The recent Guwahati incident in India where a teenage girl was attacked and molested by a group of men while the television crew preferred filming the incident rather than attempting an intervention to save the girl brings out complex questions of media ethics. The standard reference is Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the dying child in Sudan and his subsequent suicide. It also summons to mind the Fleet Street story where reporters at foreign desks on reaching scenes of tragedy would ask, “anyone here been raped and speaks English?” It is always a good time to talk about media ethics and responsibility in Pakistan and maybe it is additionally relevant due to the fact that the holy month of Ramazan is here.
The first blessing arrived before the month itself, namely the cringe-inducing figure of Aamir Liaquat Hussain smugly laughing at us. I do not particularly dislike Aamir Liaquat for the leaked video of him cracking vulgar (though not funny) jokes etc, although that does make him a hypocrite. However, my fervent dislike is for the hate-mongering, which in the past has included direct incitement to murder and general idiocy. Apparently, the fake doctor has enough of a following and can bring in enough money for the concerned television channel to be unconcerned enough to not only re-hire him, but also to celebrate his return unashamedly with a broken horseshoe looking character singing and dancing. After Maya Khan and Meher Bukhari, we should know better, yet it is nauseating each time. Meher Bukhari is a representative example; she moved up the ladder after incitement to Salmaan Taseer’s murder and from the looks of things is sufficiently indispensable not to be bothered by minor breaches of ethics in the Malik Riaz interview; although to continue the high moralising immediately after the leaked interview video without embarrassment does require a certain malicious fortitude. Let us not pretend that the media is not in the business of making money or that there is something wrong in that. However after a certain point it insults our intelligence, I am sure money can be made by less repulsive choices.
We now have a month of discovering that everyone from television anchors, models to cricketers and politicians is a closet religious scholar and a mystic. Every anchorperson has been previously preoccupied with being experts in constitutional jurisprudence. For the next month, every programme on every channel for a significant portion of the day would be a plagiarism of one another with only the faces changed — so much for freedom of choice and dozens of television channels, you are out of luck if high cholesterol cookery recipes do not catch your fancy.
It is worth pondering over the choices generally available in evening chat shows. It seems that every show wants to be identical to every other show with a standard line-up of guests with the same questions and same answers (with a few sparkling exceptions). I can understand the argument that some guests pull in more viewership than others and it is good for business, yet there is only so much of the likes of the Sheikh Rashid, Zaid Hamid and Roedad Khan type that one can bear without risking damage to the cerebral cortex. Let me give you an example of a question/opinion that will be mindlessly put in awful tones in every chat show every evening, it goes something like, “don’t you think the present democratic forces are the biggest threat to democracy” or “if democratic forces get their act together, no unconstitutional intervention or meddling is possible”. It does come across a bit like blaming the rape victim for dressing too provocatively. The media has a responsibility and a role to criticise and evaluate the governments, both provincial and federal, yet to hear sermons from Sheikh Rashid on respect for judiciary and Hamid Gul/Roedad Khan on democracy makes one queasy.
There is a vague streak of masochism in our media (particularly television), namely the failure to realise that its freedom to criticise, mock and abuse stems from this fragile, imperfect democracy. It is primitive to posit that there are choices other than a democratic set-up available to us; additionally, the media should not beg to have chains laid upon them, which is inevitable in a non-democratic set-up. November 2007 is not that distant a memory. I wonder if these gallant, fearless journalists applying the analogy of threat to democracy think that the media was somehow to be blamed for the totalitarian stupidity of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf in shutting down television channels. Of course it was not, yet the same realisation should be present for democracy; demagogy does not necessarily need an invitation or an opening, it has a tendency of making one.
I am not suggesting that the media goes soft on the government, corruption or incompetence or stop making money. Yet, to assume that the public wants to see the same guests abusing one another every evening is condescending. There is a lot wrong with our governments, both federal and provincials, to allow for scathing criticism without inviting crazy and/or senile hucksters. Also, it is peculiar to claim to be objective and yet wear being ‘pro-judiciary’ as a badge of honour. More significantly, the media is not supposed to pander to every populist impulse. Exhibit A is the outrage on soldiers killed in the Salala incident compared with the beheading of our soldiers by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which could only register as a passing mention and not even a fraction of the outrage accorded to Salala. Very rarely is the sectarian affiliation of the Shia being killed on a daily basis mentioned. The demolition of Ahmadi mosques can barely be worthy of a news ticker.
No government has any or very little business censoring the media. In our case the present government cannot or should not restrict the freedom, even the freedom to abuse. However, it is not entirely unreasonable to expect that with the tremendous power that it wields, there is a semblance of self-regulation and responsibility, might even be in its self-interest in the longer run.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2012.