A group of frighteningly brilliant and youthful professionals seemed dominating the reception that Mark Davidson, the US Counselor for Public Affairs, held at his residence Friday evening. The event facilitated two communication experts from Open Source at Brown University –Chris Lydon and Ben Mandelkern- to meet with local media persons.
Instead of hailing from the so-called mainstream media, most guests that I met there would introduce themselves as ‘communication strategists’. Some are very active on social media and have an impressive list of persons following them on twitter etc. Tazeen Javed was also there. I had discovered her deliriously tweeting during the feverish moments of the semi final at Mohali between the cricket teams of India and Pakistan. In person, she appeared creatively hilarious as well.
The guests from the US were keen to know if the yet unresolved mystery of Saleem Shahzad’s murder after kidnapping, had frightened the free-spirited type journalists in Pakistan. Above all, how many Pakistanis were using Facebook and Twitter and what kind of moods dominated these spaces. There also were questions related to the number and range of radio and television outfits, essentially focusing to convey a social message. And, of course, there were questions that wondered whether the social media can bring the sort of change that the ‘Arab spring’ has presumably brought to the Middle East since Egypt’s Tehrir Square. Most of our youthful professionals proudly reported that social media would also rattle the status quo in Pakistan.
Between you and me, I always feel cynically bitter when some of our American friends pronounce their devotional attachment to the concept of a free media. After all, I had experienced my growth in journalism during the dark days of General Zia. Although a set of iconic seniors were hired as editors by the English newspaper that I started with from Islamabad in the early 1980s, my copies were vetted by a group of clerks sitting in the ministry of information those days. They would relish the absolute control when it would come to decide what was printable, not an appropriately trained editor.
The censor drew strength and legitimacy from a military dictator, who felt no shame to order public flogging of four journalists. Yet, the same dictator was protected, promoted and projected all across ‘the free world’ as the one and only, diligently providing strategic depths to an independent struggle in Afghanistan against the devilish Soviet Union, with arms provided by the CIA and money and preachers coming from Saudi Arabia.
Another sly manipulator of media in Khaki, General Musharraf, remained a ‘tight buddy’ of the US, until only yesterday. It is time that ‘communication strategists’ from the West realized that the native media started its growth while questioning the British colonial Raj. Defying dictatorial elites since independence, our media learnt the art of telling uncomfortable stories and never hesitated, when it came to pay the price for saying them ‘in their face.’
Most of the youthful professionals that I talked to impressed me with their enthusiasm. They were awfully familiar with all the latest tools and gadgets to communicate with broader segments of communities. But they all seemed oblivious to a frightening reality that while the ‘prophets with a liberal message’ were still searching for ‘communication strategies,’ there used to be someone with the name of Maulana Fazulullah. For many years, he swayed thousands in once the ‘liberal and scenic Valley of Swat’ with a deadly message. Women were specifically ‘targeted’ by him.
In droves they would appear before him to donate the gold they possessed and jealously guarded. What made him click? No ‘communication strategist’ has yet provided a convincing answer to this question.
Similarly, Jamshed Dasti, a PPP MNA from Muzzafarghar, deserves a serious academic study. For weeks and weeks, all urban anchors who dominate screens of local TV channels between 7pm and midnight, appeared as if to have ganged up to project him as an uncouth villain, who had reached the National Assembly on the basis of a fake degree. The Supreme Court summoned him to prove his ‘academic credentials.’ Instead of showing any, he resigned from the seat and again contested for the bye-election and voters in his constituency sent him back to the assembly with an impressive majority. Although thoroughly enjoying the generous hospitality of Mark Davidson and savouring the privilege of talking to so many youthful ‘communicators,’ I came home from the reception with more questions rather than answers.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2011.