As the Geo versus government row rages on, one depressing truth is emerging from the stand-off: the virtual black-out of the issue from a majority of the country’s newspapers and television screens.
Of course, in the papers belonging to the Jang Group, notably Jang and The News, the showdown occupies prime space, threatening to push even the most devastating floods in our history off the front page. For those who do not read these papers or watch Geo (by choice or by default), the issue might as well not exist. Save the odd Dawn editorial and a blog on the Express Tribune website, there is only an ominous silence all around.
This is perhaps the most alarming aspect of the whole situation. It is as if rival TV channels are relieved at having rid themselves of the dominating presence of Geo, and newspapers competing in a tight market for readership and advertising revenue are secretly happy to see Jang and The News hit hard times. Have the big media groups reached a point where they see their rivals as a bigger threat to them than their common enemy, an increasingly authoritarian government bent on shielding itself from criticism?
This is not to say that the groups currently under attack are themselves any less ‘sectarian,’ so to speak. Even during the crisis, Geo and the Jang Group tried to hijack the entire issue and were in denial about ARY, which was also under attack. ARY, meanwhile, were just as mean-spirited and continued to pretend that only they were the victims. Meanwhile the miniscule Royal TV, also targeted, was ignored altogether.
The protests organized by journalists against the ban were also uneasy affairs, and cameramen from the rival channels were at pains to capture footage where the other’s presence or logo was obliterated. Thankfully, as the blockage of channels continued, one could see a softening of this hard line, with The News eventually mentioning the ARY three-letter word in its front-page reports and editorials. ARY could not do the same against its bitter (three-letter) Geo rivals because the poor guys don’t have a paper of their own.
All this pettiness on the part of the brave new media is truly breathtaking. Surely, when two channels are blocked in parts of the country and newspapers are set alight and offices besieged by intimidating hooligans waving ruling party flags, isn’t it time to shun these differences and put up a united front? No such luck.
In private, many journalists and media persons are far more ambivalent about the current crackdown than they were about the blackout of channels under General Musharraf in 2007. There is whispered grumbling about hidden agendas and the Jang Group getting out of hand and going over the top against Asif Zardari at the behest of the establishment. There is resentment over Geo and the Jang Group papers constantly setting a particular type of news agenda. Many question not only the journalistic ethics behind the anti-Zardari obsession of the group but also see it as a threat to democracy. In short, there is a strong element of “they asked for it” in the overall reaction to the present crisis. But even if we accept that they asked for it, where do we go from here?
The simple remedy for any aggrieved party upset over television’s excesses is to sue the buggers. Why does the government not go down that road? Well, the judges are all establishment plants and hate the PPP and will never come to its aid, the party’s current siege mentality tells them. So why not enlist more savvy people to defend your policies on TV than Fauzia Wahab? Why not forcefully expose the hidden agendas allegedly at work on certain channels in an articulate and reasoned way?
If you are unable to do that, at least avoid major faux pas, like taking helicopter rides to your French chateau as the country literally drowns, among dozens of others. Most importantly, build enough trust and rapport with your voters, the hapless people of Pakistan, to inoculate yourself against ideologically inspired attacks from the media. Instead of doing all this, the familiar banner of ‘democracy in danger,’ is being raised again. In place of an effective strategy, you now have goons to defend your policies by taking direct action against the media. Most democratic, I must say.
Privately, a major section of the PPP is currently avoiding eye contact with media persons and mumbling, off the record, that, ‘we shouldn’t really be going down this MQM road.’ Perhaps this bumbling lot should learn a lesson or two in the art of blocking TV channels, attacking newspaper offices, burning newspapers, intimidating hawkers and cable operators and then innocently claiming they are the victims rather than the aggressors, from their junior partner in the Sindh coalition-of-mutual-loathing. The Karachi-based party is in the enviable position of successfully muzzling the press without ever fearing they will be named or blamed. The amateurish PPP, on the other hand, is likely to be the ultimate loser in this showdown.
Meanwhile, the last time I looked, ARY was back, at least on my cable network, but the Geo void persists at least on my screen. That void by the way is important to fill, regardless of what you think of Geo’s excesses, ethics or line. And this is not about some abstract belief in absolute freedom of the press. Geo’s absence is disturbing, for me at least, because I think we need a critical voice in our midst in these bleak times. Most other channels, despite their occasional anti-govt whining, seem more susceptible to pressure and often seem willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt at key moments. I never thought I would admit this, but I for one sorely miss Geo, even if for all the wrong reasons.
By allowing the government to get away with this ban without so much as a whimper, rival media groups are being short-sighted in the extreme. If there is no joint front on an issue as fundamental as this, and if the government emerges the victor in this battle, be prepared to go down that slippery slope of ‘constructive’ criticism and all that it entails. This is that sterile world where you would think ten times before doing anything defined as ‘non-constructive’ and ‘irresponsible’ by the government (or military junta) of the day. Do remember that even before this crackdown, the other rival groups, including those espousing a liberal ethos, refrained from telecasting or printing the defining image of the month: that helicopter hovering menacingly over that French chateau as thousands fled their more modest abodes in the face of the country’s deadliest flood...