In her Daily Times column today, Aliya Anjum continues the public outcry for a responsible and constructive media that provides something of value for the people and not just cynical politics to increase advertising revenue. Will the media barons hear this plea?
In the Hollywood flick ‘Spiderman’, the protagonist receives an advice from his uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The Press Freedom Index (PFI) of 2009 prepared by Reporters without Borders has ranked Denmark at the top spot, which is not surprising given the international outrage that followed its sacrilegious cartoons. The freedom of the media is a double-edged sword and it is rarely allowed to be wielded freely. It may be noted that the world’s ‘greatest’ democracy, the US, barely makes it to the 20th position in the PFI. Even the US does not let its media go unchecked. Those who view the US from a superficial pop culture perspective cite caricatures of President Bush appearing in the print media and hail the freedom of speech. However, foreign policy is a restricted area for the media of the world’s sole superpower, which claims to champion the cause of freedom of speech. The war in Afghanistan is covered with major censorship. Dead bodies are never shown on television and casualties, rarely discussed, are under-reported. The same US media has zero tolerance for even the slightest criticism of Israel. The infamous Turkish Flotilla attack and its resulting remark cost 89-year-old Helen Thomas her job at the White House — a job she held for half a century. The free media of the US is, therefore, largely a myth. It is free as long as inane issues such as the private lives of celebrities are discussed, but it is hardly free when the interests of the establishment are threatened.
In Pakistan, after the draconian control of the Zia years, a free media is a new phenomenon and, as of now, this unfettered media is threatening to become a bull in a china shop.
Three kinds of programming dominate the Pakistani media: entertainment, religion, and political commentaries. There is a considerable dumbing-down of the media with copycat programming of the various channels. Entertainment programmes’ content and presentation is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and is generally a knock off of an Indian programme, which many times itself is a theme stolen from an American programme. The dialogues, theme and message are in serious violation of religious and cultural norms of Pakistan. Audiences of all ages freely watch themes promoting immorality. In the case of Indian movies being screened in Pakistani cinemas, there is no censorship. The same applies to the movies shown by cable TV operators. Additionally, the age restriction of viewership for a movie as practiced by Hollywood — whereby movie viewership suitability is assigned according to age — is simply non-existent. The entertainment-starved citizens have returned to the cinema for family outings and this means that children get to watch highly suggestive content in the theatres. The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) needs to get its act together and impose appropriate restrictions.
Religious programming is an even more slippery slope. Myriads of religious channels, each promoting the beliefs and practices of one particular sect, are on air. The marketing of various ‘brands’ of religion is dangerous to say the least. Often superstitious cultural practices of the unlettered are projected via such channels as religious rituals. Additionally, certain controversial religious figures are freely seen on TV. No effort is made by religious channels to promote better citizenship and ethical values. The power of religion over hearts and minds is unparalleled. This, coupled with the bad reputation the mullahs have acquired in Pakistan, demands that serious and urgent attention must be paid to this media genre. PEMRA has no guidelines for religious programming. It should demand detailed briefs from channels before allowing their content to be aired.
Political programming has become a national obsession. The media endlessly covers inane issues and petty gossip related to politicians. Politicians have a penchant for drama to divert attention from real issues. The media works hand in glove with politicians in this endeavour, with monstrous consequences. In addition, the unending tirade against the military and the sitting government is nauseating. It is quite a facile conclusion that certain mouthpieces of India operating in the Pakistani media are at the forefront of this effort to demoralise and disillusion the Pakistani nation. National unity and a can-do spirit have systematically been damaged through deliberate efforts. The entire media seems to have played right into the hands of individuals with nefarious agendas. Hatred for the military is a priority for the subversives in Pakistan. This hatred for the military has been cleverly cultivated with constant references to the Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf regimes, aimed to make the nation obsessively dwell on the past at the lethal expense of ignoring the present and the future. This hatred has reached such epic proportions that even at this crucial juncture in Pakistani history when our soldiers are laying down their lives to wipe out terrorism from Pakistan, they do not have the much-needed public support.
In a country where literacy is low, the media is needed to spearhead adult literacy campaigns, raise awareness related to the basic issues of health and hygiene as well as guide the crucial agricultural sector. The media should also be used to educate the masses about the conservation of precious resources such as water and energy. The energies of the suffering youth need to be channelled in a positive direction through unbiased national competitions of debates and quizzes. Pakistani talent in science and technology can be showcased through TV to provide a forum for encouraging individual enterprise. All these efforts would go a long way towards moving Pakistan forward.