Minus the subtlety, that’s the way it is in Pakistan too. Around 50 private television channels are in fierce competition, each representing some political, institutional, corporate, or religious interest. It’s a no-holds barred game where lies and fabrications – no matter how grotesque and unsupported by evidence – find ready expression. The effects on the population have been drastic.
If today, with remote in hand, you randomly flip through channels on your TV, or browse through nearly two dozen online newspapers, you will see video clips or photos of Pakistan Air Force jets pounding targets in North Waziristan, artillery firing into the mountains, or, perhaps, some other celebration of operation Zarb-e-Azb, a military operation launched by the Pakistan Army against the “bad” Taliban in July 2014. (For the reader’s edification: the good Taliban kill only Americans and Afghans; the bad Taliban kill Americans, Afghans, and Pakistanis).
But hang on! You rub your eyes. Fighter aircraft of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – both US and Chinese supplied – bombing Islamic fighters inside this “fortress of Islam”, whose name literally translates into “Land of the Pure”? How can this be?
For ten years after 911, Pakistanis had lived in a delusionary bubble. A majority had been brainwashed into believing that terrorism in Pakistan was the work of some “foreign hand”. So, even when various militant groups angry at Pakistan proudly claimed suicide missions against military and civilian targets, they were ignored. No Muslim could kill another Muslim, was then the prevailing logic. Who could walk into a mosque or shrine and leave dozens dead? Surely Pakistan’s eternal enemies – India, Israel, America, or maybe even Afghanistan and Iran – were responsible.
The foreign hand myth was nurtured by overpaid and willfully ignorant TV anchors, together with their chattering guests, to the point where it became the only truth in town. Their invited guests such as General Hamid Gul, his son Abdullah Gul, and numerous cohorts confidently pronounced that suicide bombers were uncircumcised non-Muslim agents of foreign powers. On the few occasions when I was invited to debate them on TV, to their great irritation, I asked for evidence. It turned out none had inspected the leftover meat.
Memories may be short, but Pakistanis will also recall the televised harangues of public figures ranging from comedian-minister Rahman Malik to cricketer-demagogue Imran Khan. America was then the only terrorist in the world. So, when Taliban supremo Hakeemullah Mehsud was killed by a Hellfire missile in November 2013, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar raged furiously while Cricketer Imran Khan suffered an apoplectic fit. That Mr. Mehsud had declared war upon the Pakistani state and gleefully decapitated Pakistani soldiers mattered to neither.
And then, poof, it all changed! Along came Zarb-e-Azb. The military had decided that its own creations had gotten out of hand. How dare they decapitate soldiers and then post gruesome videos of a football match played with severed their heads? Had this happened in Afghanistan it would have been fine. But it was not to be tolerated in Pakistan.
And so suddenly the foreign hand disappeared. Suddenly it turned out that the real enemy was the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Suddenly the nauseating daily appearances of TTP supporters vanished from millions of TV screens. Suddenly popular TV anchors could not remember what they had been saying for months and years. Suddenly no one, including anguished Cricketer Khan of anti-drone fame, could see the still circling (as of 2 days ago) drones in Pakistan’s skies.
A new consensus is now in place. Manufactured to suit new conditions, it forced terrorist supporters off TV screens. But how did it happen and who ordered it? If this was a scripted change, who wrote it?
I do not think a simple answer exists, or that the change could simply have been ordered from above. The ISI/Army’s psy-op against the TTP may have been helped by the arrival of a new and bolder army chief. But the full story is surely more complicated.
No military has the strength to create a national consensus by itself. Even during the Third Reich, where the Nazis could coerce and terrorize at will, they knew a plain diktat could not work on the entire German nation. Therefore propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels demanded that his 3000 full-time subordinates at the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda submit, with full evidence, detailed reports about the mood of the German people. The Führer would watch anxiously, and then decide if the price of food could be raised.
Pakistan’s army is powerful but nowhere as powerful. Its ability to influence popular opinion is limited. Those who think otherwise should revisit the years around 2004 when it was exceedingly unpopular. Soldiers killed in battle against the Taliban would not even receive proper burial rites because village imams refused to perform their funeral prayers. They were not called, as today, shaheeds.
So what explains Pakistan’s mood swing and the media’s new tune? The search for profits, a la Herman and Chomsky, also drives Pakistan’s TV channels. But, the difference is that the Pakistani establishment is badly fractured from within and so its directives are often contradictory. Therefore, released from all regulation as well as ethical pressures, private channels freely exploit social pathologies while suspending conscience and good sense.
For many years a few of us had pleaded that terrorism be recognized for what it was – a war against people. But although atrocities had become a daily occurrence, year after year both private and state TV channels merely reported but did not condemn. In effect they aided and abetted terrorism by conferring respectability upon terrorists. For example, until recently the correct Urdu word for terrorist – dehshatgard – was not used on television channels. Instead, linguistically unjustified and watered-down equivalents like askariat-pasand (militant) and intiha-pasand (extremist) were invented.
Ratings-hungry TV channels eventually brought catastrophe to Pakistan. Their popular anchors gave space and sympathy to murderers and terrorists, and broadcast every lie, rumor, and idiocy that could sell. You just have to mentally flip through some sickening images of past years: one stood outside the Red Mosque echoing the calls of the insurrectionists; another gloated over the Mumbai massacre; a female anchor cast aspersions of blasphemy at Governor Salman Taseer and seemingly instigated his murder; a fourth justified Malala Yusufzai’s shooting.
A Pakistani left-wing activist, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, remarks that TV now has the capacity to turn day into night. The Left is ignored, and the Right is pampered. The critical, thoughtful professional of yesteryear has been replaced by the savvy networker who conforms to all the rules and regulations of the well-oiled machine that is the modern media corporation.
Although the flirtation of Pakistan’s private TV channels with terrorists is over for the time being, their mischief continues. For 6 weeks almost all channels have been giving 24/7 coverage to anti-government protests which otherwise would have long fizzled. This effectively gifts billions of rupees of advertising time to an aggrieved loser of the 2013 elections, and a mysterious cleric with an unknown agenda. Worse, by broadcasting – in fact, showcasing – the abusive language used by Cricketer Khan in attacking his opponents, the “free media” reduces the quantum of civility in Pakistan every day.
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