The right-wing mindset
By Hajrah Mumtaz
The press, and now the electronic news media, are sometimes referred to as the Fourth Estate, the commonly understood meaning of this term referring to journalism’s ability and responsibility to keep a watchful eye on governments, legislatures and their subsidiaries. The theory is that the press constitutes an objective and dispassionate observer that can and often does act as a medium of communication between the rulers and the ruled.
In many parts of the world, this theory is often proved in practice. Some of the most infamous political deeds done across the world have come to light because of journalists’ efforts, the examples ranging from Watergate to the investigations of Tehelka.com, or prisoner abuses at Guantanamo. On most occasions, such exposes have ultimately proved beneficial to the public good, either by challenging illegal or unethical moves taken by those in power, or by exposing cover-ups and infringements on citizens’ rights and civil liberties. Upon current evidence, however, the bulk of Pakistan’s news media Â– particularly the electronic media — do not meet these criteria. Much of the space that ought to be filled with facts is given over to debate and analysis which, too often, is comprised of personal views rather than a genuine effort to unpick the strands of the whys and hows. Furthermore, Pakistan’s media organisations also display a definite predilection for the right with only token attempts being made towards objectivity. Consider, for example, how the media debate about the Taliban menace was, in the early months, conducted mainly on the basis of the validity and scope of the Shariah as a form of governance rather than in terms of, for instance, cross-border infiltration by armed groups from Afghanistan, citizens’ constitutional and fundamental freedoms, or the threat to the writ of the government. The earlier operations were severely criticised, particularly on television, on mainly the grounds of the Muslim brotherhood and the relative merits of an ‘Islamic’ system over a ‘westernÂ’ one.
Some of this pattern can be explained by the fact that since governments in Pakistan have over the years proved deficient in many aspects, the media have developed a reflexively oppositional stance to the establishment. Trained over the decades to decry military takeovers and coups, shady behind-the-scenes deals and corruption — both moral and financial Â– in every circle from the military to political to bureaucratic, the people working in the media reflexively occupy the opposition benches in any new governmental order. And, in doing so, the media lose their claim to objectivity and dispassionate analysis.
But it takes more than this to explain the right-wing and obscurantist trends displayed by the media in Pakistan. Reflexive opposition does not explain why, for example, so many representatives of so many news channels took, as a default position, the Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz’s side during that raid, particularly in the run-up to the stand-off. The Jamia Hafsa women had been in the news for weeks, after all. Yet much of debate revolved around their ideological aims and — again — the scope and viability of Shariah, rather than the central illegality of forcibly occupying a library.
It could be that education is one the reasons behind this unquestioned right-wing stance — and one that is most often a default position rather than an actively thought-out policy — taken by the media. The bulk of the people working in the news media today — particularly those that have some years of experience and are now rising to decision- and policy-making positions — are roughly between 30 and 45 years of age. This is the generation that was in school or just entering college — ie in the formative years of their intellectual abilities — at the time when General Zia embarked upon his Islamisation project.
These were the first guinea pigs, with compulsory Islamiat and Pakistan Studies and all their associated ills of a re-written and often blatantly inaccurate history, a latent promotion of radicalism, and a nationalistic jingoism. This generation, more than any other, perhaps, absorbed the constructed glories of the army and the evil incarnate view of India, the importance of the theory of ‘strategic depth’, the assumption that the country was predominantly Sunni and that other sects — indeed, other religions — were a deviance from the norm. In addition to the need to given the Afghan ‘jihad’ legitimacy, there were other factors at play after all: Saudi Arabia, for example, which poured huge sums of money into the country in an attempt to neutralise a potential threat from Iran. To these beginnings can be traced societal shifts such as the demonisation of the indigenous subcontinental culture — which was portrayed as ‘HinduÂ’ culture — and the ideological linking of Pakistan with Saudi Arabia. To these beginnings can be traced the demise of ‘Khudahafiz’ in favour of ‘Allah hafiz’ and ‘salaat’ in favour of ‘namaaz’.
Simultaneously, the 80s were also the decade marked by a sudden plummeting of standards of education. As the curricula were tinkered and experimented with, a generation of Pakistanis ended up with an ‘education’ that was scarcely more than literacy given substance by indoctrination.
Two and half decades later, this generation is at the point of taking over the helm of the country’s affairs. At least in the media, it is already in positions of power. Is it any wonder, then, that the debate is confused and ideologically warped?