Media Black Holes
For some places to get any attention, people have to die. In Balochistan, mere death is not good enough, people have to die in large numbers, better still, die due to a natural calamity since natural disasters seem to be politically neutral. As Awaran was struck by one of the most horrific earthquakes of recent times, there was hope that some people will now be aware of its existence. Talking about Awaran and Mashkai in times of peaceful seismology is tedious, primarily because it has the baggage of also talking about the causes of ‘unrest’ there. Soon after the earthquake, most television personnel had located the tragedy struck areas on the map with admirable efficiency.
Misfortune always sells. However, their fearless coverage had one problem, most media people did not know how to get there. The coastal areas of Balochistan have been blacked out for long enough and nobody had apparently factored a natural disaster in the feasibility. It was not only the media; the ‘State’ having blocked most access, except for the Frontier Corps (FC), was also at a distance. In any event, by the time that access had been established and serious coverage was to begin, nature intervened again. This time an island (later two) ‘miraculously’ floated just off Gwadar. What joy, no need to sell human misery in ‘politically volatile’ areas after all. Opportunity in adversity, from thereon the real story on television was the fascinating Islands, with the rescue efforts, deaths, etc. making side appearances. Even with the Islands, the Balochistan earthquake did not manage to make the top story for very long.
Balochistan and the conflict going there have many layers and variables, and I am certainly not equipped to pontificate on them. However, one can uncomfortably wonder about the last major earthquake we had, the reaction to and coverage of it. In October 2005, had the Margalla tower in Islamabad not collapsed, and valuable lives lost, would Kashmir and other areas have received the same attention, at least would the response have been as swift as it was? Cold and cruel as it might seem, a building collapsing in Islamabad was the wakeup call; tragedy was upon ‘us’. Balochistan generally, and Awaran specifically, has no such appeal. The earthquake and its continuing aftermath expose us for our ignorance of the past and the present.
The very little discussion on Balochistan in the media and hence, in our national conversation is largely trading cliches from both sides. One obvious reason is that most states seek to control the narrative in conflict areas. However, there is more to it. How many of the major (or even minor) advertisers are based in Balochistan? If somebody has deciphered the rating business, how many of those rating metres are in Balochistan? How many people in key positions in Media (even in proportion to population) are Baloch? How many of the ‘experts’ on Balochistan belong to that area? Nobody talks about Balochistan because there is not a market for it and because nobody talks about it, the possibility of creating a market is precluded. In the end, it just allows impunity.
Immediately after the Church blast in Peshawar, a major television news channel had the headline, “Jo log safai kartay hain, Dehshat-gardon ne unhi ka safaya kar diya”. Have we no sense of proportion, timing and decency? The competition to come up with the catchiest headline, to stand out from the rest is so intense that all basic norms of civilised society can be sacrificed at the altar of ratings.
The war that we find ourselves in right now is also a war of narrative and we are losing on that front. As the TTP continues with the murder spree, simultaneously a talk-show host fights the crusade against the teaching of ‘comparative religion’. Worse, the Punjab government bows to his idiocy and initiates a clamp down on the evil practice — surrender, now, is becoming our defining trait. A solemn moment occurred when Sikandar had taken Islamabad hostage and was asking for the imposition of Shariah or else, and when he made his demands to a top prime-time host, the gallant host’s first response was, “these are also my demands, but…”.
Whenever a programme is done on Pakistan-India relations, the television channels in their infinite wisdom deem it fit to invite the red capped clown, General Hamid Gul or Hafiz Muhammad Saeed for comment. The argument is for diversity of opinion, yet it is the other side of the divide (whatever is left of it) that will bring any diversity. Do television channels inquire into the process of becoming a ‘defence analyst’, or a self-claim is sufficient? It is not only national security, the same expert panel can double up as jurists, economists, religious scholars, basically, whatever the demand of the evening is.
The terror apologists are aplenty and a plenty of them are on television. To invite them immediately after every suicide attack to put up a defence is a bit much. Again, one can understand airing the ideas of the lunatic fringe once in a while, however, to invite the whole of the psyche ward every night?
The intention is in no way to downplay the good that the electronic media has done and there is a lot. However, the electronic media cannot view itself as an amoral, apolitical enterprise. Inviting Jamaat-i-Islami’s Syed Munawar Hasan or Mr Fareed Piracha to talk about rape and child abuse once is maybe giving the alternative view, however, continuing to do so is an ideological position.
One standard, all encompassing argument to all criticism is that this is ‘what the people want to watch’. This is an inane argument and violates the first rule of any sustainable commercial venture, namely ‘do not take your consumers as idiots’. The Pakistani media’s exponential growth (which by the way is a good thing) has meant that the media is now in a position to mould and even create demand. The self-righteousness, misplaced sense of integrity and arrogance mean insisting on ‘neutrality’. Media is under an obligation to be neutral when it comes to reporting, not with regard to opinions and opinion-making. Also, to be neutral when you are under attack is a clear ideological position, just the wrong one. Boycott the ignorant and the dishonest or, at least, try and build a semblance of a counter narrative, it will be good for business in the long run.