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Manipulating Pakistani minds

Saturday 3 February 2018, by siawi3


Manipulating Pakistani minds

by Pervez Hoodbhoy

Dawn, January 27, 2018

Is it legal for a Pakistani state institution to maintain secret funds for influencing attitudes and opinions regarding individuals, groups, and political parties? Is there not a constitutional obligation to protect citizens from fake news, character assassinations, and hate campaigns?

Eighteen months ago the intrepid lawyer-activist Asma Jehangir filed a petition in the Supreme Court — so far without a hearing — wherein she challenged the state’s media behaviour on multiple counts. The petition identifies three media-related power centres: the information of ministry, privately owned media (overseen by Pemra) and ISPR. This public relations organisation, in contrast to private media, is apparently immune from all existing regulations.

According to her petition, ISPR’s media cell controls broadcasts in over 55 cities through its commercial FM-89.4 and FM-96 networks. It pleads that the extent of public resources committed to this purpose must be revealed. It further claims that a commercial licence was refused by Pemra in 2007 but revenues obtained from advertising, or taxes paid, are not available for scrutiny.

While PTV can be criticised it has stayed above the gutter-level broadcasts of some private TV channels.

Given that Article 19A of the Constitution asserts the public’s right to authentic and unbiased information, this petition conceivably carries weight. How the Supreme Court reacts to a matter where waters can easily be muddied in the name of national security will be interesting to watch. To be sure, no Pakistani law restricts ISPR’s role in the public domain. Equally no law prohibits disclosure of resources spent upon media outreach. But what has gone missing is transparency — a quality crucial to good governance.

In the furious race to grab the public mind, the military is but one of many contenders. Those who pursue some specific personal, financial, institutional, or ideological agenda know well that the media is indispensable to shaping minds and outlooks.

In 2007 Mullah Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio, had inspired the population of Swat valley through his mobile transmitter broadcasts supporting the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). His fiery sermons led to the cessation of such ‘un-Islamic’ activities as shaving beards, women leaving their houses without a guardian, singing, and education for girls. Soon the valley was drenched in blood.

Ditto for the gang wars in Karachi’s Lyari area, stoked by inflammatory local newspapers. These turf wars had raged since 2002 and claimed hundreds of lives yearly before grinding to an end in 2015. Earlier, gangs would transmit blood-dripping warnings and ultimatums through newspapers they controlled. Images of brutalised corpses adorned the front pages of rival papers such as Janbaz (which came to be known as ‘Don Akhbar’!), Anjam, Mahaz, etc.

Countless other examples also provide proof that disinformation and propaganda can reduce a society to bestial savagery. But the right lessons have apparently not been learned well enough.

The ongoing media campaign against a lawyer and civil rights activist, Jibran Nasir, by a well-known TV channel is a case in point. Owned by a company that sells fraudulent college degrees around the world, it is directing a series of extraordinarily vicious propaganda programmes against this young man. This campaign followed his appeal to the Supreme Court for justice in the Shahzeb Khan murder case. The confessed killer, Shahrukh Jatoi, had spent time in jail with the company’s owner and the two jailbirds are said to have developed a close rapport with each other.

I have watched these programmes and am appalled by their grossly uncivilised and defamatory nature. In another country such a channel would have been immediately shut down and the operators punished.

In one of these programme a fully masked man with a deep voice, Mr Qaum, alleges that Nasir works on a foreign agenda, is an enemy of Kashmiris, mocks Islam, and is a blasphemer — the latter because Nasir allegedly refuses to accept that the dead man’s family has the right to pardon the murderer, the son of a feudal lord. In fact Nasir vigorously refutes all these allegations including that of having challenged the religious notion of blood money. Of course, like Nasir, most Pakistanis are outraged that a murderer has escaped scot free just because he could buy his way out.

While PTV has often been criticised for uncritically carrying the state’s narrative, Pakistani private TV channels have taken broadcasting to a new low. Most channels only thinly mask the agenda of their owners or sponsors. Sadly, all are dismal copies of each other — not one stands out. There is little interest in issues such as climate change, global politics, science, or even culture. Instead the near exclusive focus is upon political entertainment — evening talk shows. In contrast to dramas and documentaries, these require no financial input or prior preparation.

The standard formula is to bring together different talking heads. The more abusive and aggressive the anchor or the guests, and the louder on-site reporters scream, the higher this drives ratings. Anchors do not permit the free flow of ideas; for the most part a scripted play is acted out. Several anchors have deliberately stoked violence against religious minorities and murders have sometimes followed their inflammatory statements hours or days later. Free from ethical pressures, they ruthlessly exploit social pathologies while suspending conscience and good sense.

While Pakistan has benefited from private TV to an extent, more has been lost than gained. Popular anchors have frequently given space and sympathy to murderers and terrorists, and broadcast every lie, rumour, and idiocy that could sell. You just have to mentally flip through some sickening images of past years: one stood outside Lal Masjid echoing the calls of the insurrectionists; another gloated over the Mumbai massacre; a third justified Malala Yousufzai’s shooting.

