Media and the crisis
By I.A. Rehman
THE whole nation is worried about the possible implications of the crisis of the state, particularly as the public discourse is not only becoming more confusing by the day, but also dirtier and dirtier. The public stage has been thrown open to all kinds of busybodies and vendors of political potions.
The language of exchanges between holders of fairly high offices and the invectives being thrown around make one wonder whether these gladiators have ever heard of the bar to the use of unparliamentary words and expressions.
No surprise then that more and more people now expect the media to shield them against unsavoury fulminations. These expectations have been boosted by what many citizens think is undue importance given to Gen Musharraf’s diatribes.
If he is unaware of the convention that requires former heads of state to practise the virtues of silence, even while playing golf or enjoying perks extorted from erstwhile subjects, the media should have dismissed his return to active politics in a paragraph or so of bare announcement. There was no obligation on its part to publicise his essays in malice and slander.
Incidentally, the media need not have taken Musharraf’s assertion that he has now entered politics at its face value as everybody knows he barged into the political arena in October 1999, if not earlier. Also when he expressed regrets at his mishandling of the judiciary the media was expected to remind him of his biggest crime against Pakistan and its people Â— the subversion of the constitution – for which no apology can be accepted.
The fact is that the public space for information and discourse can be made available to political actors in proportion to their following among the people. Mr Musharraf’s fledgling party cannot be given space equal to what mass parties get. It can be argued that by giving the Musharraf party undue coverage the media is, wittingly or unwittingly, raising its stature. Until he shows that he is backed by more than a handful of protÃ©gÃ©s he deserves no more than a line or two below the weather report.
At the same time the need for reducing the encroachments on the information space by ministers and their likes has become evident. When ministers pontificate, orally or in writing, on matters outside their portfolios, they commit two wrongs. First, they are guilty of ignoring their primary duties; second, they spread confusion by expressing opinions on matters they may not be fully familiar with.
For instance, what was the need for Minister Babar Awan to dabble in history and cause offence to the late composer Khwaja Khurshid Anwar’s family and friends? This incident also underlined the need for media executives to increase their staff’s capacity to check facts mentioned by ministers, etc, in their contributions.
Perhaps it is time the government and the media found ways to bar holders of public office from writing or participating in debates on matters outside their official concern. The people do attach considerable importance to ministerial observations and can invite harm by believing them.
Unfortunately, the people’s faith in the media’s capacity to protect their rights and interests has suffered a setback by its apparent failure to secure justice in cases of assaults on journalists or interference with its own functions. Little progress has been made in the case of abduction and torture of Umar Cheema. A similar fate seems to have befallen Faisal Rajput. The robbery at the house of Sirmed Manzoor and the harassment caused to him and his wife, and the warning to them against behaving like enemies makes identification of the criminals relatively easy.
It may be necessary to remove the impression that the media has not displayed the kind of outrage these incidents warranted. A question commonly being asked is whether the media should go on using ‘government’ as a singular word or whether the time has come to reckon with states within the state.
The public is also not happy when it finds that a TV channel under attack from Pemra, cable operators or unidentified meddlers is left to fight its battles alone. Surely, the media leaders are not unaware of the advantages of unity in their own ranks.
More than anything else, the media needs to reflect on whether by concentrating solely on the get-Zardari campaign it is contributing not only to the degradation of political discourse but also to making a fair resolution of the stateÂ’s multi-dimensional crisis more and more difficult. The question is not whether Mr Zardari has been put on the rack rightly or otherwise, the issue is whether the ouster/replacement of a single individual, even if he is an overbearing head of state, will be enough to save the tottering state edifice from total collapse.
The present drift is reminiscent of the costly mistakes the people made when they held Ayub Khan solely responsible for the crisis his regime had created or when Yahya Khan’s personal habits were described as the only cause of the 1971 debacle. It was necessary to admit through a proper discourse that in both cases Pakistan came to grief because the system presided over by the self-appointed saviours could not have produced any other result. Failure to do so robbed the people, especially the opinion-makers, of the capacity to respond correctly when they were bitten again by Gen Zia and Gen Musharraf.
Today nobody can ignore the fact that the system of governance has become dysfunctional. The state has abdicated its benevolent duties and its increasing reliance on coercion has made the common citizen’s misery unbearable. The poor and the resourceless find all channels of redress blocked. In short, Pakistan faces the challenge of reconstructing the state structure, of revamping the institutions of governance, rule of law, development and public welfare.
This is a task even the nation as a whole may not find easy to accomplish. The danger is that the longer attention is focused on personalities and structural flaws are ignored the more difficult will be the process of recovery.
Tailpiece: The reservations on statements suggested above do not apply to spilling of beans by former somebodies. For instance, Lt Gen (retd) Ziauddin Butt’s disclosure of Musharraf’s pre-October 1999 plans to usurp power and former minister Harraj’s disclosure of expenses on ‘Operation Sack Jamali’ deserve prominent display. Apart from their merit as true cloak-and-dagger stories, they tell us how honest, patriotic, efficient men on horseback saved and served the republic of Pakistan after overthrowing corrupt, treacherous and incompetent politicians who had no claim to respect except that they had been elected by the rabble.
Second, if a person qualified to be the army chief and a minister known for his loud voice could not come out with the truth while the usurper of power was around, ordinary citizens cannot be blamed for keeping mum. This demolishes the theory of people’s acceptance of extra-constitutional changes through acquiescence, a theory the judiciary repeatedly used to validate absolutely indefensible coups.