The killing of an unarmed robber in cold blood, by a mobile unit of the Sindh Rangers, has rightly aroused public indignation. Their action was inexcusable. Those responsible should pay dearly for their crime. That said, two thoughts came to mind while watching the TV coverage of the incident.
First, blanketing TV screens with endless replays of the gruesome killing was perverse. What is there to relish in showing man’s inhumanity to man over and over again? All it does is prove that brute force — the law of the jungle — rules in Pakistan. But we know that already and frankly one more killing is but drudge. Or is it because many TV viewers are illiterate and violence in Pakistan is now the repartee of the common man, in other words, the only way he can communicate his angst? So heaping it on, besides being good for the ratings, gives the public the gore that it seems to want. One often wonders whether our channels realise that as sensibilities to pain decline, they will have to raise the dose of cruelty on view to gain attention.
Even on TV talk shows, nothing gets better ratings than two panelists fighting it out and if a flying saucer, glass or water accompanies their rage, so much the better. Just stirring things up, anchors seem to feel, is a reward in itself. They want the audience to get a kick out of their show even if it risks a kick in the teeth of a panelist.
The second impression one gets is that the electronic media has declared ‘open season’ on those in uniform and particularly the armed forces. For the first time in our history, they feel brave enough to criticise the army and emerge none the worse off for it. There is no trembling fear that the offending channel may be closed down on the morrow or the owners served with tax default notices, let alone lose their life or liberty. There is a sense, after all that has happened, that another Musharraf-like closure of a channel or the type of action President Asif Ali Zardari took recently against a sports channel is simply not on any longer. Such vengeful measures are far too counterproductive in a functioning democracy. Of course, the reassuring belief that the hyper-image conscious Supreme Court will back them may have a lot to do with it, notwithstanding the prime minister’s caution of contravening article 63 (not abusing the armed forces, etc) of the constitution. In brief, what the media seems to be saying is that we refuse to be cowed, enough is enough. We have had it up to our gills with threats and lashings, in other words, they are announcing that the worm has finally turned.
Whether true or false, such bravado is heady stuff for some. The media now jumps on every opportunity to give vent to its long suppressed bile, accumulated over decades of emergency rule, martial law, military dictators, truncated constitutions and pliable courts. One particular anchor dared anyone to try and cow him down. “We prefer to die on our feet rather than live on our knees” was his Roosevelt-like message.
Understandably, perhaps, the recent unexplained killings of journalists have provided an opportunity that the media has seized upon to hurl every kind of allegation, including a fair measure of abuse, insinuation, slur and innuendo against those in uniform. So much so that many now accuse the media of turning their newfound liberty into license. Friends in the armed forces are upset; they feel their critics can say what they want including a whole pack of lies while they perforce cannot respond in self-defence. They are worried that their image is being sullied at a time when only the armed forces stand in the path of the enemy and they are also genuinely exercised about the baleful effect such criticism will have on morale. So they are also at a loss to understand why something is not being done to prevent such criticism or, at least, to rein it in.
Of course, short of returning to censorship or issuing warnings and threats, there is little that can be done. Our slander and libel laws are pretty ineffective. And frankly, that’s just as well. Limiting press freedom or censorship only preserves and protects every horror of the prevailing norms of oppression. It creates delusions of freedom and democracy. It makes change bloodier and less productive. We have seen it in action under Ziaul Haq when too many good men were punished for calling a spade a spade and too many rewarded for hiding the truth. None of which would have been easy if the media had been free.
The armed forces, like all of us, have to adapt, which they can start doing by developing a thicker hide. Movements that are ongoing are for changing institutions, not to preserve the old ones intact. Change in the end is unavoidable. Nor should the armed forces necessarily think of themselves as victims. They have a choice either to bring about a change themselves or eventually to have change forced on them by circumstances. Perhaps it would be easier if they were to equate change with progress rather than with reform, which is never an easy exercise for the pre-eminent power in the land.
However, there are a number of caveats to be kept in mind so that change brings progress and does not get derailed. CS Lewis went into some detail on this: “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be… If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
In the context of this article and our prevailing circumstances, if one were to ask which of the two, the media or the armed forces, needs to change, the answer must clearly be both, although for entirely different reasons. The media needs to display a far greater degree of objectivity and sensitivity as well as a greater regard for the truth, in order to make a success of democracy. And the armed forces should realise that when it comes to handling criticism from a free media, they are not only on a different road but on one which is off the map. Both need to get their bearings right if they are to return to the right track. Unless the tracks are aligned, our locomotive is a disaster waiting to happen.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2011.