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The Demise of Objectivity

The fag end of the 20th century saw freedom of the Press run on a fail-safe line in many first world countries. One of the major casualties of the 21st Century is objectivity in (and of) the media. Objectivity for the most part remains an endangered species in third world countries run by authoritarian rule, raising its head as an aberration for brief periods. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, while the rumours of its demise (in the free world) are greatly exaggerated, there are increasing signs that the media torch the Viet Nam generation lit in the US in the 60s and early 70s has come a full circle. In the wake of 9/11 the conservatives who tried to muzzle the free media in the US in the 50s using the bogey of communism (McCarthyism) are now increasingly active again. In the late 20th Century, Fox TV would have gone bankrupt with its hard rightist stance, today one of Fox’s leading anchors has become the US President’s Press Secretary.

Freedom of the Press came to Pakistan late in the 80s like a breath of fresh air with the advent of the “First Benazir regime”. While occasionally the did PM blow her top at “offending” pieces, even though I personally suffered twice in her second tenure it was more at the hands (of) and instigation of others rather than her saying, “who will rid me of this mad priest?” Govt reaction against recalcitrants was never frequent enough to warrant censure. More or less this was the same for Mian Nawaz Sharif, who barring excesses like the infamous “Najam Sethi” affair and that also because of a certified nut, he did not really target the media for what he considered “biased” reporting, i.e. when Mian Sahib read a newspaper or saw the TV. “More loyal than the King” henchmen like Saifur Rahman usually went overboard, in my personal case the personal vendetta was orchestrated by a known scoundrel during BB-2. Media’s freedom has not only been sustained under the military regime but has flourished, to the extent of “licence” sometimes in the electronic media. Letting “a hundred flowers bloom” in granting permission for more and more TV and radio stations, Musharraf’s regime has been the beneficiaries in an extended honeymoon that no previous military and/or  military  controlled  civil government has enjoyed.  To  the military regime’s credit they have been more liberal than the democratic governments before them.

Despite losing the popular vote, the Bush “National Security Strategy” annunciated in 2001 was delivered as if the new President had a unequivocal mandate from the American people to impose “Pax Americana” a la Bush on the rest of the world. Burning with desire to impose US-style democracy in the world, the Commander-in-Chief’s penchant to use force, necessary or not is a recurring phenomenon among those who have never heard a shot being fired in anger. One becomes more bloodthirsty once you rise to positions of safety and can send others to their deaths to achieve personal glory for themselves. International law does not allow such military adventures in the absence of “casus belli”, Osama Bin Laden obliged by carrying out the dastardly act on 9/11. Pre-emptive strike “a la Israel” came into the US lexicon, the modern calling card of a dominant power being “if you are not for us, you are against us!” All the freedoms jealously upheld by the US are treading a fail-safe line in the US, casualties likely to be freedom of the media following the loss of civil liberties like “privacy” and “freedom of _expression”.

Is objectivity really possible in such environment where there are only stark choices before you. One person who I took to be a friend offered me the choice of “either you sail in our boat or the other”? The modus operandi is to eulogize all their good points and gloss over and/or studiously ignore their bad ones, or simply fabricate lies. If unfortunately true of only the government it would be bad enough, it is the same for the Opposition also. If I dare praise Pervez Musharraf, my friends in the PML (N) and PPP castigate me, one leader (and good friend) even walked out of my son’s wedding when the President walked in. If you make the mistake of supporting some initiative of the ruling regime, the opposition targets you for having “sold out”. The fact of the matter is that the government can’t do right all the time and the opposition can’t do wrong all the time. The media has to be a neutral observer as well as an independent analytical media, to praise when praise is required and criticize when criticism is necessary,  that  is  objectivity. And if I may say so, for the sake of this country, narrow the gap between them instead of revelling in their differences.

The concept of “clear and present danger” requires you to handle certain issues in a transparent, even-handed but careful manner. The media has also to exercise maturity, sensationalizing to attract the largest audience can damage the national fabric. The electronic and print media can damage not only the social fabric but maybe also the national integrity. During General Elections 2002 some results started being announced when it was clear even the preliminary results were still not known. When I protested that if the actual results turned out otherwise the entire elections would become controversial, that we have a greater responsibility to the country not to air anything affecting the national fabric, one of the owners scornfully told me during a break, “which country, which nation? Our aim is to have a maximum audience!”

India is far ahead of us in the practice of what goes for democracy in third worlds. Whatever the faults in their democratic process one admires the fact that they have been able to keep the process going without outside intervention since their independence. Yet the Indian media is also far from being objective about human rights issues. One can understand that in their national interest they would want to avoid mention of abuses in Kashmir, what about Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Bodoland, etc. What about Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, etc? And what about the “Naxalites” in revolt for nearly 40 years? There is still almost no mention of it in the domestic Press. In a military-dominated democracy we have far more freedom than that enjoyed by India’s media on the domestic scene. Since internal security operations can be messy national interests may require that the flow of information in such a situation is “controlled”. Even in the “war against terrorism”, the US has learnt to “control” information flow if not curtail it altogether.

Pakistan’s image is far worse than the actual reality. In the absolute freedom given to our media, the tendency is to run riot with the “truth” as long as it is anti-establishment. This exposes  their  lack  of maturity.  We do have internal problems in FATA and a problem in the Bugti-Marri Districts (2 out of 26) in Balochistan, where is the extended analysis? This is also true of sectarian trouble, from time to time even ethnic strife. Nothing we have in Pakistan compares the thousands and thousands in violent revolt in India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Nepal in the immediate vicinity, leave aside regions further afield. Did Arunadhati Roy go off on a bend when she recently attacked India’s democratic credentials and expose the many violent insurrections? Would our domestic media have the courage to admit that compared to others we are an “island of peace”! Yet Pakistan is assailed by the media mostly from within, and that is force-multiplied by ignorant analysis and/or vested interests outside the country.

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