Media spin cycle
Appeasement knows no bounds in Pakistan. The interior ministry has released Taliban prisoners in a ‘goodwill’ gesture. As we have it, there is no uproar that these mass murderers will roam the streets our children play in. Instead, the Speaker was asked by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) to call the Information Minister’s attention to obscenity in television advertisements. They say these ads with women are threatening to “spoil our Islamic society”. I beg to be corrected if I understand that their priority is to fight skin and not terror. What is it about supple creamy skin that is more of a national security threat than bomb blasts, assassinations and body mutilations?
The media gurus — those who are not being shot at — are finding it tough to question this absurdity. Others are taking advantage of the discord, fear and chaos to provide a new bogyman everyday on prime time television and in Urdu newspaper columns. They have imagined that the lowest denominator of the masses lives in Tora Bora and want only to emulate Mohammad Atta. They have imagined that everyone in Pakistan needs validation from the priests, comprising mentally unstable psychopaths they honour by calling on their talk shows, ending with shouting matches and inflated ratings.
In this assumption, the media has given not just space and authenticity to religious fascism and the rigid calls to conformity it demands, but it has also increasingly helped it to be mirrored by the restless middle class. With living rooms reverberating fatwas, it is difficult to imagine anything outside the fold of a sacrilege-obsessed populace. Society, at any given time, hounds those it feels are working against its dominant social values. Yet sadly, the media in Pakistan is manufacturing dominant values borrowed heavily from the plague of rabid religiosity.
In the US, in 2010, we had the case of the resignation of Shirley Sherrod from the position of Georgia state director of rural development in the US department of agriculture. She was practically framed by the spin cycle of journalists and politicians who demanded her resignation for what seemed like racist remarks. Her clarifications were muddled under the frenzy of right-leaning talk show hosts like Bill O’ Riley on Fox News who named and shamed her, and wanted her out. When she was asked to leave by the Obama administration it turned out her remarks were not racist but, in fact, the blogs that broke the story were only outlining the audience’s reaction to Sherrod’s story and not her comments themselves.
The febrile atmosphere that surrounds holy cows of any society can be dangerous and paralysing. In our case the stakes are higher; one does not just lose livelihood, one loses one’s life — as evident from Salmaan Taseer’s murder by his own elite guard after he saw the media admonish Taseer as the protector of a blasphemous Christian woman.
Also, in our case one can hardly take recourse to law as Shirley Sherrod did. The judicial system here is paralysed when it comes to making judgements about those who are slandered or framed if the opposition is holding up the ‘Islam-in-danger’ banner. This is perhaps why those recently insinuated as being foreign agents by our equivalent of Bill O’ Riley, chose to remain silent against the onslaught.
Emboldened by the fact that no one speaks out, these shows went ahead to make ludicrous claims about NGOs in general and internet freedom organisations in particular. Among the claims was that NGOs based in Pakistan were getting foreign funding and were driving a foreign agenda in Pakistan, that much of this money was unregulated and unmonitored and hardly used for the ultimate aim that it claimed to provide interventions in.
Crisis-struck Pakistan, from the floods to the earthquakes that have devastated the country in this past decade, has been saved by interventions from abroad via established NGOs. These vilified NGOs were the ones that were able to mobilise without wasting funds in new administrative set up costs. If we cannot make a substantial case for the development sector (and the contributions are tremendous), we should at least have the shame to be grateful for those thousands of Pakistani souls saved, fed, healed in those times of need, which we could never service on our own.
The media spin is more dangerous than a political party giving McCarthyist cries of saving the country and its honour. It is more dangerous because there comes with it the wave of frenzy-bound madmen who have not learned to differentiate between authority and truth. We must demand that our airwaves and newspaper real estate are spent on the real emergency: education, healthcare, economic development and governance.