Media wars in Pakistan — by Shahzad Chaudhry

Along with projecting oneself as a peacenik, bashing the military is the easiest route to establishing the credentials of intellectual elitism in the overly expressive socio-political environment of Pakistan

An electronic media explosion in this country has thrust open the need for presenters and experts, and they both are not easy to find. The number of news channels, and most importantly, the interest that the viewing public seemingly indicates in those — mind you, during peak viewing hours — is unprecedented and unmatched elsewhere in the world. I remain convinced of the fact that regardless of our rate of literacy, the political awareness of our people has always remained very high.

Many years back, while attending a professional military school in the US, I conducted a personal survey to determine how many mid-level American military officers knew the name of their service chief and the secretary of the air force; amongst some 20 odd Americans, none could name either. Lest this bit should be manipulated by ‘experts’ to yet again prove that that is why the US remains the most democratic country in the world because even within the military, the military has no pre-eminence, it is worth noting that, sadly, most Americans may not be able to name their major political characters too.

Here at home, every thara and baithak convenes without fail at an appointed time to discuss the issues of the day at the national level, invariably transcending into the geo-political. The US, India, Afghanistan, terrorism, the economy, power and energy shortages, the fauj, and even more notably the performance of major political parties and their leaderships, all get a serious mention. The 24/7 news culture, heavily punctuated with TV talk shows, adds the necessary spice to keep the business of politics, and all that surrounds it, as the centrepiece of Pakistan’s cultural life. Within this, the numerous sprouting TV channels survive with unrestrained glee — their coffers well compensated through heavy advertisement.

Three distinct levels of TV discussions dominate the scene. Each has to do with the level of competence and intellectual depth of the presenter, the competitive rating of the programme or the channel and the sense of assurance that it generates, and largely to what level the programme will fall in the hope of enticing friction, noise and confrontation among the panellists. Sadly, some competent anchors too resort to this cheap thrill, for that has become the way of life for both the presenter and the programme and what they perceive is going to keep the viewers engaged. But then there are those who carry the confidence to bring issues of national importance into a discussion and with their own reservoir of intellect, competence and wisdom, guide the discussion through to seek implementable solutions. They do not violate the sense of national interest and seek improved cohesion and integration. The third category of talk shows is one where a panellist or two are in collusion with the presenter, the theme and the intent having been discussed already between them at some point in time, and the intent is solely to show an institution or an organisation in a very bad light. Such programmes, their sponsors and those who conceive the programme end up appearing mean, subjective and shorn of any nationalistic sensitivity. Such producers or presenters mar objectivity with their own perceptions and beliefs and choose panellists who will help deliver the ultimate verdict, which is prejudged in their minds, and end up losing credibility. This last plank of TV presentations is what has driven another parallel trend and a mindset in our midst, forcing a discourse that finds repeated appearance in both the broadcasting world and the print media.

Confrontation is sought by sensing an impending disagreement between institutions; an activist judiciary or a bunch of agitated lawyers will always proffer an opportunity. How we mainstream this idiosyncratic disposition is but a Pakistani exclusivity. And, when the judiciary may have little to do, there is something found between the political players, who generally oblige unfailingly to present to the nation a comic opera as often as needed. The successful legislation of the 18th Amendment may just dampen such an opportunity for some time, but then there will be other occasions in the future. The most popular bashing horse is the military, particularly the Zia and Musharraf regimes — and for good reason one might add. This is normally at its peak when a military rule has just ended, but then lingers on as a continuation of a populist anti-establishment trend. The only point of conflict one may hold with the perpetrators of this increasingly rampant bashing is that a course chosen by a couple of individuals cannot consign the entire institution to ridicule. This is a dynamic rarely understood by those outside the military who seek a simplified rationality from an institution against an irrational design of its chief. Thank God, there has never been recourse to a sense of right for we may have had to suffer not one but many coups and counter-coups from within the military structures.

Bashing the military has other dividends too. Along with projecting oneself as a peacenik, it is the easiest route to establishing the credentials of intellectual elitism in the overly expressive socio-political environment of Pakistan, facilitated, without doubt, by pervasive media presence. This is a society and a culture intent on putting up a show, and stealing a march on anyone in the vicinity, even if it might entail putting at risk the edifice of the state. In this war within the media, and the race to establish oneself, all is kosher, one of the few standing institutions of the military notwithstanding.

The military tends to catch the attention of a typical brand of people: neo-democrats and those in the hunt for moorings in a cutthroat intellectual environment. Their analyses are mostly based on superficial knowledge, neither born of wisdom of experience nor the breadth of study and reflection, and worse, without ever putting pen to paper and passing the test of intellectual scrutiny and mental capacity to reflect and investigate. As with the neo-liberals who, by conviction, abhor violence and by extension the military, these are committed peaceniks, and deserve society’s recognition for their strong convictions. They deserve our respect and must be allowed freedom and space to express themselves as a counterpoint.

Most interesting though is that expanding brand of ex-militicos who find it opportune to redress their blues and establish their non-militarised credentials by being overly critical of their once beneficent institution. God knows there could be many reasons for their angst: a weak moment, an abhorrent commander, simple bad luck or a phenomenal failure that finally caught up with them. The younger they leave, the more vicious their tirade. Then there are those who have found newer masters and must do as ordained. Stereotyping the men in the military is at best elusive — they produce all kinds. One just needs to exercise care to avoid choosing a Zia or a Musharraf.

Shahzad Chaudhry is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador\04\26\story_26-4-2010_pg3_2



Latest Comments
  1. Mohsin Kamal