The creation of ignorance and hate speech by Pakistani media – by Kamila Hayat

The creation of ignorance

There can be no doubt that the past seven years, since private media channels went on air in late 2002, have created a kind of revolution in the country.

Never before in the history of Pakistan have so many different opinions aired so openly on television channels. The majority are fiercely hostile to the government. For those of us who remember the long years when only PTV flicked onto air during the 1980s broadcasting seemingly endless images of the late General Ziaul Haq and his henchmen, the change is nothing short of startling. It is also encouraging that this media has adopted a life and will of its own, fighting back against attempts to stifle it – most notably in 2007 when the channels run by Geo, and more briefly several other networks, were taken off the airwaves by the Musharraf regime.

But, while the electronic media has certainly opened up debate on all kinds of issues and with its tabloid-style reporting created a kind of obsession with news, the question is also what thought processes it is encouraging. The volume of religious or pseudo-religious programmes on television, when all the channels are taken collectively, is enormous. Some analysis suggests it is indeed higher than any other kind of programming. Cable operators report that channels which exclusively broadcast religious programmes are much in demand, with some households tuning out music and entertainment channels, and leaving only these to play on. The same kind of narrow morality that has been a factor in the Basant ban which has so drastically altered the Lahore winter skyscape appears to apply here. Reflecting the views of the Taliban, people see TV as essentially ‘evil’, but religious programmes as good. Even though he has mercifully vanished from our screens, the ghost of Zia lives on.

A new report, produced by Islamabad-based researchers, documents how religious programmes depict women, non-Muslims and key national issues. The results, with the full report yet to be released, look potentially worrying. The authors of the study call on parliament, the judiciary and PEMRA to check programming that promotes hatred, goes against the rule of law or channels that are not licensed but still offered to viewers by cable operators. It indeed also notes how a ‘good Muslim’ is presented by these programmes and the advertisements played during the broadcasts, with extortions to do more than practice the tenets of faith by donating money to specific causes or otherwise supporting them.

Beyond religion, it would be interesting also to study the extent to which television promotes superstition, in all its various forms, with programmes that delve into the possible presence of ghosts in our midst or encourage callers to discover their ‘future’ by speaking to soothsayers of various kinds. Some channels put out programmes that suggest various semi-religious means be used to combat illness. Others insist medicines for conditions such as diabetes be abandoned in favour of concoctions of various kinds. Conventional practitioners, also through television, have in some cases described the damage such advice can cause. In some cases it is believed to have resulted even in avoidable death.

Ignorance comes in many forms. On our channels, often hosting ‘religious’ programmes, we have hosts who promote hatred against non-Muslims, others who frequently speak on channels glorify the Taliban, advocate the Pakistan military engage in a global battle to defeat anti-Muslim forces led by India and Zionists and promotes violence in various ways. In some cases the purpose seems to be to specifically direct messages the way of the urban youth – with some popular ‘hosts’ combining the ideas listed above with appreciation for ‘modern’ lifestyles. Judging by the messages posted on websites, and the views of many younger people, it appears a large number are taken in. Some seem to believe the impossible dreams of glory and greatness through military conquest put out to them, failing to recognise that reducing India to a dot on the map is not something that can, in the real world, happen. It is quite conceivable that the establishment has a role in the promotion of some of the personalities supporting these views and the campaigns that aim to convert them into heroes. It is worth noting that a specific effort seems to be made to target the youth, especially those who may in the future influence opinion.

Other programmes appear to be aimed at women, sometimes exploiting their vulnerabilities. Like the Taliban found in Swat, women can determine a great deal within homes. Surveys also show that they are among the most ardent viewers of television programmes, selecting most often a mix of Indian soaps and their depiction of reality alongside religious shows and a mix of other programming.

It is of course the weaknesses of our political parties and their many failings that have pushed people into the attractive world of fantasy. In times when Pakistan ranks as a nation with amongst the lowest development indicators in the world and when its citizens are a constant target of suspicion at international airports and other places, it is perhaps tempting to believe that our forces could actually capture much of the world or that the solution to our problems lies in adopting a more passionately religious lifestyle. Realistic, ‘pro-people’ solutions, in the form of a political agenda that includes major land reforms and the adoption of other policies that could benefit ordinary people, have not been effectively put forward by our political parties, including those that claim to lean to the left.

The mindset created by the media is a rather mixed one. The exposure to an unrelenting diet of TV, with sets staying on for almost all the 24 hours of the day in many households, has altered lives. Thinking has also changed. The new openness we see is without doubt positive. Media images of the flogging of a young woman in Swat, or more recently torture by the police, have played a part in shaping attitudes. They have also generated debate on all kinds of topics that had for decades remained taboo in our society. But the electronic media has in other cases also pushed thought in a specific direction taking it towards obscurantism and ignorance – and this is a disturbing trend in a society that badly needs meaningful change.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

Source: The News



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