Watching the watchdog

Published: August 27, 2014
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The writer used to host a show on Express TV and works as a consulting editor at The Friday Times

The writer used to host a show on Express TV and works as a consulting editor at The Friday Times

“Democracy is like an infertile woman that cannot produce anything”, thundered a popular columnist (a real opinion-maker) at the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America (APPNA) convention held in Washington, DC. A few women participants objected, but overall, the trashing of ‘democracy’ back home in Pakistan was applauded by many a successful professionals present in the audience. Later, at another event I heard the view by a speaker that Muslims and democracy are incompatible. These are not isolated sentences. A worldview that Pakistan’s Urdu media has cultivated considers democracy a colonial legacy that the British left. A few go to the extent of arguing that in an Islamic Republic a Caliphate is the only option.

Another columnist recently wrote how our democratic and constitutional system is the “rotten dress which protects certain segments of society” and now the time had come to decide if we could live with an ‘itchy’ body [politic]. Considering that half of Pakistan’s existence has been under the rule of a narrow group of civil-military bureaucracy, it is difficult to argue how can even a most imperfect democracy not be more inclusive?

Senior journalist Nusrat Javeed only recently bitterly complained about how some of his colleagues on television were inviting martial law and that made him ashamed of being a journalist. My favourite columnist, Mr Ayaz Amir, whose writings have inspired us all, has been cynically reviewing the current crisis as the sound of marching boots. That may well be as our history tells us. But references to ‘111 Brigade’ (which takes over Islamabad during a coup d etat) and democracy’s ‘swansong’ reflect as well as engender fatigue and impatience with the constitutional order.

In the brewing crisis within Pakistan’s power circles where Punjab-based parties are pitted against one another with overtones of a civil-military collision, the media has emerged as a player. In 2007, a newly independent media had a pro-democracy, pro-justice stance. In 2014, a tamed version of its older self is propelling a doomsday scenario and seems to have lost direction. Analysts have pointed out how the current revolution would be severely punctured if the television cameras were switched off for some time.

Sensing the power of media (its role in ousting Musharraf as well as discrediting the previous PPP-led coalition government), the power centres — elected and unelected — have been eager to tame it. The recent media crisis has left the Fourth Estate disunited, and at the mercy of what is colloquially referred to as a polarised ‘anchoracracy’. Thousands of media workers — editors, reporters, cameramen, correspondents, etc — pale into in significance in comparison with a few elite prime-time oracles. And that is where the state and political parties enter the fray. Imran Khan was the hot favourite of a certain media organisation until the last elections. But now he has publicly disowned the media group at the sit-ins. Thus, a strange tamasha is going on as Pakistan’s fragile democracy unravels under the unbearable burden of heavyweight politicians.

Nearly 50 channels have been televising the protests of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri live; and have created an atmosphere that a ‘change’ is imminent. This has another effect — the shrinking space for dialogue, compromise and negotiation. Hardline speeches by leaders are followed by a commentary that is polarised, highly speculative offering a free-for-all ground where democracy and its ills are recounted by the hour. This engenders further political instability and influences the susceptible minds. No wonder many PTI/PAT supporters on social media state that a martial law is acceptable if the prime minister does not resign within the deadline (also a flexible notion in this mayhem) set by their leaders. Preparing the narrative for a military takeover is a disservice to Pakistan including the military itself, which is waging a major operation in the northwest of the country.

How is news coverage determined then? A million internally displaced people and their everyday miseries would have been ‘news’ in ordinary circumstances. A host of other issues that need to be informed via news bulletins and commentaries have taken a complete back seat. This gives a dangerous impression of the media being a stakeholder or worse, a party to this crisis?

Two TV channels were taken off air for select periods in the past few months. One faces the wrath of cable operators and blasphemy law has also been invoked in the intra-media struggles. Can the industry be a guardian of public interest in such a climate? Needless to say, the regulatory structures, including the regulator Pemra, have been royal failures in the process.

More importantly, the media owners and editors have not come up with a clear and enforceable code of conduct, a non-negotiable list of professional standards of professionalism and journalistic ethics that may guide workers — from celebrity anchors to field reporters. Never has the need for an independent regulator been so critical. Those who cite the infancy argument should end the empty excuses. Twelve years later, the beast is no longer an infant.

The Augean stables within media houses need a massive clean-up. Only they can do it and it is time they started. Public accusations of real or perceived partisanship and ill-advised power play will only further damage the already dented credibility of the industry. Lastly, a free media only operates in a democracy. In other ‘revolutionary’ models of governance, media freedoms shall be the first casualty.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Sharjeel Ashraf
    Aug 27, 2014 - 12:58AM

    Are you saying for the sake of ‘Free media’ – which is not even free and is pressured by the Commercial sector, the government and the foriegn sector – martial law should not be imposed?
    Sir, first of all which democracy are you talking about? The one in which people are not provided rights? The same leaders keep sharing power and when they are out of business their childrens take their place? This is not democracy but just a fake ‘idea’ that allows the kings to keep people in their power at the same time telling them that the people hold the ‘power’.

    What I see is the ‘power’ of people is street power. Except that they cant do anything at all. If anyone here thinks they can – they should visit a government office!

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  • Ali Pakistan
    Aug 27, 2014 - 1:23AM

    I think you are unable to see the people who are out in these dharnas in rain and sun.They have come out for a reason. Is democracy for them? then democracy has to listen to their grievance.
    Your argument is invalid as people are demanding their right at this point and asking for democracy, real democracy.

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  • zhb
    Aug 27, 2014 - 1:24AM

    No place for western Democracy and Media Freedom here. It just hasn’t worked for us in the previous years. We need to evolve a system of our own to resolve our problems.

