Live from Pakistan

In a society as dangerously chaotic and complex as contemporary Pakistan is, it is the emergence of news channels like Geo and Dawn News, as a forum for informed public debate which offers some hope for the future of Pakistani democracy, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.
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Updated on Feb 20, 2009 12:29 PM IST
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Oneupmanship has always been an integral part of the schizophrenic love-hate relationship that exists between India and Pakistan. Sometimes serious, often trivial, Indians and Pakistanis have revelled in comparisons. Was Imran Khan a superior all-rounder to Kapil Dev? (Tough one, dead heat, I would say.) Was Noorjehan a better singer than Lata Mangeshkar? (No contest, there is only one Lata.) Is the Pakistani army more combat-ready than the Indians? (Again, no contest, size does matter.) Are Pakistani politicians less corrupt than their Indian counterparts? (Close one, although we still haven’t had a president who spent seven years in jail.)

On most counts, we’d like to believe that we are well ahead of the Pakistanis: films, music, art, theatre, there is a rich diversity and tradition to Indian culture that our friends across the border find tough to match. Let me though now suggest one area, perhaps controversially, where the Pakistanis are scoring over us: mainstream news television. Our production values may still be superior, but take away the glitzy packaging and the reality is a little more disconcerting. If the aftermath of 26/11 has revealed something to the seemingly mighty Indian electronic media, it is that a dominant segment of Pakistani news television has shown itself to be less trivia-driven, less jingoistic, and, at times, even more enterprising than us.

Had it not been for Geo and Dawn News, there is a fair chance that the Pakistani establishment would still be in denial over the country’s involvement in 26/11. It was the Geo investigation in Kasab’s Faridkot village (and the Sunday Observer report before that) which made it impossible for the Pakistan government to obliterate Kasab’s past. It’s news television which exposed the terror module’s Karachi base. And it’s the sustained questioning on Pakistani news channels of its leadership that was a contributory factor in forcing an admission about terror groups operating on its soil.

Sure, there has been the usual India-bashing at times, some of it ridiculously offensive. The YouTube video of a chat show on a Pakistani channel called NewsOne made headlines in our country for the manner in which it attempted to target ‘Hindu fanatics’ as being responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks. NewsOne, by all accounts, is a tabloid channel, designed to cater to a mass Urdu-speaking viewership that demands a certain level of support for the jihadists. It would appear that a section of the populist Urdu media in Pakistan has chosen to align itself with those civil society voices that tacitly support armed militias. During the Lal Masjid episode, it was apparent that the militants had influential sympathisers within the Pakistani media who saw them as torch-bearers of an ideological war within.

It is equally true that when it comes to Kashmir and the Indian State, the lines between the so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Pakistani media begin to blur. There is certainly less space for an Arundhati Roy-like voice within the Pakistani media than is the case in our country. Human rights activists like Asma Jehangir, perhaps, get more airtime in this country than they still would in Pakistan. On Kashmir, the dominant section of the Pakistani media wears its hyper-nationalism like a badge of honour: the Lashkar’s members for the longest time have been seen as legitimate freedom fighters when operating in the Valley.

And yet, in a society as dangerously chaotic and complex as contemporary Pakistan is, it is the emergence of news channels like Geo and Dawn News, as a forum for informed public debate which offers some hope for the future of Pakistani democracy. At a time when the Pakistani state appears to be in retreat, its authority undermined the eyes of its people, these channels have filled the vacuum. They have almost begun to set the national agenda and force an element of transparency and accountability in a system unused to being questioned.

In recent years, many courageous Pakistani journalists have used the medium to checkmate the otherwise unchallenged ruling elite, often at grave risk to their lives (witness the recent killing, of yet another journalist in Swat this week). The lawyers’ revolt against the Musharraf regime, which eventually spelt doom for the General, was played out live on Pakistani television with unmistakable commitment, providing a momentum to a popular peoples’ movement. Little wonder that the General’s biggest mistake was his attempt to censor news and close down Geo’s news programming.

Ironically, it had been the general who was principally responsible for freeing up Pakistan’s private electronic media by pushing through legislation that ended the monopoly of State-run Pakistan Television around eight years ago. There is even a suggestion that the General was driven by what he had seen of Indian private news television when, during and after the Kargil war in 1999, Indian news channels were being watched in Pakistani homes. What started off perhaps as a counter-propaganda weapon has now become a mini-revolution, with dozens of private channels of varying quality furiously competing with each other.

That competition is being witnessed in this country too. But while television news leaders in Pakistan have chosen to use their new-found freedom to discover a passion for hard news journalism and become voices of dissent, we are in danger, in this country, of moving in precisely the opposite direction. Caught between sensationalism and histrionics, the space for independent journalism in the public interest seems to be shrinking. In fact, all over South Asia, the independent journalist is more in danger than ever before. In Sri Lanka, the brutal slaying of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader, showed how many powerful forces wanted to silence the voice of a fiercely independent journalist. In Nepal, the Maoists have targeted the news media while here in India, attempts to muzzle the media are becoming more brazen.

Today, journalists in India are in constant danger of becoming complicit with the State, corporate interests or seeking the easy option of ‘soft’ stories. Yet in Pakistan, there are many brave journalists who are not only doing tough stories but they are doing so in a very hostile environment. In India, by contrast, on the day that the Union budget was delivered this week and the Taliban had edged even more precariously close to Islamabad, many news channels had found their top headline for prime time: Shah Rukh Khan’s successful shoulder surgery!

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network


    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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