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.