Media and public opinion
By Hajrah Mumtaz
THAT the investigative and reportage role played by the news media can bring about substantive, visible changes in real situations is a fact that most state administrations have had to accept.
In any country where the news media are free to even a relative degree, state and other actors operate under the assumption that their actions are quite literally in the spotlight and can come under extensive review and debate as a result of media coverage. This power is what makes the news media the ‘fourth estate’ of a state and an enforcer of checks and balances.
In Pakistan we have seen a number of transgressions and inappropriate actions come to light because of the media. On the more ridiculous side recently, we have the Mianwali ‘relief camp’ visited by Prime Minister Gilani last week, which turned out to be a public relations exercise staged for, ironically, the benefit of the media. Thanks to a television news crew’s decision to return to the camp after the initial photo-op session, we know that the ‘patients’ to whom the prime minister distributed cheques had simply been rounded up for the benefit of the news crews. Now that the prime minister’s office has ordered an inquiry into the matter, it is hoped that the investigation actually does hold water and its findings will be made public.
This is a relatively minor matter, one that is more likely to raise a smile rather than serious outrage. The prime minister’s concern for the millions of people affected by the recent floods is not really in doubt. Yet this incident, seen in terms of its exposure by the media, should serve as a reminder of the mediaÂ’s power to blow away smokescreens, and should cause news organisations to dwell upon the areas where they have proved lacking in this regard.
An example that comes immediately to mind is that of the allegations being levelled by a number of human rights organisations that the country’s security establishment is resorting to illegalities in its fight against militants in the north-western parts of the country. We have seen little effort on the part of the country’s media to investigate the matter, or even cover it to the extent that its seriousness demands. There is a similar lack of focus on the situation in Balochistan and the allegations of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and reprisal attacks. Neither have we seen anywhere near the volume of reportage that is needed to present to the public a true picture of the challenges being faced by the thousands of internally displaced people who have returned to their homes.
These disparate issues, and many others, have received far from adequate coverage although their importance cannot be denied. It is true that in these cases there are difficulties of access, both because of the terrain and also because of the nature of the conflict in certain areas. But apart from a few editorials, some column inches or airtime, we have little of the sort of coverage that would befit the independent and outspoken media that we claim to be.
To be sure, Pakistan is a chaotic place and there is running news to report practically every hour of the day. Our media houses do well in this respect and immediate reports tend to reach our television screens very fast indeed. A surfeit of running news means that there are fewer resources to take on investigative reports which require much more time, manpower and funds.
Nevertheless, the country’s media industry must turn its attention towards this deficiency. Without real investigative and holistic analysis by the media, there is a danger of presenting each new issue or incident as a stand-alone, without links to a greater pattern or practice. Take, for example, a sugar or wheat shortage crisis. The running news would carry stories of long queues at the Utility Stores, statements by government functionaries about imports or price subsidies, people’s misery, etc. But without a deeper investigation into matters such as percentages of agricultural land devoted to growing sugarcane or wheat, previous years’ crop yields, possible manipulation in the supply chain and the country’s history of food shortages, the current shortage becomes a one-off crisis. There is no way for the public to understand it as a pattern linked to the country’s agricultural policies in general, and therefore no grounds to lobby for policy change.
If there is to be a future for it, Pakistan needs to change and the country’s media needs to play its role in that by breaking stories that prompt policy and other sorts of shifts and by fostering debate. The latter is an area in which the country’s electronic media have in particular become very adept. Talk shows and purported news analysis programmes abound.
Unfortunately, however, the ‘debates’ on our television screens often leave much to be desired in terms of bringing about the sort of changes that we, as a society, actually need. Indeed, there is evidence to be found that the power of the media is allowed in some cases to be appropriated and misused by some individuals touting unsavoury ideologies. In other instances, media organisations have themselves taken a dangerously right-wing line. Coverage of the Lal Masjid operation and its aftermath comes immediately to mind, for example, as does reportage of the Sufi Mohammed-brokered ‘peace deal’ with the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Swat. There are numerous instances, similarly, where some anchors and commentators have been allowed to broadcast what can only be considered inflammatory and hate speech against religious, ethnic and sectarian groups and minorities.
This is not only irresponsible but also deeply dangerous. The media do not just reflect public opinion and official policy, they also play an immensely powerful role in shaping them by creating the environment in which they happen. Amongst Pakistan’s greatest and most deeply-rooted issues are the facts that the societal mindset is increasingly right-wing on the one hand, and uninformed on the other. Instead of strengthening these mindsets, the media ought to be countering them by being both responsible and analytical in the true sense.