The fanatics of the idiot box

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Pakistani TV may be free, but it’s also furious. Saim Saeed on the television boom and the controversies surrounding news anchors in the country

Headline hunters (Clockwise from top) Liaquat, Masood, Lucman, Bokhari, Maya Khan and Kamran Khan

WHILE MOST Pakistanis observe the holy month of Ramadan with austerity and charity, television channels in the country have a different reason for excitement altogether: ratings. With millions tuning in for primetime iftar and sehri programmes, television channels scramble to attract audiences, creating a host of shows that, more often than not, have courted controversy.

The most recent episode involved the religious conversion of a Hindu youth in a live programme hosted by anchor Maya Khan. She had recently been in the news for chasing down young couples in public parks in a segment on her breakfast show, asking questions like “Do your parents know you are here? Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” She was forced to apologise and was dismissed after the outrage that followed, particularly on the social media. But she was hired by a rival channel only a few days before Ramadan.

There are more like her. Amir Liaquat, a televangelist, was caught on a leaked video, which went viral online, using expletives off-camera and laughing at rape, among other things. More gravely, he referred to the minority Ahmadiyya community as “deserving of death”, in a statement, which was immediately followed by the murder of two Ahmadis.

Despite claiming his innocence on both counts, Liaquat was dismissed. But in the month preceding Ramadan, Geo TV, the channel that he accused of doctoring the leaked video, launched a conspicuous promotional campaign with the slogan, “Koi aa raha hai (someone is coming)”, only to open with a slickly shot, well-choreographed song by Liaquat himself.

The Pakistan media industry has experienced a boom in the past decade. While Gen Pervez Musharraf was in power, he eased strict media controls and the size of the industry has ballooned since then. The number of channels rose from a single national broadcaster to more than 80 within 10 years. As a result, as many as 40 million Pakistanis rely on television as their primary source of information and entertainment.

However, the growth of the industry has been irregular. “The transition has lacked the training opportunities required for the stakeholders of the industry to professionally manage their organisations, a pre-requisite for more professional management,” says Amir Jahangir, CEO, Mishal Pakistan, a media development company.

Almost out of necessity, a host of individuals not acquainted with journalism became involved, “because the TV medium was completely new”, says Abrarul Hassan, a former producer at Geo TV. “Few established journalists, whose experience was in print, could make the transition. There were very few that did, but given the number of channels and the number of people they required, the demand was definitely greater than the supply.” These circumstances led to charismatic individuals, who had little background in reporting or analysis, becoming anchors on news networks.

“News started carrying entertainment value. People’s interest in news grew, and television channels started adjusting to this new demand. Now, anchors such as Shahid Masood and Kamran Khan are more likely to be recognised and have their pictures and autographs taken on the streets than actors,” says Hassan.

This move has produced mixed results, says Muhammad Ziauddin, executive editor atThe Express Tribune, an English language daily. “It is good because it serves the purpose of informing , educating and analysing events of national importance to the masses, most of whom cannot read or write. But on the other hand, it is bad because most anchors, though endowed with the gift of the gab and a presentable TV personality, know very little about the subject they talk about.”

The sudden TV boom led to charismatic individuals who had little background in reporting or analysis becoming news anchors

Controversies in the electronic media have led to renewed questions regarding media ethics and regulation. Before liberalisation, the government had complete control over the State-owned PTV. The introduction of private channels and the easing of restrictions have made the media far more critical and emboldened than it has ever been, perhaps belligerently so.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is the body that is supposed to be the arbiter of what the television news media can, and cannot say, but its authority is weak. “Regulation exists, but it is violated on a daily basis. PEMRA sends letters regarding the violations every day. But because influence matters in Pakistan, the issues disappear,” says Hassan.

Naveen Naqvi, a former anchor at Dawn News, affirmed this when she said that they would indeed receive letters, but “we never paid any attention to such notices”.

The reason is that certain journalists themselves became a part of the political establishment. Recent events corroborate the alleged collusion of sections of the media and political interests.

Mubashir Lucman and Meher Bokhari, two prominent anchors (but neither of them journalists), were caught in a leaked video that instantly went viral, planning an interview with a prominent businessman Malik Riaz, who had rocked Pakistani politics by implicating Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s son Arsalan in multiple bribery scandals. In the video, Riaz seemed to be dictating what he wanted to talk about, and for how long, to the acquiescence of both anchors. Bokhari went so far as to admit that the interview was “planted, but should not look like it is”. Their conversations were frequently interrupted by other vested interests, including former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son, who were also attempting to influence the direction of the interview.

Lucman, suspended since, has returned to the channel. Bokhari was not reprimanded.

Also notable is that while the electronic media has been vociferous in its criticism of the PPP-led government, it has been conspicuously mute on matters relating to the military, despite the battering the armed forces’ reputation has taken after the Osama bin Laden raid and terrorist attack on the naval base in Karachi in 2011.

“The military has successfully used the media to establish that Pakistan could exist only as a security State, and any attempt to turn it into a social welfare State would end up disintegrating the country,” says Ziauddin. “Many in the media, especially the owners, love to promote this agenda willingly, many do it to remain on the right side of the real rulers (the military), and many do it to profit from the relationship.”

Others who were interviewed affirmed the sizable clout the military continues to maintain over the Pakistani media.

BUT MANY are optimistic, comparing the state of the media to the state of democracy. “The media has never been an institution. It needs time to mature. When the political system becomes regularised, then only can media institutions develop,” says Hassan.

Amir Zia, Editor at The News, an English daily, shares the optimism. “Now we have a bolder and freer media for which no subject is taboo,” he says. “Issues that could not be discussed even till the late ’90s, including the army’s role, government corruption, and the judiciary, are now under full public glare. This is a positive sign.”

Hassan asserts that there has to be a societal shift alongside the development of the media. “Meher Bokhari rose to fame because she shouted a lot, and Pakistani audience’s temperament is such that they thought, ‘oh, a woman’s shouting at a politician on camera, she must be telling the truth’. That’s the mentality that needs to change. Once people start demanding better media ethics, the media would be compelled to provide them.”

letters@tehelka.com

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