Ask the journalists...

Published: July 4, 2011 - 14:54
It’s never boring to be a journalist in Pakistan, even though it can be deadly, as the condemnable murder of investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad last month highlighted. Years of adversity have certainly toughened Pakistani journalists. They are outspoken, defiant and bold. The ‘Pakistani media’, however, is not a homogenous entity. 
Saleem’s death made headlines, but the murder of journalists in conflict-ridden Balochistan barely merits small reports in the mainstream media. The Baloch journalist Malik Siraj Akbar, editor of the online daily Baloch Hal, has lost six colleagues in the conflict during the past nine months. “The authorities have not investigated or punished those responsible for these killings. Worse still, official pressure on media outlets has led to a complete blackout of the news concerning their deaths,” he writes (‘Death is one Pakistani reporter’s constant companion’,< /03/4803/death-one-pakistani-reporters-constant-companion>, accessed on June 3, 2011). 
Target killings in Balochistan of what Akbar calls “the cream of society” — progressive, secular, middle-class, educated people, writers, journalists, students — combined with the ongoing radicalisation of the youth, means that the few moderate voices left in Balochistan speak at peril to their lives. Moderate voices in Balochistan, as elsewhere in Pakistan to a lesser extent, walk a tightrope between the military and the militants, where one man’s martyr is another man’s traitor, and vice versa. By blocking Baloch Hal, one of the few Baloch voices still calling for reconciliation, parliamentary solution, and dialogue, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) has done democratic politics in Pakistan no favour. 
The result of the silence in mainstream Pakistan about Baloch issues was exposed poignantly in a BBC video report, in which people in Lahore — the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest, most populous province — were asked what they know about Balochistan. The ignorance — and in some cases, indifference — that emerged said it all. Most couldn’t even name a city in Pakistan’s largest province (‘Punjab Balochistan ke barey mein kitna janta hai’, Sharjil Baloch, BBC Urdu online, March 1, 2011). 
Silence on Balochistan and a few other sacred cows aside, Pakistani media is, on the whole, certainly very courageous and spirited. Pakistani journalists have been arrested, tortured, flogged and killed, and newspapers have been censored and forcibly shut down, particularly during the decades of military rule. My Indian friends sometimes say that they wish Indian journalists would take such bold stands. But then, Indians have not had the kind of adversarial relationship with their State that Pakistanis have experienced. The political process in Pakistan has been constantly interrupted — compared to just one such interruption in India, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. 
Pakistan’s media is stronger and more independent than ever before, but as is evident around the world, independent media doesn’t necessarily mean better, more mature public discourse. The ratings-driven ‘big media’ are often so sensationalist and ‘dumbed down’ as to be counterproductive in a democratic discourse. 
A new factor in the equation, facilitated by the rise of the Internet and mobile telephony (and their marriage on sites like YouTube), are ‘citizen journalists’. Ordinary people documenting issues that matter to them, and making it public via email, blogs, social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) with cellphone uploads, are impacting public discourse as never before. 
Sometimes, the ‘big media’ is forced to follow the lead of the person in the street. A Sindhi language TV channel repeatedly broadcast the blood-chilling video of paramilitary Rangers killing an unarmed young man in a park in Karachi last month, but it was only after mainstream Urdu TV channels picked it up — following the buzz created via cellphone and Internet shares — that the video had nationwide impact. 
Politics in Pakistan continues to remain volatile, but a consensus is emerging around the need for a continuation of the democratic political process. This is supported in no small measure by the ‘alternate’ media world of blogs and tweets. If the current government completes its tenure, holds elections, and hands over power to the next elected government, it will be a first in Pakistan’s history. The situation in Pakistan is far from ideal, but that would be a step in the right direction. And a journey of a thousand miles begins, as the Chinese say, with one step.

This story is from print issue of HardNews