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Pakistan’s Vibrant Media Ensures Accountability

Pakistan Link, Commentary, Dr. Mahjabeen Islam Posted: Oct 10, 2008

The vibrancy of Pakistan’s press is proven by the fact that many an expatriate obtains their news from Pakistan’s news sources rather than the post-9/11 throttled and slanted media bytes that one gets in the United States. And to give credit where it’s due, media freedom will remain as General Musharraf’s possibly sole positive legacy.

Full media expression was allowed by the General and his coterie but when things got a little embarrassing and the genie had zipped right out of the bottle, they unfurled an “image management” project; a damage control attempt with public statements reprimanding those that asked politically incorrect questions and themselves making ludicrous statements abroad in relation to Mukhtaran Mai for instance.

However much Bilawal Bhutto may consider democracy as the best revenge, the fact is that his mother did not favor the kind of press freedom that history will pen General Musharraf as having accomplished. And media freedom is brutal with public figures - they might as well be standing sans a shred in the public square. And in that might be Pakistan’s salvation.

One sees the amazing talent of the media in its variegated forms. From unvarnished news reports to spirited op-ed columns one can switch to American-style talk shows that invite high-profile participants that reveal some startling information and change your perspective in ways that you did not think possible. That the stakes are very high in all this reporting is evidenced by the fact that these talk-show hosts are paid ungodly sums of money and some tape their shows in secrecy, for security fears.

On the lighter side is incredible political satire. Lookalikes with scripts to make you roll showcase Pakistani talent like no other.

For further comic relief recently was the hapless Finance Minister Syed Naveed Qamar nodding off repeatedly while sitting next to the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani giving a thunderous speech in parliament. What is more the poor man’s somnolence was reported all day; in the news, in accompaniment to an old familiar song about sleeping and in a very popular talk show. The news report even gave the probable explanation: that it may well be the stress of the national economy or else of fasting, and yet the poor guy did not get a break.

One of the tremendous vacuums in Pakistan is the absence of a functioning judiciary. And till that day of restoration, democracy will remain an amputee. The rule of law, due process and legal recourse must be the birthright of each and every Pakistani without religion, class, and wealth or race distinction. Till that day dawns, the media is functioning as a court of sorts.

Like the poignant case of the 18-year-old that had gotten arrested for theft of flour, but was later released when the media did a story and found that he had stolen because there had been no food in the house for days and he was jobless. (Actually similar crime was forgiven under the caliphate of Omar Ibn-e-Al Khattab)

With this vacuum of an absent effective judiciary is the danger of being tried in the court of public opinion. And yet in the context of Pakistan this is not all bad. For far too long, the powerful in Pakistan have engendered what I call the Entitlement Syndrome: “I am powerful/well connected and so I can do any and everything illegal”. With the two current majority party leaders both mired in corruption charges, it is important for all and sundry to be aware that it is not Big Brother but the lens of the media that is watching. And what havoc it can wreak with your life is only limited by the number of permutations and combinations that your mind can imagine.

Martial law and press censorship had permeated the national psyche to such a degree that this newfound liberty, devoid of both, is almost dizzying for the public. And akin to a child with a new toy takes on some ridiculous extremes. Like Senator Babar Awan hitting Imran Khan way below the belt in one of them. The subject of course was Asif Ali Zardari’s corruption. As Babar Awan got more and more cornered, post-commercial break, the viewer is treated with Babar Awan lashing out at Imran Khan about the latter’s paternity suit filed by Sita White. The whole segment is out of context and desperate but totally there for the viewer to deal with and draw conclusions from.

Pakistan’s media provides fodder to the Western media, says Harvard scholar Hassan Abbas. In my opinion though some of it is this and some of it is the essential US discomfiture with democracy in Pakistan and its consequent inability to manipulate its man in Islamabad. In recent memory the most acquiescent was General Musharraf and despite several PPP overtures to the Americans, there appears to be a concerted Western effort to malign and discredit Asif Ali Zardari, accounting for the very insulting articles about him and his mental and fiscal health in several mainstream publications in the US and England.

Asif Ali Zardari has made it as president much to the disbelief of many. Naysayers’ claim that Mr. 10% will become Mr. 100%. Not so soon, I say. The Western media is already united in mercilessly shredding him. Many in Pakistan are livid with his broken promises, perhaps sworn on the Qur’an, as well as his pillage of Pakistan. I have two points of comfort: one that our accounting with the Almighty will be individual and complete, the second that the media will keep a more than keen eye on his every move. The 10% days were then, this is now. And guess who’s watching.

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