Media’s role in the long march & beyond
It is a privilege to be witness to a potentially historic process i.e. the beginning of the coming of age of Pakistan’s democracy. As one friend remarked on the morning of the 16th, can it be that we are finally waking up to the benefits of democracy? Although by now it has been said ad nausuem , Pakistan definitely did stand at the crossroads of history and for the last two years the way a peaceful activism has been conducted to restore justice in the judicial system is phenomenal. Lawyers Aitzaz Ahsan and Athar Minhallah are right on target when they declare that their protest has remained peaceful and “not a leaf has been damaged” in the process. Of course , during these two years, two shameful and traumatic incidents related to the peaceful activism of lawyers and citizens remain etched in public memory i.e. the May 12th carnage in Karachi and April 9th burnings. However, in my opinion these two shameful incidents were not the result of the citizens and lawyers struggle but the result of the actions of nervous, authoritarian and undemocratic political platforms. The lawyers and citizens were peaceful but governments who initiated the violence.
Thus , even these two shameful incidents cannot take away laurels , respect and awe from the lawyers and citizens peaceful struggle for justice. For me, this process is more than only about justice . I draw two personally important lessons from it.
Firstly that perhaps the middle class in Pakistan is finally coming of political age. As I had written previously a few months back, the judicial movement had one important characteristic. The groups that made up the movement for the restoration of the judges consisted of lawyers, rights organizations, doctors, diplomats, clerks, students, and retired military and civilian government servants. All these groups had one thing in common: they were all from the middle class. Therefore it will not be incorrect to conclude that the judges restoration movement is overwhelmingly actually the Pakistani middle class movement.
It remains to be seen if this middle class activism can evolve into a full fledged democratic environment and culture with an active citizenry that has its eyes on checks and balances so needed for a flourishing democracy.
Needless to say, if the middle class can evolve into a responsible and pro active citizenry , the media is it’s most powerful tool. In fact not only is the media the citizens’ tool but also its eyes, ears and voice. This is the reason why the media needs to play its role very responsibly and maturely. Since it is undoubtedly the fifth pillar , the same rules of separation of powers between the pillars of the state apply to the media also. In no way, can the media afford to be seen as being partisan. This is an important point to consider and plan for as the nation jubilates over their success of the restoration of the judges.
During the last two years, the media has certainly played an extremely active role. Such was the ball to ball coverage of the media that citizens remained glued to their television sets watching only news channels and forgetting any and all entertainment channels. The second to second reporting and coverage of events by the electronic media made every citizen an informed citizen on the day’s events making the morning newspaper almost needless .This “active” role of the media should be appreciated and all efforts to curb media freedom are condemnable .
However, as we now rest our aching feet, let us analyze this “active “role of the media. During these two years, was the media impartial and non partisan? Initially yes. The movement started off as a lawyer’s movement. However, after the attack on Geo’s office and pulling off the air of leading anchors of Aaj TV, the media became an aggrieved party too. Still, their coverage of the lawyers’ movement was merely recording of events that actually happened. When the media showed Justice Iftikhar reaching Lahore in more than twenty two hours , it was no fabrication. Justice Iftikhar did reach Lahore in this time.
However, recently with the jumping of various political parties in the fold and the maturing of the lawyers movement in these two years, one can sometimes be faulted to believe that some media coverage was not as impartial as it should be. In other words, through commentaries, reporting and messages by some media houses , it appeared as if media houses were taking sides. Let me try to elaborate with some examples:
Geo TV‘s message showing children asking for justice. A very powerful and impartially worded message. However, the message closes by showing Pakistan Tehreek –i- Insaaf’s chief Mr. Imran Khan declaring ,“ All the children of Pakistan have one demand : justice —- that’s it.
Dawn News correspondent Mr. Ali Chaudhray was reporting on March 15th 2009 from GPO Chowk, Lahore. After police started tear gassing, in under a minute , the correspondent declared, “ Great turmoil witnessed because of relentless police tear gassing “
Din News correspondent reporting from outside Mr. Nawaz Sharif’s Model Town residence that police had punctured the car of former Punjab Chief Minister Mr. Latif Khosa. Mr. Khosa was then interviewed who rightly condemned it. DIN News’s correspondent asked him as to how will he now follow the convoy of Mr. Nawaz Sharif? Mr. Khosa reaffirmed his resolve to participate in the Long March even if he had to walk but his supporters were making alternate arrangements for him. To which DIN News’s correspondent declares, “ Sir, our car is ready for you. Please ride in our car. “
Three different incidents from three different news channels. Do they reflect impartial coverage and reporting? As stated earlier, the message for justice aired by Geo was a valuable one but immediately showing an opposition political leader having a very clear stance on the issue reeked of partiality. If Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf had paid for the message then it should have been said so. But no such disclaimer was shown thus proving that it was Geo who was responsible for the message. Dawn News correspondent was rightly suffering from tear gassing and obviously there must have been confusion and hardship for the peaceful protesters gathered at GPO chowk who were being tear gassed. However, in under a minute , the correspondent could conclude that a `great turmoil” had been witnessed and the police tear gassing , was “relentless” In under a minute, the correspondent put two labels on the situation. Did the correspondent not know that his was not the task of labeling and that too in under a minute? Was the DIN news correspondent within his ambit to offer to a political leader who is out for a political cause his vehicle to ride in ? Was his task not only to report that Mr. Khosa’s vehicle had been punctured and get Mr. Khosa’s reaction?
Such evidences of impartiality are not just limited to the electronic media. On March 16th two extremely senior, well respected and well regarded journalists whose professionalism is above board jointly penned a story titled “ Sindh nationalists for judges return” Mr. Ansar Abbasi and THE NEWS’s Group Editor Mr. Shaheen Sehbai wrote, “ Chaudhry has no powers but he has the entire country behind him and that makes him the most powerful commander leading his troops to ultimate victory. His troops Nawaz Sharif, Ali Kurd, Aitzaz Ahsan, the media, lawyers, politicians, and civil rights activists have been deceived so many times…” These two senior journalists have made media a party. Part of Justice Chaudhry’s “troops” thus putting the media at par with personalities namely Mr. NawazSharif, Ali Kurd and Aitzaz Ahsan etc. The media in order to be impartial must not be reduced to side with individuals or be part of anyone’s troops. The media as Geo in an “appeal to the masses “ correctly put it “shows a mirror” For it to show anyone the mirror ,it must be impartial.
In the last two years, the media has evolved and should be appreciated. That is why democrat Sherry Rehman resigned for the beauty of the media was being marred. However, the media has to now mature and mature responsibly. This is now the appeal of at least one citizen to the media.
Gulmina Bilal Ahmad
The writer is a consultant and member of the Awami National Party. The views expressed in this article are her own and not necessarily of the party.