Television channels are putting their best foot forward (as far as religious shows are concerned) in Ramazan. Whether it is Veena (famous for standoff debate with a Maulana on TV), Dr Aamir Liaquat (accused of inciting feelings of hatred against members of the Ahmadi community, resulting in many killings), Mubasher Lucman (exposed as an ally of Malik Riaz of Bahria Town fame, who claimed to have bribed journalists) or Maya Khan (of date-spotting fame) – they will all be selling their own brand of religion to the large majority of Pakistan. A number of fundamental questions stem from this situation: should we give powers of propagating different brands of religion like this on television to hosts? Are we ready to bear the consequences as a result? How is it that we can control this situation?
Regulation or lack thereof
Regulation has often been overlooked by private TV channels since independence was granted to them in a democratic fashion (ironically by a dictator). One does hear of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) sending notices to channels for airing unsolicited and questionable content. But do they have a policy that is being followed by the television channels in general and one that is positioned to address issues arising as a result of airing religious shows? “Pemra doesn’t have direct intervention in hiring and firing show hosts,” says one official from the body. “We don’t micro-manage it. These decisions are made by media owners.”
If the programme doesn’t have ‘masala’, it is unlikely to soar on the ratings chart. It is the same school of thought that has found its way into religious programmes, albeit promising more dire consequences. Whether it is spending a night in the grave to pray to Allah, crying endlessly for forgiveness in front of the viewers or invoking feelings of righteousness in the majority against minorities and deciding who is a ‘true’ momin (follower of Islam) and who is not – all these forms of sensationalism can have a deep impact on the viewership, especially when religion is such a sensitive topic. Producing and designing such shows with the same approach as political talk shows and news programmes is turning out to be the wrong approach. Hero TV’s decision to use Veena Malik on their Ramazan show (which has now been called off) is just one example.
Illiteracy increases responsibility
You may not have anything else but you will have a television set at home and a mobile phone in your pocket. Such is the advent of technological progress in Pakistan. This way, 60% or more people who fall beneath the literacy graph can be accessed with these tools of communication. What does that mean? It means that television channels have an increased responsibility in deciding the fate of the religious television shows. So what makes somebody like Aamir Liaquat eligible? The News reports: “Dr Aamir explained why he had returned to Geo TV and dismissed the allegations that he had done so for economic reasons. He said he wanted a platform that would disseminate his message to a larger universe and whose philosophy of ‘Geo aur jeenay do’ was close to his heart.” But like talkshow host Sana Bucha said in her interview with Newsweek Pakistan, “Why do you need someone on TV to tell you what God wants from you?”
TV show producers must realise that they have a great opportunity to introduce scholars who have command and knowledge over religion so they can guide people in the right direction and contribute in creating peace, harmony and tolerance in our society. The trend however is exactly the opposite – it is towards having opportunistic hosts who just want to create a sensation, gain popularity and in turn fool viewers in the name of religion by popularising their own brand, even if it turns out to have serious consequences.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2012.