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April 5, 2020

Media in the time of …


April 5, 2020

We have now March-ed into April, blindfolded by coronavirus uncertainties. I am reminded of that epic poem of T S Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’, and the words with which it begins: “April is the cruellest month ..”. It is cruel because it heralds spring, “mixing memory and desire”.

Incidentally, the poem, written in 1922, underlines the devastating aftereffects of World War I and delves into the themes of war, trauma, disillusion and death. The sub-title of its first section is: “The Burial of the Dead”. There are graphic images of an “Unreal City”.

One reason why I have invoked ‘The Waste Land’ is that I have been reading poetry during my extended self-isolation. There is also the YouTube option of listening to great poetry, recited by gifted performers. (Try Alec Guinness for the Eliot poem.)

And when it comes to poetry, my mainstay is Urdu poetry. There is such a massive reservoir of this poetry to fall back on. It gives expression to your thoughts and emotions at a time like this when you are liable to experience sudden and complete shifts in mood and temper. But I would not cite Urdu poetry, partly because its surge would become unmanageable and I would not be able to flatten the curve.

When I elaborate on the magical uses of fiction and poetry, I refer to a study I had read about many years ago that said that poetry, even sad poetry, is an antidepressant. This means that it is some kind of a medicine for distressed minds.

My excuse for talking about poetry, then, is that a lot of attention is being paid in the media and more on social media on suggesting ways in which we can manage our anxiety and spend our time gainfully when we are imprisoned in our own houses. This is something we have never experienced before. My regret, though, is that our society is remarkable in its lack of reading habits or other intellectual pursuits.

You may have encountered numerous lists of ‘comfort’ books and movies in the media. There is bound to be a constant stream of conversation on social media on such pastimes as reading books and watching movies and TV shows. The stress, of course, is to try to stay calm in these troubling times.

In this respect, there is no dearth of advice on what one should do. The fundamental need is to find distractions. Exercises have been prescribed for your physical and emotional health. One advice that I found really meaningful is: ‘Don’t obsess over being positive or happy’.

Against this backdrop, there is a real concern for the mental health of people. I have read a number of articles on this subject in the international media and feel that if they are so worried about it in advanced and, until at least a month ago, prosperous societies, the situation in Pakistan is sure to be so much more alarming.

I had intended to put more emphasis on this issue. But I got distracted. And this is going to be a double-distraction because when I began to ponder over the increasing disarray in the Pakistani society, ranging from abject economic to emotional deprivations, the subject of the health of the mainstream media began to stare me in the face.

In fact, the issues that relate to the mental health of a society have also a bearing on the quality and the state of the media. For that matter, a certain crisis in the media has remained a sub-plot in the story of the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in Pakistan. I am referring to the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, head of the Jang/Geo Group, by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in Lahore on March 12.

This was manifestly a vicious attack on the freedom of the media, coming in the wake of a string of moves against the independent media. I had included this in my column three weeks ago, bifurcating the focus on the Covid-19 crisis. The title of my column sought to combine separate strands of the national crisis: ‘Pakistan in chains’.

This week, the ignominy of Mir Shakil’s arrest was accentuated by his inability to be at his elder brother’s side when Mir Javed-ur-Rahman, chairman of the Jang Group, breathed his last in a Karachi hospital, though his condition had been critical for a few days. This is how our rulers can sometimes get less than humane. Mir Javed’s death is a personal bereavement for me because we would often meet for long conversations.

There have been other instances of how Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government – and his party – deal with the media. Some senior journalists who had posed difficult questions to Imran Khan during the media briefing on March 24 had to suffer vile social media trolling. So much so that Chairman PPP Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari issued a statement to condemn these attacks. According to Bilawal, it amounted to “a message to either remain silent or be ready to face the consequences”.

In response to questions that also touched upon media freedom and Mir Shakil’s arrest, Imran Khan made an assertion that is both shocking and laughable. He said that the media in Pakistan exercises more freedom than the media in Western countries. He said this as a “challenge”.

In that sense, during this time of Covid-19, there is also the problem of leadership. Sadly, thinking about it would not be the kind of diversion that we need. But this is also the time when the mind wanders and it becomes difficult to fully concentrate on any one subject.

Hence, to conclude, let me just quote one question that The New Yorker asked in its interview with a well-known Indian epidemiologist and economist on how Covid-19 will hit India: “Do you have concerns about leaders in India not following the science? We have seen that with so-called populist leaders, from Trump to Jair Bolsonaro to Boris Johnson to Imran Khan. Because, obviously, Modi has given cause for concern in other areas along these lines.”

The writer is a senior journalist.

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