-loving fascist liberal’, in the imagination of media consumers in Pakistan. This distracts viewers from core issues regarding the role of the media, the meaning of freedom, the lines of private and public and most importantly, the beneficiary of this entire distracting discussion — the military.

The over-riding focus of the media over the last five years has been almost exclusively on the executive-judiciary tussle, cases of blasphemy and religious militancy, the issue of sovereignty whether exemplified by memogate, drones or Salala and more recently, immorality. The core of such ‘media worthy’ items is informed by abstractions, that is, power, piety, independence and sexuality, respectively. Debates over intangibles disguise the elephant in the room.

The NRO/Swiss letter/memogate issues do not allow for a concerted judicial inquiry into continued political meddling by the army. Religious extremism remains stubbornly linked to ‘foreign’ relationships that must be reversed, while foreign military aid remains unquestioned. Immorality is apparently an Indian import, which indirectly justifies the military status quo. Anyone who wishes to begin a discussion along these themes is dismissed as Westernised or unpatriotic.

So instead, such ideas are thrashed out crudely in sound-bites and crass verbal wrestling matches on TV. Often representatives are eliminated altogether and anchors engage in one-man political evangelism all by themselves. These views are rarely representative, rather, the media actively seeks caricatures to create the spectacle that is important for visual effect. As consumers we need to resist absorbing this as real information.

At the height of the lawyers’ movement in 2007, one argued that in the absence of an independent political platform or decent academic space, the media was, perhaps, the only forum for socio-political conversations to take place. Instead, it has become clear that until the larger political narrative is firmly owned and dominated by parliament and public representatives, then small-time actors such as media anchors, journalists, religious personalities and yes, vigilantes will take over and determine the political agenda.

Contesting political ideologies are a regular and quite healthy feature of any democracy. In Pakistan, instead of answering to their constituents, politicians have resorted to joining this race to the bottom of such an imagined competition between the liberals and conservatives. The divide widens to dangerous distraction when media owners blur the lines between information and the spectacle. Then commentators are reduced to caricatures and issues become hostage to anchors using their channels as pulpits.

The fourth estate may be a platform for the people but it is not representative of or by the people.It is time to focus on material discussions rather than abstractions. Let the media anchors work harder and discuss substantive rather than abstract moral dilemmas. The media may not be neutral but perhaps it should credit the people with more reason, intelligence and aspiration than the current policies reflect.

The Express Tribune