These days it’s all about the money, particularly for our television media. Anchors regularly hop from one channel to another—imagine Christiane Amanpour skipping from CNN to BBC to Al Jazeera! Most channels will do whatever it takes to get people watching. Newsreaders rattle off their hourly updates with the speed of a bullet train, their voices frequently rising to a near-shriek. This a tactic to presumably drive home the utmost importance of a news bulletin that frequently includes tabloid gossip items like which film actor has married whom, complete with shaadi-video level graphics. Pakistan is probably home to the only national news channels in the world that play actual film songs as the background music to a news report. It’s one thing, somehow, to have “Ae Watan Ke Sajeelay Jawanon” for a special segment on our war heroes, but it’s quite another to have “SheelakiJawani” as background score.
Perhaps it’s a throwback to our media mentality being derived from a previously predominantly Urdu press. Urdu newspapers have always been inclined towards hyperbole partly to sell more and partly because the language lends itself much more easily towards highly imagistic, idiomatic expression. What sounds a just a little florid in Urdu sounds downright hysterical in English. While most of us still think in Urdu even if we write in English, only some of us are able to smooth the transitional edges of the process. That’s why we end up having news reporters screeching hysterically when reporting from a location. A plane crashes? Any other normal news channel would have a serious-faced reporter calmly reporting facts from the crash site. Here one is more likely to see an absolutely frantic reporter hollering about what has just happened while the camera tries to zoom in on the goriest footage possible. If it’s Geo, you’ll also have either that insane Mister Jeem doing cartwheels on one corner of the screen, alternating with a GIF-like animated image of an aeroplane bursting into flames over and over again.
Instead of trying to calmly deliver information and a reasoned analysis, which is what the news is supposed to do, we are on television only to shriek at each other. Hosts of ‘talk’ shows have guests who constantly interrupt, speaking over each other louder and louder. The host frequently joins in, and at the end one is left praying for the electricity to conk out at the studio so at least someone’s mic goes off, or for the producer to please, please cut to an ad break. Instead of being edified, one is left exhausted and more or less just as clueless as before.
But all these things are the gripes one had when life was still at a less insane pitch than it has been since last Tuesday. This time the utter lack of delicacy and sensitivity of our news channels has been inexcusable, and I am of course referring to Maulana Abdul Aziz being given prime airtime recently. What producer in their right mind could consider, even for a brief moment, giving one of the biggest Taliban apologists—nay, collaborators—we have a national platform to air his opinions on? The entire country is devastated. Children are dead because of the brutal, speechlessly horrific mandate of these sociopaths, and instead of being part of creating a narrative that could unite a grieving nation, our news channels decide to invite the head of Lal Masjid on air. To do what? To half-heartedly acknowledge that massacring innocents is bad, but why does the government persist on going after the Taliban? How dare he sit there and have the temerity to even suggest anything other than a complete denunciation of this barbarity? He does because news channels gave him that privilege. So that people like you and me turn on their televisions and watch the shows and help raise the channel’s ratings. They obviously don’t give a flying farthing about respecting the grief of hundreds of people. Of honouring the dead. Of even just trying to piece together some intelligent account of what happened and trying to figure how why. It’s money. We still think we can talk to these people? No.
It’s the same reason why all our news channels zoom in on grieving people’s faces. It’s why, when Wasim Akram’s wife died tragically and suddenly, news channels kept zooming in on the curtained windows of the cricketer’s house, hoping for a glimpse of the heartbreak inside. Why news reporters have been shoving microphones in the faces of fathers and mothers standing shell-shocked outside their sons’ school on Tuesday, or in the hospital. They behave like cheap paparazzi, completely ignorant of kindness or decency. They just want to get the shot, so a producer can put it to a soundtrack of wailing voices and a newscaster, awkwardly posed in front of a terrible green-screened background, can sell it. It’s all gone too far, and PEMRA must begin to rein in this circus. There desperately needs to be a formal, professional code of conduct that all news channels must be expected to follow that clearly stipulates the level of graphic or disturbing content that is acceptable to be aired on national television. There should be clear and properly announced warnings about content before showing any that is unsuitable for children or sensitive people like there is on foreign channels everywhere.
The fodder for our news is always our grief and pain and terror—we rarely have anything to celebrate these days, and it is unjust and downright cruel to make a mockery of it, day after day. And until there is some kind of control, until news channels keep giving killers and people who condone paedocide a platform to spread their venom on, turn off your televisions. Don’t give these channels the viewership they need to survive. If you know people at organizations that advertise with them, write letters. Even one day of withholding ad revenue will make any channel think a hundred times before allowing this kind of “journalism”. Write and lodge a formal complaint with PEMRA (they have a form on their website) and sign the petitions against hate speech that are being circulated online. It seems a small thing, but it isn’t. It is the power of a few people that have made the FIR against Abdul Aziz happen, the power of a few teachers in that school who saved the lives of their students. Never forget the power of what seem to be a few.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org