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  • ajeet
    Aug 27, 2014 - 2:04AM

    I agree that Muslims and democracy are incompatible. Democracy is possible only in free thinking nations or people.

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  • Aug 27, 2014 - 2:54AM

    Just as you have recommended a cleaning campaign in the media, I guess there’s a more dire need of the same in the democratic system of the country…

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  • Hamood
    Aug 27, 2014 - 3:21AM

    Which democracy are you talking about? The one where elections are rigged? Or the one where media houses are bought by people in power? Or maybe the one where a father is replaced by a child at the throne?

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  • Ahmed
    Aug 27, 2014 - 3:39AM

    Good analysisRecommend

  • yasir
    Aug 27, 2014 - 4:40AM

    Time to revoke the ban on international media houses for setting up their Pakistani version, which was put in place to promote local industry. They will teach others how to report.Recommend

  • shahid
    Aug 27, 2014 - 5:47AM

    A worldview that Pakistan’s Urdu media has cultivated considers democracy a colonial legacy that the British left.

    Following this line of argument one can also suggest that narratives put forth by Pakistan’s English media to explain Pakistan’s problems simply serve the western interests in the country.

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  • Qabil Khan
    Aug 27, 2014 - 8:08AM

    Couldn’t agree more with Raza Rumi. The current crisis is an egoistic battle between two groups of Punjabi politicians over who is going to the the rule the rest of us.
    Rigging has taken place in every election since 1970. Rather than throwing a hubristic tantrum Imran Khan should instead be concentrating on electoral reforms which is the call of the day.

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  • Khadim Hussain
    Aug 27, 2014 - 9:18AM

    You are still pro-democratic for protecting the so-called democracy owners. You also need judge people in the comments, you will find the majority have no affiliations with any like me but how can you continue democracy of elites selling the 18 Karor awam showing daily that he/she is their true and real guard.

    Your need stand with right for the rights of victims, ensure justice for the innocent people killed in model town and then argue these. You also should write on the current role, moral and characters of current so-called democratic rulers. Do you think this democracy should be continued. Even if you ask this neutral child, the answer is No for sure.

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  • Anon
    Aug 27, 2014 - 11:50AM

    Punjab-based parties are pitted against one another – one of whom swept the NA seats from KP and formed majority in that province…. go figure!

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  • Anon
    Aug 27, 2014 - 12:10PM

    @Qabil Khan: There is a difference between legislation and actual practice…. There is no point in electoral reform if nobody can even implement the current rules.

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  • Parvez
    Aug 27, 2014 - 12:49PM

    For five long wretched years we tried democracy under PPP-Z and they only delivered for themselves. Now we are trying democracy under PML-N and they are again delivering only for themselves……..the people got nothing in these 6 years. Now are we expected to wait another 4 years of getting nothing ……. have another rigged election and get the PPP-Z back again ?
    I should think not………especially if this country is to survive.

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  • Sajid
    Aug 27, 2014 - 4:49PM

    If the common person cannot be trusted to elect good leaders then we need military dictatorship. But if the military dictators also incompetent then maybe we should ask the the British to come back to rule us.

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  • Me
    Aug 27, 2014 - 8:20PM

    Everybody shouts about to not derail democracy but no body explains the responsibilities of a democratic government. For ruling elite democracy is the bird holding all their powers so they tell people to no cause any harm to this thing but not any so called political and democratic parties talk about the violations of human rights being done by the democratic governments.
    In Pakistan democracy is a tool for all the corrupt politicians. Democracy should not be thrown out but the corrupt politicians. Thats the solution for Pakistan

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  • Me
    Aug 27, 2014 - 8:25PM

    @ajeet:
    This post is about internal political affairs of a country but some people can’t hold their frustrations by turning it into a religious matter.

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  • Gp65
    Aug 28, 2014 - 9:49PM

    @Parvez:

    Surprised to see such a response from you. Has PML-N delivered less than Musharraf?

    Short term unsustainable increase in economy due yo money being pored unquestioningly into Pakistan by US during his term may have appeared rosy. But
    – what was his record in Balochistan
    – what was his record on improving energy situation in country?
    – what was his record on inflation?
    – How do you feel about leasing out a part of country to UAE which in yurn leased it out to US to fly drones from?
    – how do you suppose he became so rich? What aout Zia and Ayub’s kids? What about Yahya Khan?

    All wars of choice with India havebeen started under an army leader. How do ou feel aout that?

    There is no messiah. Improving things takes time and irresponsile unproven accusations cannot be a basis to bring the whole country to a standstill.

    Even in India we had huge marches against Corruption under leadership of Anna Hazare and eventually the Lk Pal bill was passed. The ruling corrupt Congress was thrown out when it came time for elections. But you have to give the system me. The civilians in Pakistan are always under the gun ( pun intended) . How can they be expected o deliver under such a situation?

    What exactly do you expect to change for the ordinary Pakistani if somehow Nawaz resigned?

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  • Parvez
    Aug 29, 2014 - 10:35AM

    @Gp65: Madam, am not surprised to see your comment…….expected from someone who views the situation from afar, but as always appreciate your view point.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Aug 29, 2014 - 2:54PM

    Democracy ensures that the people are governed in a manner and in substance that they deserve! However, it has the ability to develope and progress and change. The status quo is no longer acceptable, neither Sharifs no the Khakis have any chance for the return. Imran Khan must be applauded for keeping democracy lively with direct democratic means for peaceful street demonsrtaions. The three Sharifs must heed. Media will follow the story and the author should know this.

    Rex Minor

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