July Issue 2019
The Enforced Disappearance of the Media
First, a word of caution for the readers of this article. I know that there are not going to be many and that is why I hope they realise that they belong to an endangered species. It would be interesting if one could actually count their numbers. And that, to a considerable extent, is the story of the media in Pakistan.
When I look back at my own experience of being a journalist for more than 50 years – yes, it has been that long – I feel overwhelmed with a sense of loss. Some realities about the present state of the media in Pakistan have manifested themselves in the social media and in occasional commentaries in the foreign press. The entire picture, though, is not visible to all observers.
When we talk about the media, the issue of freedom becomes the first point of reference. I believe that the present is the worst time for the media in Pakistan, even worse than the dark era of General Zia-ul-Haq.
This is an incredible assertion because the media universe has changed and expanded beyond imagination and the social media has redefined the rules of the game. But consider this variance. In Zia’s time, the dominant spirit was of defiance and, consequently, hope. Now, the establishment’s narrative is victorious in the same manner as an invading army would run over a poorly defended territory. Dissent, in any meaningful way, is not possible.
What is happening now, and this is a dreadful interpretation, is that the media is becoming redundant. It is unable to play its assigned role. Or, in a more scary formulation, you could talk about the enforced disappearance of the media. No one is in a position to monitor its condition in this state of captivity.
To understand the predicament of the Pakistani media, you should study the drift of Pakistani society. Gradually, this society is becoming incapable of breeding any sensible, informed and reasoned discourse. In that sense, it is powerless to nurture a free and professionally proficient media. After all, the media’s status is contingent upon a society’s social and intellectual resources. On this front, Pakistan is more impoverished than it is in material terms.
Therefore, our media has to suffer the consequences of not just the restrictions imposed by the powers that be but also a political, cultural and intellectual environment that does not simply let it breathe. For instance, where are the readers of newspapers, magazines and other print material? Pakistan is falling behind other South Asian countries in almost all globally certified indicators of social development. But I think its reading habits are so abysmally low that any statistical measure of this inadequacy will make us want to die of shame.
Yes, the situation is really that bad. That people have moved to the digital media is not a valid excuse for us. Unlike most western countries, the print media is still flourishing in India and China. But the problem is not just the poor reach of our print media. Our ‘educated’ people do not read. Period.
One might say that they are at least watching news channels and playing the social media game. I have very ambivalent feelings about social media and for many reasons, I have abstained from it. It certainly has its uses in times of censorship. I also see it as a means of self-gratification. But it is not the real thing – I mean it is not journalism.
News channels, though, deserve some attention. It can be said that only those who are literate can read printed material. Everyone can watch television. So, what is the contribution of the news channels, particularly talk shows, to the quality and purpose of the national discourse? What standards of debate and discussions do these channels uphold? What is the level of journalism, in terms of ethics and professionalism, that these channels maintain?
It boggles the mind to learn that around 100 talk shows are telecast every day by our many news channels. Yes, one hundred. Now imagine the number of analysts and critics and experts on various subjects that would be needed to run the show. In any case, we know what we have.
In the late fifties, a landmark study examined the influence of mass media in the U.K. by Richard Hoggart. His ‘Uses of Literacy’ is a major non-fiction book in the English language. The idea was to show how the spread of literacy had changed popular culture. I mention this to suggest that someone should do a similar study of what talk shows have contributed to our political culture. It could be titled as ‘Uses of Illiteracy.’
In the news media, one should not underestimate the primacy of print. In a digital world, the role that newspapers and magazines play has changed. They provide the necessary background and perspective to make sense of what is happening. Their availability on the net further extends their influence. I do not think that the United States would be the same country if The New York Times were not there.
As the editor of an English daily many years ago, I was fond of quoting the American playwright, Arthur Miller, who had said that a newspaper is the nation talking to itself. Our tragedy is that Pakistan is not talking to itself. It is not literate enough to be able to do that, with language also being a problem. We provide a good example of what happens to a society that is unable to communicate with itself and allows extremism and intolerance to flourish.
During Zia’s rule, I was writing a professedly dissident column in Dawn, and was usually compelled to writing between the lines. I would regularly meet people in social circles who were readers of my column. I was tempted to believe that it had made some impact. Nothing like that seems possible now. As an aside, I wonder if I am wasting my time in writing this piece.
I have been a journalist for more than 50 years and now is the time for me to ride into the sunset. But let me conclude with an anecdote from the days when I began my professional journey. Those were the days of Ayub Khan’s military rule and a senior, wiser friend questioned my decision to become a journalist when there was no democracy and the press was not free.
I remember my response, which I thought was very intelligent. I said: “This cannot last. How long do you think the military can rule this country?”
Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.