The big picture

May 25, 2014

The big picture

The average Pakistani citizen lives in the mortal fear of three threats: being branded a traitor, being charged with blasphemy and becoming the recipient of an adverse fatwa, especially one that deems you or something you do haraam. It is a new low then for even a country forever in pursuit of new lows to have dug way much deeper than rock bottom by combining all three threats into the mother of all alleged crime combos -- and throwing it with all might at a high profile target with the aim of asphyxiating it.

That these three crimes - treason, blasphemy and fatwa recipience - are reserved for persons rather than legal entities in Pakistan’s generic experience makes it even more astonishing that Geo TV has been charged with these culpabilities. Because, as an organisation, dealing in the news and information business, it is a media entity with accommodative reasonable margins of error due to the nature of its enterprise.

The brief of any independent media entity includes raising troubling questions, pursuing niggling doubts and serving as a de facto accountability mechanism by treading a territory where even the parliament, executive and judiciary may not confidently stride. Hence, media is the fourth estate and the guardian of public interest. And hence, the equation of a country is as free and strong as its media. Or, as fragile.

 Margins of error

Even if one contends Geo TV should not have gunned for the ISI and its chief the way it did, its controversial act should be seen not in the context of criticism of an institution or person (after all, Geo and all other channels do it day-in day-out and virtually no target is holy for them without any regular serious outcomes) but in the larger framework of its very raison d etre: freedom of expression and access to information.

Being the guardian of public interest, media in a democratic society has to be able to operate in a margin that allows it reasonable error of judgment, for without being able to push reasonable limits of acceptance, it cannot remain true to either its calling or its inherent function. For people when the executive (read: government) fails, there is recourse to the parliament and if the people’s own representatives miscarry, they can pin their hopes on the judiciary for succour. And if even the judiciary fails, they still have the media that can connect the dots and raise the right questions that pillars of the state can’t, or don’t, or won’t.

There will be even more liberal interpretations of how conservative we need to be and a growing list of things media will not be able to touch because the forced censorship of Geo also means the forced self-censorship of all non-Geo TV channels even if they won’t admit it.

But in the kind of history that Pakistanis have experienced, where the state is seemingly adamant on crossing the fragile boundary between failing and unravelling, shutting down media, as unabashedly as Geo has been, means actually aiding this process.

This may benefit some, as it clearly is - which government loves a probing media? What powerful institutions with muscle of their own to intimidate the government without needing the media would hate to see unbridled news operations? But it really hurts the theoretically supreme but in essence the emaciated sovereign: the people.

When the very medium that the people need to assert their interests against traditional strangle-merchants is browbeaten, their stakeholding in the state grows frailer still.

 Their master’s voice

Even if most Geo TV rivals may now be thinking they are not equal targets, when passions have cooled they will come to realise they were either willing or unknowing collaborators of a security establishment whose script they were reading out. That it wasn’t just a riot act against Geo, it was a riot act against the media sector.

When it wants to be pithy, the establishment speaks through ISPR. When it wants to be detailed in its assertions, it can speak through proxies. And so it has. Through several non-Geo channels whose failure to mask their glee is unbelievable even by Pakistani standards.

When faced with the kind of mess that the media finds itself in Pakistan today, the only way to make sense is to resort to revisiting larger goals. Look at the big picture: a gag order on media, even if it’s on an erring TV channel, is a trespass on the constitutional fundamental rights to freedom of expression (Article 19) and access to information (Article 19A). Calls for shutting down of Geo (and eventual shut down) rather than, at most, calls to boycott Geo by pressing on the remote means the hardest of the hardliners have already won the argument.

That most non-Geo TV channels led the chorus for lockdown of Geo means they may have won the battle for business but they have lost the war to a precedent that will devour more victims in the future.

Make no mistake what has happened with Geo is more than another line in the sand; it’s really a line now carved firmly on stone and it severely hurts Pakistan’s sustainable democracy project.

The way media regulator Pemra, a bumbling entity even without the aid of its new best friends in the security establishment, has been browbeaten and manipulated into serving the interests of the executive-within-executive rather than being friends of the media sector and the citizen consumers of media as its charter promises, is defining the new limits of what will not be tolerated.

Intizar farmaiyeh

And what will not be tolerated now is even basic criticism of the security establishment let alone any adventurous probing of its priorities or functions.

The implications of this on the media coverage and never-ceasing world of the vexing civ-mil relations will be a tempering of the freedom to ask all the right questions. Or, at least, enough right questions to constitute a critical mass of meaningful critique of the most important issue Pakistan has never completely tackled. The deadline of this tackle has just been postponed indefinitely. Intizar farmaiyeh - as PTV was once wont to remind its viewers that it lost to Geo a long time ago. They have clearly lost a great deal more.

The fact that charges of blasphemy were thrown into the mix of alleged treason accompanied by swift ‘angelised’ mobilisation of jihadi and fringe religious groups to up the ante, and with non-Geo channels equating anti-Geo diatribe with reaffirmation of faith, also means that the broadcast media in Pakistan has taken a firm shift of focus from right-of-centre to right-of-right-of-centre.

This means, ironically, there will be even more liberal interpretations of how conservative we need to be and a growing list of things media will not be able to touch because the forced censorship of Geo also means the forced self-censorship of all non-Geo TV channels even if they won’t admit it.

And when self-censorship runs rampant, people know less. And the less they know the less they know. Somebody not just wanted this, they’ve got it.

The big picture