STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan

Pakistan is facing its greatest existential challenge. PM Modi’s unilateral demolition of Article 370 of Indian Constitution has moved Kashmir from “disputed territory” to “occupied Territory”. The delicate framework laid by PM Pandit Nehru with Maharajah of Kashmir, Kashmiri Pandits, and elite of Kashmiri Muslim families leading to treaty of accession of Kashmir to India is undone. The Constitutional protection of special status, separate constitution, a state flag and autonomy of internal administration are all gone. Brute force rules supreme. Pakistan will be sucked in, whether we like it or not.

It is in this environment that a reality check is needed of Pakistan’s current “media circus.” The present state of media reminds me of the tabloid takeover of British media in mid 80’s. One would see corner shops loaded with screaming headlines each one trying to outdo other in being more obnoxious.

A similar situation exists in Pakistan today. There is an overdose of TV channels and papers churning out substandard presentations and materials. Merit is totally lost. TV programs channels are repeating same partisan argument a hundred times. Newscasters are parroting news fed to them. There is no purpose or direction. Talk shows, the lifeline of these channels, are at best substandard, where being rude, uncouth, blinkered is the name of the game. Ratings are God.

Media’s history is checkered. Since 1958, after Ayub Khan took over, the press was tightly controlled. There were stalwarts who worked according to their beliefs and convictions. Generally integrity was beyond reproach. PTV was launched under strict supervision. These controls didn’t change much under Bhutto. Leftists and rightists came out of their closets and espoused their beliefs more openly. Rightists faced persecution. Zia Ul Haq’s regime pulled all stops on Government’s brutal control, leftists were unrelentingly pursued. His unceremonious departure in 1988 gave some relief to the suffocation of Media.

Media controls were loosened but this is also when the mayhem started. Nawaz Sharif was Zia’s legacy and Benazir Bhutto revitalized Bhutto’s followers.Both leaders started cultivating media barons and prominent journalists. This started the heydays for Media. Journalists who sided with either side got benefits, privileges. The journalists tasted blood and were hooked to financial gratifications.

With takeover of General Musharraf, the media scene was revolutionized. Despite being a Military ruler, he gave a boost to freedom of press and many new TV channels and newspapers appeared on the horizon.

With the departure of Musharraf, the “golden” period of democratic rule started, more so for the media barons and corrupt journalists. This is when Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif went to bat under the “Charter of Corruption”. Agreement was “you scratch my back, I scratch yours”. Neither will interfere with others plundering ways. Interestingly both parties secretly opened and built files on each other to be used as bargaining chips. All the cases presently being pursued by NAB and other agencies predate PTI’s Government!

In the last 10 years government resources were lavished and squandered to curry favors and obtain projection and support from Journalists for Sale and mercenary Media Barons. Their sole objective of rulers was bleeding the national coffers dry for their own account. They used the media coverage to camouflage their nefarious designs through manipulated projection.

Fast forward to present. Major sections of Press and TV are no longer a noble profession; a pillar of state targeted at keeping the public informed and act as the guardians of national interest. They are purely commercial enterprises to enrich and empower the Media Barons supported by prominent Media personalities who have sold out to the highest bidder.

There is a rush of new entrants in Media. Why? It is a reality in Pakistan that unless you belong to or are affiliated with Bureaucracy, Army, Judiciary, Lawyers, Politicians or Media you are meaningless. Hence billionaires are creating their shelters and investing up to Rs 300 million to obtain a TV license. Billionaires seeking a seat on the table!

So how is this circus unfolding? About a dozen news channels have 90% of viewership in this segment. There are a few dozen faces that have a following or attract viewership. Every channel is chasing them. Certain Media barons greatly benefitted when Sharifs pulled all stops on lavish advertising enriching their favored beyond their imaginations.

Then the loot sale ended with PTI forming the Government. The cash flow dried up.  Barons who lack any commitment, did what every businessman does. They started firing people or delaying wages protesting it as “curbs on freedom of press”.

Accountability is moving ahead full steam. An unholy alliance has developed between the barons, corrupt journalists, Sharif’s and Zardari. This is played out on a daily basis. Every talk show has a PTI, PML(N), PPP representative. If the anchor is compromised, it turns into 3 against one.

A ridiculous point is picked up and brought to centre stage. Latest example, Maryam Nawaz’s arrest. It is a clear case of fraud, money laundering. It is being portrayed as a national calamity of obstructing the biggest champion of Kashmir. Bilawal Bhutto was besides himself in his expression of anger. The joke is on him. This case was launched when dad was the President! But the faithful trio is ensuring it remains in the headlines for as long as possible. 

However the web against the corrupt in all fields is being woven. During the “gold rush” of doling out favors and money by Sharifs, many big names in Journalism accumulated assets way beyond their means. The search is on and it will not end with leases of petrol pumps!! This Circus has to have a drop scene. The challenge continues to be huge. Doing positive good is always a challenge. Stay the course, there is light at the end of the tunnel.




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