This really began in 2008 when I was working for an up-and-coming television news network in Pakistan – a country which was at the time deeply embroiled in the War on Terror that followed events of 9/11. The nascent status of this news channel was shared by almost all other “independent” news agencies and privately owned television networks at the time; another thing they shared were their journalistic ideals. An unprecedented liberalization of Pakistan’s media industry took place in 2002 with the passing of a number of era-defining media Acts. A wave of new news and other media organizations followed and state monopoly over news production and dissemination finally came to an end. The spot for the nation’s top-news provider was empty for the first time in decades. If state-run channels ran news reports that were uncritical, biased and limited, then the new era of news reporting strived to be the complete opposite – they were going to show/say everything.
Within a short period journalists had become superstars and people had become citizens. Vying to be first-on-the-spot, first-person reporting from recent terrorist attack sites and global hotspots started becoming a norm for good news reporting. In search for any story that could become news competitive investigative journalism became a thing. Expose pieces about corrupt government officials and lampooning of public figures became and remains common. Religiously tuning in to watch seasoned analysts unabashedly ripping apart the government and its policies every single night became part of the national culture. And then it happened: In a magic moment of pure irony, one of the top news broadcasters in the country retaliated against the undemocratic government which had made its existence possible in the first place.
Pervez Musharraf, in keeping with military tradition had come into power through a coup d’état in 1999, but his post-9/11 plan of “Enlightened moderation” in regards to media was more a result of paranoia of Indian propaganda, which runs deep in the nation’s veins since its inception. The paranoia, not completely unfounded, since apart from two full-blown wars, constant military standoff at the borders, as well in Kashmir, and the almost Kargil war of 1999 which had created Musharraf’s in into Presidency are facts, and political leaders on both sides have never really let their respective nations forget either; Indian television channels being broadcasted across borders fiercely reel out a nationalist anti-Pakistan spiel any chance they get – the spicier the better. In a moment of dictatorial desperation, an attempt was made to shut down one of the news headquarters, which only resulted in mobilizing the masses. People from all classes entered the streets, demanded the dictator’s resignation and asked for democratic elections. It was the first time in decades that such a wide-ranging demonstration against a dictator had taken place. And it worked.
An undeniably powerful moment that signified the ability of mass media to proliferate information through good journalism toward creating an informed and strong citizenry has since been etched in the analytical canals of my brain. But, as history teaches us, no glorious moment of pure will-power can remain unscathed for long, and sooner or later, we are delivered the hand of the human condition. Vietnam syndromes and personal political affiliations work deviously to overpower the personality of the media created mass. Subtle forms of censorship, embedded reporteering, economics of airtime, seriously serious distractions and carefully worded images are gradually slipped in. The clarity of emotion is compromised and invisible filters are created between mass and media.
For Pakistan: A deeply political and politicized country that has perennially struggled with self-governance and which suffers from an excruciatingly low literacy rate, access to critical and inclusive television news reporting is crucial. Corruption runs deep within its veins where the wealthy, the feudal, are essentially also the political elite. Everything is for sale and nothing is worth anything. News media in Pakistan was never truly free of the politics that rules this country which has the 6th most people in it – even the new “independent” channels were/are essentially owned by the governor of here and the king of there, each with their own political interests and distastes. So while the new media/political elites learn to create better filters by tweeking this report that way, cancelling that show with this person, and while the military disposes off of one, two or three of those nosey journalists, does news media have any power? To that I say a belligerent and optimistic, yes.
Even if there is no such thing as completely objective and unbiased reporting, especially in Pakistan, where people have a way of not keeping their mouth shut about what they feel, there is still reporting – there is a transfer of information, of a viewpoint, a particular perspective. Then there are also the good eggs in the mix –those journalists who truly are excellent at their jobs. No matter how controlled, contrived or downright comedic journalism becomes, it is uncensored, critical and self-deprecatory. Different channels are owned by different political actors, each with their own agenda – not by one, or two. The day that happens, there will be something to worry about.
For now, a public space has been created where all these different perspectives are floating around that people actually have access to and can understand. It’s an open space for a country that does not have much to lose and for a people that are open to their faults. It is a better form of journalism than where access to different perspectives is limited and everything sounds the same. Because if you don’t agree, you can always change the channel.