News unplugged - Sana Bucha - Monday, January 31, 2011

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I have been in the journalism industry for the last 10 years, but am I a journalist? Can anyone deny that journalists have been used — often willingly — by dictators, democratic governments and the establishment. Each bit of news that we read in print or every current affairs programme that we watch could potentially be serving someone’s agenda.

Here’s an example. Currently, the Arab world is rocking. With revolt and protests. And the American media is going after the ‘real cause’: not the fruit seller who burnt himself alive, but the Arabic channel, Al-Jazeera. The number one channel in the Arab world understands the power of visuals. From the Tunisian fruit-seller burning to Ben Ali’s departure, it covered every protest, and carried each demonstration on-air. It almost turned the revolt in Tunisia to ‘Democracy in the Making.’ A noble cause indeed. But will Al-Jazeera now champion democracy in Qatar too? Maybe not. The rulers of Qatar fund them, and you don’t get on the wrong side of those who show you the money!

People rioting on streets is one thing; creating it into a real sensation is another. Al-Jazeera started endorsing the revolution in Tunisia with the wrong man – the leader of the Muslim brotherhood in Jordan. A group which claims that fundamental Islam is the key; and the armed forces are the only force capable of tackling chaos. Is this the kind of change newsmakers in Qatar have in mind? And Egypt has already been ‘Al Jazeera’d,’ so to speak. Even though the internet is down and phone lines are jammed, the channel continues to embarrass the US media with its detailed live stream coverage.

I don’t claim to know the solutions to the problems of the Arab world. However, when it comes closer to home, I’m getting sensitive. Media gurus in Pakistan are ranting on about the Tunisian change and almost encouraging, if not pushing for the same in our country.

Objective journalism is a myth today. Its whose line you tow that sets the course of this nation. And what a variety of tow-ers we have to choose from – screaming shouting women (not recommended for the faint hearted) to smirky men, to wannabe intellectuals to serious faced, read: seriously paid middle aged men who have tons of ‘experience’ to make up for lack of credibility! One anchor on a particular news channel decided to discuss the judiciary’s role in helping curb corruption. The recent casualty, Moonis Elahi was the topic of discussion. The anchor, forgetting the fact that this case is subjudice and any prediction could be counter-productive, proceeded to talk about his personal experience with Elahi. “He doesn’t appear to be a crook,” he said. Gut feeling takes precedence over facts.

I don’t want to dwell on how the media behaved after Salman Taseer’s assassination but what needs to be reiterated is that, by and large, most newsmakers in Pakistan push a right-wing agenda. Some journalists didn’t stop with the sad demise of Taseer, they continued to wage the holy war after his murder. A few even made the intentional or unintentional mistake of fabricating a story that Taseer and his daughter were pro-Ahmadi in order to stir sentiments. These are the same ‘journalists’ who think the 2005 earthquake was a result of excessive immoral voices reverberating from northern Pakistan. This is the same bunch of people who find it hard to take sides when a suicide bomber blows up in a shopping centre, a five star hotel or even a mosque. You might think that these journalists are people you would never listen to or agree with. But you could surprise yourself. These are your mainstream media gurus, spinning and spewing such facts in the middle of their “unbiased” analysis.

Journalists, senior anchors along with their ‘religious’ scholars and columnists rant on about how our society has been plagued by immorality. One believes the only reason we haven’t been able to develop as a nation is because our Prime Minister’s wife does not cover her head. The comparison was made in reference to the wife of Turkish Prime Minister who does wear a scarf.

Turkey has developed and prospered because of a piece of fabric?! Another reasonably ‘liberal’ host on a mainstream news channel decided to become the judge of Pakistani actress Veena Malik’s character. While he played god, Ms. Malik sat on his show sticking up for herself against a cleric who was convinced of her shady character as he was about her beauty.

There are others who want to take up the issues of the common man. When some anchorpersons adorning expensive clothing and flashy jewellery talk about the scarcity of sugar, it’s cloying enough to give me cavities! And when other ‘responsible’ ones drone on endlessly about the governments corruption figures, you marvel at their math but wonder why they don’t raise questions regarding the impartiality of the judiciary or the role of the army?

We are not just held captive by ‘closet talibans’ or the pro-establishment conservatives – the so called ‘liberal fascists’ also hold us hostage. An English daily went to the extent of publishing a false story about a Fatwa being issued against a certain MNA by a popular mosque’s cleric in Karachi. They want justice for Taseer but at the cost of getting another individual targeted was not such a good idea – especially since the fatwa was never issued. Another advocate of freedom of expression - a Pakistan based media blog – went ahead and published another false fatwa by a Mufti who declared not just Mumtaz Qadri but leading journalists, clerics, lawyers and politicians who hailed Taseer’s assasination “Mufsideen fil arz”. The perpetrators he declared should be punished as provided in Surah Maida – i.e. execution or crucifixion or the cutting-off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile, or, as a last resort, hell.

But as with everything else the sorry state of journalism also has its saviours. Between the liberal vs. right wing divide exist well-intentioned moderates. The problem, however, is to find the right balance. But even these journalists don’t know which route to take. Pakistan is one of the worst countries for journalists - and the fear does not just emanate from its ‘troubled’ areas and extremists - one also needs to be weary of the state and non state actors operating within.

A clash in thinking or a different perspective from them and you could lose your life. Wali Khan Babar is a glaring example.

I cannot vouch for much except my own intentions but I get confused too. Should I do the easy thing? Bashing the government, calling for a Tunisia-like revolution or should I reason with myself. Yes, Pakistan has seen a man torch himself in close proximity of the Presidency and yes, we have the unhappy fruit peddlers too. But we are a democracy, not a police state. The people of Pakistan decided our fate, contrary to common belief, not the West.

We, as members of the powerful media, should hail the principles of free expression. People need to get real news, not what is fed to them. And candid debates about real issues, not propaganda. If the way to liberation goes through television networks, we must choose wisely. Instead of becoming loyal subjects, let’s focus on becoming citizens. The last call is yours. Vote with your remote!

The writer works for Geo TV

Sana Bucha’s column will henceforth appear on every alternate Sunday

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