By Rifaat Hamid Ghani
Recently, in the course of a nationwide ‘telethon’ we heard the PM’s views on the media, an illustrious maulana’s views on the media; and after due pause some media responses thereto on the media; sometimes we even hear viewers’ views on the media: when and how it proffers the platform. Ah there’s the rub! The electronic media’s message and the messenger—irrespective of the guiding principle—are selective and selected. In all fairness is there any way it can be otherwise? Ultimately, the viewer’s choice—his selection—is limited to switching channels or switching off. Not so the State: it can control, project, promote, expunge, exclude, omit, invent, compel.
The print media has, if only sectionally, a tradition of professional independence and abiding recognition of its responsibilities as public watchdog. It fights a brave fight for press freedom. The electronic media makes a lot of noise but it evaporates in the noise of the next day’s scoops and shockers. Perhaps the nouveau-media’s stalwarts are yet to garner experience that teaches to value grit above glitz. Nonetheless, much can be spun out of one particular bark or a years’ old clip; and prolonged political attacks or promotion can whisk up and sustain a whole national mood: And TV is therefore the more coveted weapon when it comes to political contest.
But in terms of mere public service, how many channels finance and air objective, researched documentaries which go beyond ‘talk’ and offer a cohesive breakdown and analysis to inform and educate the lay public on any of a multitude of grave economic concerns and financial dilemmas and political controversies? Why would electronic media lords bother when the returns are much higher and the investment minimal with the kind of slipshod hack coverage they get by with? PTV was always officially propagandist; but it had high technical standards and nurtured cultural taste in music and smote social conscience in drama. Occasionally it also showed a proficiency in raising and treating national issues in programmes that were not germinated solely for ratings and governmental praises. There are serious-minded viewers still but today they have virtually nowhere to look.
So has the meaningful free press become a myth? No. Because the press is free to resist, to persist in dissent; diversity; plurality. And even the hapless viewer is free to draw his own conclusions about, as well as from, the information on offer.
The PTI government has not had a happy time in office, and its media management has shown muscle but not much sense. Its official spokespersons and selected reps exude animus towards any kind of critical questioning. It is hard to think of anyone less telegenic or less convincing than Firdous Ashiq Awan as far as the common public goes. In that respect the latest change in the ministry of information is for the better. Too many people had begun to find the constant badmouthing and denigration of opposition leadership beyond the pale; and as a result the media blitz was becoming ineffective even in terms of furthering party interests. Each time PTI’s champions drew attention to the failures of PMs past they unwittingly drew attention to the inadequacy of PM present.
Senator Shibli Faraz now holds the portfolio; but the PM relies heavily on unelected special advisors and this time the special advisor is no mere IMF outsider or expat. He comes of the strongest kind of homespun military DNA. ISPR vintage. Why should the appointment surprise? The media has long told us the present civil government and the military are on the same page. But one could infer the military is no longer at ease letting PTI loudmouths do their own talking. Can the serving Senator and the retired General muzzle the PM himself or persuade him of the supreme reconciliatory national interest?
The historical military record in political powerplay shows a sharp awareness that fringe-groups in civil society as well as the official political opposition can be of much service when it comes to curbing wayward civil incumbents. But that is not the kind of civil-military harmonization the people who voted PPP and PMLN and PTI have in mind. It is an abiding popular commitment to civil democratic politics despite the all too evident deficiencies and aberrations of political leadership that is the real problem for totalitarian-minded partymen and military officers. At the same time, the public yearning for law and order when civic mismanagement inclines towards chaos is the very stuff of martial intervention.
Structural change in the ministry of information will be a litmus test for the PM and the army. Will he quit his compulsive insults to the Sharifs and the Bhutto Zardaris and their frontmen? Is he enough of a democratically committed political animal to admit his mistakes, apologize, and talk with people who numerically represent and are part of the federation? And is that what the military wants?
Or are we to be media-managed into appearing to require a systemic reset because the well-trained political-circus-tiger PM derides Parliament and ensures it remains a non-starter? Already many feel that it is the Bajwa-plusses who have the real answer as to Imran Khan’s captaincy.