Facebook ban: our polarising press


George Fulton May 25, 2010

The Facebook ban is a fascinating story, not because of the actual news, but because of what its media coverage reveals about our increasingly fragmented society. Since the story erupted last week acres of newsprint and hours of TV coverage have been dedicated to a story that, for the vast majority of Pakistanis, is an irrelevance. Loadshedding, inflation unemployment and swollen lakes are more pressing matters than an immature, offensive internet page created in Seattle. Yet you wouldn’t have guessed this by the media’s response over the past week.

I am in no way condoning the blasphemous content of the Prophet (pbuh). But for most people Facebook is a foreign land unrelated to their daily lives. In a country of 160 million people only 18 million people are online, of which an estimated 1.5 million have a Facebook account. So potentially less than one per cent of the population would have been able to access the offending material. Nor were most people even aware of the offending content prior to the Lahore High Court’s decision.

So why the distorted media interest in this story? Because the story directly affected the two small, yet influential, social groups that control our media. Great swathes of our Urdu press and electronic media represent the mindset of the socially conservative and reactionary urban middle class. It was this group that was horrified by the blasphemous content, wanted to generate populist outrage and have websites banned. Meanwhile, the English press, to which this paper firmly belongs, epitomised the values of the western educated, socially progressive elite who were equally horrified by what it saw as overzealous censorship by the LHC. It was also this group that happened to be the overwhelming losers of the Facebook ban.

Each side of this cultural divide cried foul. Articles, columns, talk shows all spewed forth — each supporting the prejudices of their own demographic. The op-ed pages of this organ have been overwhelmingly against the ban. Meanwhile, the views expressed in its sister publication, the Daily Express, have been quite the contrary.

But the media have failed spectacularly in their coverage of this story to educate or enlighten their respective constituencies. There has been little attempt by either side to understand the opposing position. Have we bothered to ask our middle class about their underlying concerns? About the perceived erosion of their values and what they see as creeping westernisation and vulgarity in their culture? Or is it easier just to label them as ignorant cretins and be done with it? Meanwhile, has the Urdu media attempted to comprehend why the English educated elite are so incensed by the state’s attempts at curbing their freedoms and censoring content?

Our polarising press is increasingly looking like one of those late night political talk shows in which everybody’s talking (or shouting), but nobody’s listening. The stridency in which the English and Urdu media scream their respective positions only goes to further exacerbate this country’s widening cultural and social divide. A responsible media shouldn’t confirm one’s own prejudices, but instead confound them. We need to understand and listen to opposing arguments and start listening to our fellow countrymen on the opposite side of the tracks. Perhaps only then can we go some way to resolving the deep cultural and social divisions that segregate this country.

Meanwhile, the Urdu and English media continue to overlook vast portions of the populace — the rural and the poor. Their voice remains largely ignored whilst the media classes indulgently gaze at their navels.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 26th, 2010.

COMMENTS (18)

Mehroz Siraj Sadruddin | 10 years ago | Reply I would also like you guys and George to read the following link: http://theburningissue.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/a-case-of-misplaced-priorities/ Any feedbacks on this would be appreciated! :) REgards, Mehroz!
Mehroz Siraj Sadruddin | 10 years ago | Reply Also, those of the mullahs who came out on the streets to protest against facebook, where the hell were they when the Tehrik-E-Taliban and other terrorist groups had waged a near terror blood-bath in Pakistan's main cities last year, ahead of the Operation Rah-I-Nijat?? Was their Islam sleeping in graveyards at that time?? Why havent these people spoken about the plight of the victims of the Hunza Valley landslide or the people killed in the recent attacks at mosques in Lahore? Is it so because these victims and affected communities belonged to minority groups? why dont these people realize that in its real emphasis on the sanctity of human life, the Holy Quran creates distinction between human life on the basis of race, ethnicity, colour, religious, sexual and political orientation? Why do these people not acknowledge this fact? Why is it so that these mullahs dont understand that even people of these minority groups are Pakistanis first and therefore their right to safety, security and freedom of religious practice and expression should remain unfettered and very much guaranteed by the state? It is ironic that those people who talk about making Pakistan an 'Islamic' state (I wonder what their definition of Islam really is)really forget the fact that our founding fathers including the Quaid-E-Azam and Allama Iqbal had really envisaged Pakistan to be a pluralistic nation where rights of minorities would be protected by the state, tooth and nail and that religion was supposed to be a private matter which had nothing to do with the state or the nation's social life.... These ideas are not much different from the teachings of the Holy Quran and those of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and the caliphs and Imams who ruled the Islamic world through out its golden age. Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) used to allow Christians in Medina to perform their prayers at the Masjid-E-Nabvi and the Fatimid Caliph-Imams provided Jews with the safety and security that they needed whenever they were kicked out from Christian Europe! When will Pakistanis understand that religious tolerance was the primary factor that enabled Muslim societies of the 10th to 14th century AD, to progress in fields of science, medicines, engineering and arts? When would our leaders, mullahs and people understand that because of the intolerance that we have seen growing in some sections of our society, we risk destroying Islam's vast history and rich cultural heritage that was painstakingly built over a period of roughly 1000 years in South Asia? Islam has a rich culture and a great history of living at peace (but as a minority religion) side by side with other religions in South Asia and we should not allow a dreadful but small minority of people to destroy this great legacy of our religion in South Asia, a legacy that is better defined and reflected by architectural masterpieces like the Taj-Mahal, Badshahi Masjid and the development and nurturing of beautiful languages like Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi, rather than by the Wahabi-ism inspired war-mongering insurgencies and intolerance!
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