COMMENT: Would the media kill democracy? —Elf Habib - Friday, July 30, 2010

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A free, fair and independent media is undoubtedly an inalienable instrument for the existence, essence and advancement of modern democracies. However, many futurists in Pakistan, while espousing the need for an independent and intrepid media, are haunted by the ominous impact of its misdirected zeal and outbursts

The Punjab Assembly resolution seeking a reasonable restraint by media persons in reporting the errors and omissions of the elected representatives ignited ire, angst and protests among some media circles. The acrimonious debates and accusations stirred by the two sides, which jointly endured the excruciating burden of the judges and generals’ might and machinations during dictatorships, has now apparently subsided. Yet the miasma of bickering leaves some serious questions to be pondered on and resolved by the protagonists. The media, having managed an almost instant quantum leap by importing the latest equipment, adopting a fast track style of reporting, and introducing torrid talk shows and rapid response roving teams, is really galloping rather too fast. Blinded by its reckless race of being the first in news breaking bouts, it would really have to pause and probe if the politicians falling prey to its attacks are also sufficiently evolved, stable and sturdy to withstand its scrutiny and scalpel.

A free, fair and independent media is undoubtedly an inalienable instrument for the existence, essence and advancement of modern democracies. However, many futurists in Pakistan, while espousing the need for an independent and intrepid media, are haunted by the ominous impact of its misdirected zeal and outbursts. The fire and fury of its newfound freedom fielded against the elected representatives, for instance, could stigmatise and scrub the system, an idea aptly captured in the couplet: Mujhay khauf atish-e-gul say hay/Kaheen yehee chaman ko jala na dey (I fear the glow of the flower/Lest it set fire to the garden).

Democratic periods have invariably been drubbed by the establishment, superior courts and adventurist generals. Politicians have been the weakest players and the worst sufferers in the grandiose power games dominated by the remaining trio. They are mercilessly hounded and humiliated by the special as well as superior courts under the cloak of accountability and chastisement. Even when the generals, being the real, unchallenged and ultimate sovereigns of our system and statecraft, tacitly slide behind the curtain to orchestrate the short surrealistic symphony of civilian rule, the courts created by them move at an inexplicably fierce pace to exorcise the elected representatives. Most of the media also, as if stirred by some strange subtle cue, ignore the darker deeds of the judiciary and dictators and become obsessed with the vivisection of the elected representatives to highlight their most sensitive spots for judicial bombardment. The way the court’s onslaught on the National Reconciliation Ordinance and degree credentials was manoeuvred by the media resembles a well-organised war plan in which selected signallers spotlight the most susceptible and damaging targets in the territory intended for invasion.

A deliberately selective slant in sifting the aberrations of the legislature and sparing the other main perpetrators like the judiciary, generals, khaki-cum-mufti bureaucracy and the media moguls is a brazen violation of the minimum basic legal, ethical and journalistic niceties. It negates the established historic trends and traditions of the illustrious democracies to dig out the details, causative factors and agents for the darker episodes they endured and ensure a proper retribution to the perpetrators to prevent their recurrence.

Fake degrees were certainly a dubious device to circumvent the strictures set by a dictator but the conduct, perhaps, as declared by Shahbaz Sharif, “was not as egregious as the Kargil crime”, which evidently alluded to the entire catalogue of defiance and defilation of the constitutions. Some other leaders would, likewise, find it less horrendous than the oaths recanted by our superior judges. Yet the media never dissected the defiled oaths, the ancillary illegality of the incumbents and the dilemma of a democratic dispensation stuck against the dictator’s judges. It never portrayed the alleged partiality of the present judiciary, doubts clouding its legality as raised by Irfan Qadir, or the desirability of a new judiciary radiating really impeccable democratic antecedents and ordained through a transparent system approved by the elected representatives. It has similarly failed in digging up the deeds of dictatorship and the sources of the fabulous whopping fortunes of their families, friends and favourites. Qazi Hussain’s barbs about the assonance between “the corps and crore commanders” and Altaf Hussain’s assertions regarding “more corruption being coupled to more funds” were never investigated.

The media has similarly failed to foster popular support for proper resource generation and distribution, without which even the most fervent faith in democracy is bound to wither and vanish. Democracy is about an equitable sharing and participation by all to stimulate a surge of innovation and creativity in the crafts, commerce, industry, science, arts and culture. It is nurtured by adequate investment in skill building, and making human health, happiness and habitat as the prime focus of the state. Yet, the media never debated the highly excessive and unjustified allocations to the defence sector, including the sudden latest escalation of Rs 105 billion. It excoriates the government for failure on these fronts without pointing out the real reason for its helplessness, while pleading and pressing for the exigency to rationalise the defence budgets. Its furore against the Kerry-Lugar Act and the civilian control over state agencies exposes its adamant alignment against a genuine pre-eminence of parliament. It has rather propagated a morbid passion for the war and armaments potential, touting the Taliban and nuclear weapons as prime national assets. Presently, it does portray the horrors and havoc wrought by the Taliban but never talks of those who created this curse. It has built cloyingly magical mountains of national honour, which are so tenuous that they are torn apart even by the most trifling comments about Kashmir, nukes and defence capabilities, but are exceptionally immune to the ignominy of our indicators of ignorance, hunger, and development. It rather feeds us on the mediaeval notions of greatness measured by grandiose armies, armaments and annexations.

Its entire penchant, unfortunately, spawns suicidal ignorance, irrationality, emotionalism, jingoistic isolationism and an overblown role of religion in international relations and economic resurgence. It nonchalantly smothers any unbiased self-evaluation, painting us as the paragon of perfection being paralysed by western conspiracies. Yet it prompts them to extend more aid and weapons. It conjures a strange megalomaniacal fantasy about our unique strategic location, spinning a myth that a diplomatic wand would make the world remit our loans, end our economic woes and grant us an unparalleled, ever-expanding empire. Its impetuous irrationality and partiality are bound to drown democracy or the evolution and existence of any other equitable system.

The writer is an academic and freelance columnist. He can be reached at

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