Cable news just got unplugged in Pakistan. I for one am supporting the government here and will shed no tears ….. for the likes of Talat Hussain, Mushtaq Minhas, Hamid Mir, or Shahid Masood.
I will point out a few instances where, I as a viewer was disturbed by the partisanship, unprofessional attitudes, and loose ethics of the cable news industry in Pakistan. I shouldn’t say ‘in Pakistan’, because these channels were being run from the UAE where they could escape Pakistan’s taxation system. They like to profit from our country but would rather not pay taxes. Ok, I am getting side tracked here. My complaints follow:
Conduct of the Media during the CJP trial:
Cable news had their biggest moment in the spotlight during the CJP crisis. They covered a marathon event with some degree of success. Soon enough the real issues got jumbled in the heat of passion. While Musharraf had a right and constitutional duty to send the reference against the CJ to the court, no one in the media would say so. The issues of the legality and merits of the reference were run over by protests about the maltreatment of the CJ by police officials. Somewhere between Islamabad and Lahore the CJ’s rally became a long march to remove Musharraf from the presidency. Media, lawyers, and opposition interests joined hands. The government sat bewildered by the storm unleashed upon them and the citizens of the country were subjected to more legal and political bullshit than we care about. And children across Pakistan learned the usage of curse words in political slogans that were broadcast without reprive during live coverage of anti-govt. protests.
In the end the court seems to have thrown out the reference against the CJ on technicalities without discussing the merits of the allegations. No one cares about why the merits were not discussed. The government was on a backfoot and needed to be attacked on other fronts. Journalism be damned.
Conduct of the Media during the Lal Masjid Crisis:
The country went through a traumatic experience during the whole Lal Masjid affair. For two days before the storming of the compound, Talat Hussain on his “Live with …..” show kept asking for a military operation to rid the city of the menace of the terrorists holed up inside Lal Masjid. He kept exhorting government to establish its writ by comparing the scenario to the ongoing operations in waziristan. On the eve of the operation, as military action seemed inevitable, he did a complete turn around and began pleading for more negotiations and sheding crocodile tears for these ‘apne hi loge’. No matter what or where, he thought it prudent to take a position opposing the government even if it were opposing positions on same argument. The same was the case with the “Bolta Pakistan” duo. One day we got recorded calls from so called callers who wanted an operation. The next day, exhorted by false accounts of the magnitude of deaths they began their own campaign to malign the government. Playing on the passions of the traumatized people, the media took us all on an emotional roller coaster. The government found itself in a loose-loose situation. It was damned if it did, and damned if it didn’t.
In preperations for the operation, the military and para-military forces cordoned off the area of operation to prevent collateral damage. The media was also pushed behind this cordon. This was a military operation but the media deemed it proper to give live commentary on the troop movements around the compound. They alerted their audiances, could this include the terrorists and sympathizers, to the movement of vehicle types and the nature of their occupants. We sitting at home knew beforehand when tear gas was about to be fired, or commandoes about to be deployed to place breach explosives by the walls, or where to look for snipers. I had already written of this concern earlier, read it here, so I’ll digress.
Nothing seems to be off-limits to the cable news camera man in Pakistan. And the bloodhounds followed wounded, soldiers from the madrassa to hospitals. There they broadcast to the audiences scenes of wounded soldiers and militants alike, bleeding, screaming, spasming, and writhing in pain. Decency and posterity be damned when you can show death on live TV. We call this news in Pakistan. Only the threats of fellow of the fallen soldiers and doctors got them out of the hospitals.
In the aftermath, the role of these so called journalists was worse than tabloid sleaze. The government took international and local media into the madrassa compound to give them an idea of the scale of the dug-in resistance and the ferocity of the firefights. Instead of realizing or appreciating the tremendous difficulty of the operation, a third of the commando platoon of 64 ended up as cassualties, dead or injured. These flagbearers of truth were angry that the government had taken away the dead bodies and washed away the blood from the floor. Talat Hussain was clearly miffed about not finding a drop of blood. Cameramen and reporters from the three most notorious channels were acting more like blood hounds and less like journalists. Geo finally beat Ary and Aaj to the punch when one of their cameramen found a small puddle of bloody water that had escaped the sanitation people. Look mommy, blood. We all know people had died in there. They died from bullets and shrapnel piercing their bodies. Many people bled in that bloody Red mosque and the adjacent madrassa. Sight of blood and flesh would not have added to the story. But cable news with its ratings and sponsors needed more. They needed gore.
With the operation cleanup over, the media decided to latch onto conspiracy theories and rumors about the number of dead and missing and presented them as fact to the naive viewers. For weeks on end the reported thousands of girl students dead in the masjid. They called on the government to produce 1500 missing girls. In the end, when it became clear that there were three missing people, they just gave up on the story and moved onto the next front. No appology for misleading the people. Not a word about looking at their standards for cross checking stories. None of that. It was during a question session on the topic of hundreds of girls missing from the madrassa that federal minister Ijaz-ul-haq got emotional and teary-eyed. He was immediately made a butt of jokes on GEO programming. In hindsight, is it possible that he was distressed by the false accusations to the point of break down? In fact the whole government seemed verging upon nervous breakage. All this while, the malicious media med went on merrily spreading conspiracy theories and innuendo as fact.
Conduct of Media outside the Election Commission of Pakistan:
The venue of the ECP was chosen for a confrontation with the government because it would provide great action due to proximity to Supreme Court and presence of international media. Previosly, opposition lawyers standing in the courtyard of the Supreme Court had already threatened to burn the ECP down if Musharraf’s nomination papers were to be accepted. The lawyers and media then colluded to engage the police in a fight and then portray them as aggressors. It took keen observation to notice that the lawyers had stuffed their coat pockets with stones to missile on the police.
A particularly dangerous tactic used by the media was to block the exit of the ECP, thus effectively holding the Prime Minister and various members of the cabinet alongwith the Election Commissioner hostage inside the building. The first one to brave breaking the cordon was the CM Punjab. With the media goons jumping all around and in front of his car, one guy got a foot run over by the car as it tried to get away. We could see on cameras the mercedes sedan surrounded on all four sides by journalists banging on the windows. That the driver got away without killing aby of these fuckers is testament to his skill. In the aftermath The Islamabad bureau chief of Aaj News, a handiwaal by the name of tariq Chaudhry, kept repeating the lie that the Car carrying the Chief Minister Punjab had just run over and crushed ten journalists who had been blocking its exit from the Election Commission of Pakistan. Aaj and Geo kept harping about ten journalists having been run over for almost an hour.
Conduct of Media after Emergency:
In the aftermath of the emergency being declared, all newscasters were clearly more subdued due to reality of tougher laws. Still that did not stop all media outlets from running with the rumor of a counter coup against Musharraf from within the Army. This being the wet dream of people who would like to see this institution self destruct and get out of their way. The cable news ran this on their tickers and kept announcing it for hours without giving credibility or even equal airtime to the government’s repeated clarifications to the contrary. Investors panicked and the stock market free fell for the first time having weathered months of this special interest created crisis.
I couldn’t care lesser that these channels are off air. If news means spreading malicious rumors and innuendo masquerading as fact, then I am better of uninformed and forming my own views. What we have with the case of GEO, ARY, and AAJ is a pattern of abusive use of the liberty a press card affords a journalist in a free society. Freedom without rules and laws will lead to choas. And that sadly is even better ratings.