Gutter journalism on several Pakistani private TV channels has visibly reduced and degraded national cultural quality. It has heightened aggressive behaviour and rudeness in people’s daily interactions. While this is reversible, virtue will not descend from the skies. Instead, libel and defamation laws need to be vigorously enforced by the courts. Transparency of ownership, disclosure of financial information, respect for truth and evidence, and adherence to basic journalistic ethics must be insisted upon.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.



The web of disinformation

February 01, 2018

I.A. Rehman

THE Supreme Court’s probe into some reports about the Zainab rape-murder case has drawn attention to the havoc that the increasing reliance on disinformation has been causing in Pakistan. Any effort to identify the factors contributing to this unwelcome situation must begin with an examination of the government’s role in promoting the art of disinformation.

Everybody is aware of Pakistan being censured by international finance bodies for fudging its accounts. Nothing seems to have been done when the World Bank stopped accepting the statistics offered by Pakistan, except for swallowing the insult. Four years ago, the then finance minister was caught quoting the wrong growth figures and nothing could persuade him to recant.

The statements our representatives have been making at UN forums have embarrassed informed citizens more than once. Claims of reforms having been carried out and institutions being created have been made with disregard for the truth. Sometimes the government merely announces its intention to do something good and after some time the report-writers assume (wrongly) that what was intended must have been done.

Unfortunately, Pakistan falls among those countries that have not accepted the end of the censorship era and the rise of transparent governance as the foremost ideal of a civilised polity. Islamabad’s love of news management and its tendency to prefer secrecy to openness are well known. It still enjoys blocking foreign news channels. The Constitution requires the president and the governors to report each year to their relevant legislatures the steps that have been taken over the preceding year to implement the Principles of Policy, a requirement consistently ignored. The Rules of Business require each federal ministry to publish an annual performance report. The reports are published, it is said, but the people are denied access to them.

[( Pakistan falls among those countries that have not accepted the end of the censorship era.)]

The government dragged its feet for a decade to replace the freedom of information law with a mildly changed enactment. The provinces are not uniformly implementing their right to information laws. The Punjab government got so angry with its fairly efficient information commission that it has not reconstituted it, after the retirement of the first chairman and members.

Nobody can claim that the much-assailed system of press advice has been discontinued. Preventing information from reaching the people is considered one of the main functions of the government. A minister was relieved of his post for failing to stop the publication of a report.

The government was not content with developing its system of disinformation; it deemed it prudent to buy or co-opt newspersons to block information and thus strengthen the disinformation regime. And Gen Zia was not alone as a promoter of ‘envelope journalism’; he has had ignoble successors.

The result of putting so much premium on disinformation is that truthful news has became a commodity that can only be obtained illicitly on the black market. If a privileged information distributor told a newsperson that he could have a scoop for the asking the latter would not consider it necessary to check the correctness of the story before rushing to release it, and if he ran into trouble he might not be able to name his source.

For obvious reasons, the pressure is on newspersons to develop a code of conduct to avoid dealing in fake news and escape getting punished for it. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has an excellent code that its members and office-bearers should read frequently. The organisations of broadcasters, proprietors and editions have their own codes and some have tried to write down more don’ts than the establishment might want. The best way to keep newspersons on the right path is to respect their right to information and freedom of expression both and trust them for following their own code, as no externally devised code is likely to work.

The problem with our TV channels is that they have multiplied at a fast rate on a rather narrow talent base. They do not have the resources to generate quality content needed to sustain 24/7 telecasts. There is not enough of positive activity in the country to fill the long hours of broadcast time. The audience has so thoroughly been hooked on sleazy stuff and tomfoolery in the name of political analysis that the good deeds done by some institutions and millions of honest workers and ordinary citizens do not sell and the morning transmissions are devoted to crime stories. Some of the owners find safety in staying on the right side of the establishment, or one part or another of it, while the others are scared of it. One feels like sympathising with anchorpersons who after disposing of their guests in their talk shows have to act as experts on other talk shows, and thus have their burden doubled.

In any case the government and TV channel owners both can reduce their problems by benefiting from the recommendations made by the commission comprising retired justice Nasir Aslam Zahid and Mr Javed Jabbar, some years ago, and which are available in an impressive-looking volume.

It is necessary to bury the regime of disinformation because if the people are fed on anything but the truth they will never be able to properly exercise their democratic rights, including electing the best possible representatives, the governments will not be guided by a true picture of the state of affairs and the world will keep on trying to guess what to believe about Pakistan and what to ignore.

The situation cannot be corrected through punitive measures alone, however impossible it may be to ignore the serious abuse of freedom of expression. Matters will improve if the government sheds its fear of transparency and starts sharing its decisions, plans and policies with parliamentarians and the people at large, preferably in Pakistan’s national languages.

The media must help by stopping to ply stories attributed to ‘reliable’ or ‘usually well-informed’ sources and naming the source within the story itself.