December Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

Despite the often justified criticisms, there have been many occasions where the electronic media has lived up to its hype.

This was most apparent during the October 2005 earthquake, when much of the electronic media managed to combine bravery, accuracy, compassion and incisiveness to provide coverage of Pakistan’s worst natural disaster.

After some initial hiccups, which can be forgiven considering this was the first time the television stations had covered an event of this magnitude, the electronic media outdid itself. At great personal risk — the Pakistan Press Foundation said that 11 journalists were killed in the earthquake — reporters showed heartbreaking footage that was surely instrumental in moving the nation to donate an unprecedented amount of money towards earthquake relief. Often travelling by foot to remote areas, these correspondents gathered accurate news items showing ways in which army rescue operations were ineffectual. The overall earthquake coverage was so comprehensive and of such high quality that it marked the first time that Pakistanis turned to local rather than foreign channels to find out what was happening in their own country. Since then, the likes of Geo, Aaj and ARY have earned enough trust that they have now taken precedence over BBC and CNN when it comes to coverage of Pakistan.

This is not to say that the coverage was perfect. Many critics, for one, felt that there were too many images of people dying and that the questioning of children who had just lost their families was not sensitive enough. Too much airtime was also given to extremist religious scholars who claimed that the earthquake was a punishment from God because Pakistan had strayed from the true Islamic path. Still, there can be little doubt that this was one occasion where the activism for which the electronic media is often maligned, helped achieve positive outcomes.

It was this same activism that led to the electronic media’s second great moment: their blow by blow coverage of the lawyers’ movement in support of the sacked chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and their triumph against the arbitrary censorship that accompanied Pervez Musharraf’s emergency declaration in November 2007. Taken off the air, many prominent talk show hosts, including Hamid Mir and Talat Hussain, took a stand and continued with their shows on the streets of Pakistan. The public support they received during these road shows played a significant part in the comparatively speedy reinstatement of the television channels. They also demonstrated decisively that the electronic media was now a major political actor, with a capacity to shape and change policy, which has been a double-edged sword, as this power has not always been wielded wisely.

The electronic media’s new-found realisation of their power had actually first been demonstrated a few months earlier, during the standoff at the Lal Masjid. Already bitterly opposed to Musharraf because of his decision to sack then-chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, most anchors and talk show hosts launched a vicious attack on the president for daring to “kill his own people.” Some of the brightest minds in journalism banished any thought of nuance, ignoring that the militants and clerics holed up inside the mosque were challenging the authority of the state in the capital city and that several anchors had suggested that the government establish its writ.

So eager was most of the electronic media to oppose Musharraf, they violated journalistic norms that are practiced by the free media the world over, including reporting on troop movements. Giving away military positions was the height of irresponsibility and it clearly amounted to taking sides as it gave time and opportunity to the clerics holed up inside the Lal Masjid to formulate a response.

The role of the talk show hosts on most channels was also quite shameful. Cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi became something of a media darling, giving multiple interviews to the top talk shows. Instead of being stringently cross-examined, however, many hosts preferred to give him advice on his struggle against the government, with a couple going so far as to vocally disapprove and accuse him of surrender when he suggested he may lay down his arms. Some talk show hosts also preferred playing the role of negotiators rather than journalists, and tried to set up meetings between Ghazi and various government officials, all to be aired live on their show, of course. This was the first, although certainly not the last, time that the electronic media tried to create the news rather than report on it.

Equally unprofessional was the pantomime on PTV, which convinced (and forced) Maulana Aziz to reenact his capture, complete in a burqa, which was unveiled as the interview began. This humilitation was only the most extreme example of television stations blurring the line between fact and fiction, news and manufactured controversy.

Many critics contend that the fiasco that was the Lal Masjid coverage showed that the media was in the tank for the militants. That criticism is only buttressed by the presence of numerous religious talk shows which pander to the most extremist elements of Pakistani society.

By far the most popular — and controversial — of these hosts is “Dr” Aamir Liaquat, who hosts Aalim Online on Geo. This former minister was first in the news when it was discovered that his doctorate degree was fake, purchased online from a degree mill. He was also caught in a car with illegal tinted windows and exposed for attempting to use his clout against the policemen who apprehended him. Liaquat’s worst offence to reason came during an episode of Aalim Online, where he tried — successfully — to convince two religious scholars that members of the Ahmedi sect deserved to be killed for apostasy. This stunt, which reportedly led to the subsequent murder of some Ahmedis, was enough for him to be expelled from the MQM. Murder seems to be a subject dear to Liaquat’s heart, as he had previously backed the fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie.

While such examples are used as proof that the media is providing support to extremist elements, a case could also be made that it is the electronic media’s penchant for sensationalism that prompts such outrages. With a vast number of news channels fighting for a comparatively small viewing audience, each channel feels the need to outdo the other. This can result in some outrageous journalistic embarrassments.

The sensationalism that plagues the media manifests itself most obviously when channels kill off people before they are ready to depart. Over the past few years, various television stations have announced the deaths of Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Nusrat Bhutto when they might have been on their death beds but had not actually died. One channel was so vehement in its insistence that Ahmed Faraz had passed away when he was actually very sick, that his brother was even convinced by the news reports.

The breaking news culture, whereby channels report the most mundane of news items in breathless tones and snazzy graphics, is another example of the sensationalism, which can also been seen in the exaggerated death tolls of terrorist attacks and over-reliance on showing gruesome and disturbing images from crime scenes. The desire to be the first to report on an important story can also lead to some stunning factual errors. One channel excitedly reported that there was a plane waiting in Chaklala to take an “important” family from Islamabad on a one-way flight out of the country. This family, an obvious reference to then-president Musharraf, had already packed their bags. The only problem with that story was that none of it was true. There was no plane waiting and no one had packed their bags and a one-way ticket had not been purchased. The channel could defend themselves by saying that the president did eventually resign, but even then they were a few months too early with this “breaking” news.

While the electronic media has a decidedly mixed record, every once in a while a programme airs which indicates that the media may be reforming itself and willing to look inward and criticise their own. Such was the case on November 23, when Iftikhar Ahmed of Jawab Deh conducted a hard-hitting interview with former colleague Shahid Masood. In a brilliant forensic display, Ahmed proved that Masood had resorted to plagiarism, had a tendency to pick fights, changed his stance on the Lal Masjid situation willy-nilly and fancied himself as a political player rather than a journalist. In a follow-up segment on Aaj Kamran Khan Ke Sath, many of the statements Shahid Masood gave were proven to be outright lies. It was shown, contrary to what Masood claimed, that he had never been a classmate of Dr. Ishratul Ibad and that he was not present in the same room as Musharraf when the former president announced his resignation. Masood had also claimed that his think-tank Dialogues did not have any money and that all expenses for the group’s conferences in Dubai and the US were incurred by the attendees. One attendee, however, called in to Kamran Khan’s show to say that all expenses had been picked up by Masood.

Just when critics were satisfied that the electronic media was finally taking on one of its own, Geo News announced that Shahid Masood would be back on their airwaves with his programme Meray Mutabiq.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.