In Pakistan’s symphony of this week, the shrill voices of hate are more audible. A television anchor who has mastered the dark arts of bluster and slander became a point of reference in underlining an environment in which liberal and progressive elements are increasingly under attack.
And this drift is bolstered by other glaring incidents of moral and intellectual transgressions on the part of those who are expected to uphold the dictates of law and the values of decency. There was a spectacle in the National Assembly on Thursday in which members of the ruling PML-N and the opposition PTI came to blows with one another.
This, of course, was prompted by the ongoing confrontation on what has been called the Panamagate imbroglio. The scuffle was just an extension of the verbal duel that takes place outside the premises of the Supreme Court after every session of the hearings on the petitions against the Sharif family over revelations made in the Panama Papers.
Thanks to the electronic media, this venomous political wrangle has drowned out so many other relevant issues. Imran Khan plays a leading role in this extravaganza, even though the audience is also enthralled by the comic relief provided by the designated spokespersons of the two parties. Considering the vast array of crises besetting our country, this fascination for politics can hardly be condoned. But that is what our media has become and in some ways, a showman like Amir Liaquat Hussain would naturally be seen as its ultimate product.
It would be instructive to study the Amir Liaquat phenomenon – and the specific episode that was played out this week. He has not emerged out of nowhere. His birth and his rise would illustrate the superficiality of the mass media. It has sold its soul to the devils of revenue and ratings. In this pursuit, journalistic ethics and professional standards are easily set aside.
That Amir Liaquat finally overreached himself would appear to be intrinsic to the role that he had assigned to himself. What is astonishing is that he could play this role for so long, without rousing the authorities from their deep slumber. Or is it that he served as a pawn in someone’s game of chess?
Be that as it may, on Thursday the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) banned his show ‘Aisay Nahin Chaley Ga’ on Bol News for delivering hate speech. According to the Pemra order, “Amir Liaquat… shall not host any programme or appear on TV in any manner (fresh, old or repeat) including (but not limited to) as a guest, analyst, reporter, actor, in audio, video beeper, promo/advertisement of his programme or in person, in any manner whatsoever, on Bol News” with immediate effect”.
This action, on the face of it, would betray sudden instigation and anger caused by the contents of Amir Liaquat’s programme.
But his wild allegations of blasphemy against the missing bloggers and civil society activists and personal attacks on many others had continued for several days. For this, he had come under fire on social media and some prominent individuals had formally complained to Pemra. It is to be noted that this order was blatantly defied on Thursday night.
Sadly, I did not watch these shows because I have drastically reduced my television viewing. I particularly avoid talk shows. This I do in the hope of improving my mental health. What we get on our news channels is patently unsavoury and I suspect that it may have something to do with the fickleness and despondency of so many people.
As I have suggested, Amir Liaquat is, excuse the word, the pride of our channels. We have some more anchors who also vociferously resort to sensational and unfounded accusations against their chosen targets and they mostly hide behind religious and nationalistic pretensions. There is a lot of hate speech. Almost always, they represent a certain point of view and give the impression that they have powerful protectors.
In these circumstances, it will be interesting to follow the Amir Liaquat story. On Friday, Pemra issued a show-cause notice to Bol News for flouting a ban on Amir Liaquat for hate speech in his programme. On Thursday, the Rawalpindi police registered a case against the anchor under the Anti-Terrorism Act for indulging in hate speech and threatening the life of activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir.
Looking at this development in a wider context, the All Pakistan Newspaper Society has expressed “profound concern over the incessant trend of unscrupulous outbursts of baseless allegations and hate-mongering on a satellite channel against journalists, publishers and editors of newspapers”. The statement added that “abusive language and hate speech…can, in fact, incite violence by labelling media persons as anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan, consequently putting their lives in danger”.
Essentially, the liberals are being demonised in Pakistan and the disappearance of a number of bloggers and activists has cast a pall of fear and uncertainty. The task of creating a space for enlightenment and freedom is become nearly impossible. One had hoped that the National Action Plan would begin to tilt the balance in favour of peace and sanity in society, but that has not happened. We are becoming, it seems, more intolerant.
Does the present government understand the challenge of containing this trend or is it too preoccupied with its pitch for next year’s elections? Last week, The Economist carried a feature on “Pakistan’s misguided obsession with infrastructure”. This week, the inauguration of the metro bus service in Multan has certified the belief of the prime minister and his party that “investment in infrastructure is a foolproof way of boosting the economy”. That is why CPEC is seen as our redemption.
However, I am tempted to quote a paragraph from The Economist story: “Lijian Zhao, a Chinese diplomat, says China is all too aware that Pakistan needs more than just big-ticket infrastructure if it is to flourish. Disarmingly, he praises the efforts of Britain and other countries to improve Pakistan’s ‘software’ such as education and rule of law. ‘But China’s expertise is hardware’, says Mr Zhao”.
The message is obvious. Physical development on its ownwill not take us forward. We need intellectual and social development and the capacity to be creative. And for that, we will need to defeat the purveyors of hate and intolerance – the enemy within.
The writer is a senior journalist.