A while back, I called on a senior government official who had just retired, to discharge the customary social obligation of telling him how the vacuum created by his departure will not be filled and make other harmless, if slightly vain, small talk. He was in the immediately post-retirement profound mood and decided to indulge in high-minded reflection and said: “You know, government service is like a bottle of Shezan, it ends just as you are beginning to enjoy it”. For those who do not know of it, he was referring to an almost excessively sugary drink. I have never been a consumer of the said beverage up to this point and generally do not find ‘soft drinks’ to be particularly enticing, at least compared to those of the other kind. There are two reasons for bringing this up. Firstly, the Lahore Bar Association has banned the said brand’s products from being sold in the bar room cafeteria for the reason that it is owned by Ahmadis. The action is so silly on its face and such a sinister manifestation of primitive fanaticism that one cannot go on about it for any length without feeling redundant or repetitive. It is too obvious and too strenuous, yet needs to be fought and done so vigorously.
The second reason is that the retired bureaucrat may have been unwittingly prescient in his remark about good things ending too soon, especially pertaining to the media and the lawyers in Pakistan. It maybe a stretch, but bear with me a moment. The movement for the restoration of judiciary was revolutionary in the basic sense, and the media and the lawyers were able to defeat, and more significantly, fight an army chief and a president rolled up in one. It is hard to overstate the fact that it was a landmark in Pakistan’s political history which is largely a story of servility otherwise. The tyrant was gone, victory had been achieved, hence the hard part was over and now it should have been a breeze. Yet, just like a bottle of Shezan, the romance and integrity ended just as the time to enjoy came.
The lawyers and the media have learnt to fight as a result of the lawyers’ movement, however, it seems that they haven’t grasped who to fight, or what to fight for. It has now become a case of substituting slogans and rhetoric, which have outlived their utility for thought. A significant chunk of the support during the movement was derived from religious extremists and now the rot has clearly spread further. They were eulogised by the far religious right during the movement and now it seems they are returning the favour. W H Auden writing In Memory of W B Yeats said: “… he became his admirers”.
Most television chat shows all over the world are not really conducive to any serious dialectical exchange but the quality of our talk shows is fantastically low, even by the most relaxed standards. Recently, I forced myself to watch a segment of a talk show ostensibly discussing Balochistan, a rarity in itself. Amongst Baloch leaders, the host also had on the panel, perhaps the only other member of Musharraf’s party. That particular man, after an angry exchange of words by both sides, proceeded to issue a clear threat of murder to the son of Nawab Akbar Bugti. In the interest of fairness, Talal Bugti has openly called for murder on a prior occasion and that should be condemned as well — still the language that was used, including a direct threat of murder, while the host if not encouraged it, certainly did nothing to stop the shameful spectacle really gets one thinking about what is the objective here. The irritating and uncouth man, constituting one-half of the APML should by all means be invited on shows, and allowed to make an idiot of himself, but on Balochistan, and then being allowed to do what he did is unfortunate. If one rules out malice, then it is not a case of thinking poorly, but rather of a refusal to think at all. Seriously, at the very least, there is someone who is not doing their job properly.
The media is an industry and are in the business of making money, to pretend or demand otherwise would be naïve and unfair. However, there are professional ethics articulating the semblance of a parameter, and it is clear now, that some line was crossed a while back. Even if the argument that applying higher-than-usual standards of integrity on the media is somehow discriminatory, is accepted, I have yet to hear why it should be lower than what could be expected from an ordinary decent individual. If nothing else, they should make an effort to be worthy enough to be justifiably called the colleagues of Saleem Shahzad and the journalists being murdered in Balochistan. To make up for the deference extended to the leaders of sectarian, often terrorist organisations and retired army officials, our anchors overcompensate by outright insult and rudeness being displayed to the elected representatives. I certainly hope that no one mistakes this ill-mannerism for anything remotely indicative of courage. The justification given is that this is what the public wants. The justification is bogus and has tremendous condescension embedded in it since, it assumes an audience who are incapable or unworthy of comprehending and appreciating commonsense and civility. In any event, the spurious excuse if accepted would extend to the extinction of not only all decent journalism but also of art and literature.
The DPC (Difa-e-Pakistan Council) and its threat of violence to the media have not really gotten the media as riled up, as perhaps an exponentially-milder insinuation from the government would have. The ISPR’s not so veiled threat to the Human Rights Watch has also somehow escaped the attention of most. The great I F Stone once reportedly said that he loved the Washington Post because with the Washington Post you never knew on which page you would find the front page story. In our case with certain stories you may never find them.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 19th, 2012.