The public believes that mainstream media hide or distort the facts, willingly or unwillingly, to fit their content between the unmarked lines that decide if the news or opinion piece is published or if it is binned — which is almost true.
Since Urdu is the main language of communication in Pakistan, and journalism is said to be the first rough draft of history, Urdu journalism occupies centre stage when it comes to freedom of the media.
To discuss the past hundred years of Urdu journalism, seven prominent Pakistani journalists — Asma Shirazi, Wusat Ullah Khan, Owais Tohid, Mazhar Abbas, Suhail Warraich, Wajahat Masood and moderator Waseem Badami — shared the stage at the 13th International Urdu Conference at the Arts Council on Saturday.
Masood, editor of news and opinion website HumSub, said that the collective identity of Urdu journalism, built since the end of the first world war and the beginning of the independence movement in India, revolves around conservatism and the love for power or for those in power. He said that unless the Urdu media, particularly, connects itself with contemporary issues such as gender biases, minority rights and forced disappearances, it cannot acquire the status of journalism.
To support his argument, he asked: “Why don’t news from Baluchistan, issues of minorities, gender-based violence get enough space or air time in the Urdu media?” He was not too optimistic about seeing better journalism in the future because, in his opinion, the industry was not compatible enough to absorb the free and curious minds of the younger generations.
Era of puppets
Asma, host of Aaj News programme Faisla Aap Ka, seconded Masood’s view and said that it was the era of puppets who danced on the whims of their masters.
She did not explain who these masters were, but referred to another example: “Back in the day, there was only one PTV [state-owned broadcaster Pakistan Television Corporation]; today there are 70 PTVs.”
She said the strategy to control the media started taking shape in 2007 and had so far expanded to create a remote-control society, where not just journalists but also actors, physicians, academics and people from every other walk of life who have a tendency to influence ought to stay within certain limits. She added that resistance (before the status quo) was a crucial ingredient of journalism that had depleted, yet not completely, and it must be revived to save history from being tampered with.
Beyond the line
Warraich, host of Geo News programme Aik Din Geo Kay Saath, was positive about the current state of journalism. He said that martial laws had imposed the worst censorship, but nowadays journalists faced difficulties only because the censorship was undeclared.
“In my opinion, the exposure that journalism has gained in the previous 100 years is unparalleled. This age has been influenced by journalism, because whatever you think, opine or reflect has somehow stemmed from a piece of information or opinion by a journalist.”
He suggested that a journalist should write beyond the line, otherwise the line will shrink, but still not to the extent that the line would cease to exist altogether.
Journey still on
Abbas, senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang, said that the journey of resistance against tyrannical rule that started from Urdu journalism was still under way in the English media, although not with much vigor, yet still keeping the hope alive.
He said that the establishment was particularly afraid of Urdu journalism because it spoke the language of the people. He pointed out that since the Jang/Geo and Dawn media groups were resilient to the pressure, they have been on the receiving end of draconian curbs by those in power.
He also said the government and the state were trying to confuse the public about their trusted sources of information just because they were wary of losing their sway if the public were to become aware of what was happening around them.
Tohid, who recently resigned from PTV over “one-sided pro-government coverage”, said that the 90s were highly vibrant for journalism because private owners entered the media market and the industry grew, but the ouster of Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s government made enough space for its exploitation.
“Media owners started to think of themselves as kingmakers. The establishment saw this and decided to capitalize on it, and the current situation is the product of it.” He said journalism faced major challenges of tackling the international populist politics trend and the civil-military imbalance in the country. “Either you are with them or against them,” he remarked, lamenting that the value of neutrality was decreasing.
Rebel vs lobbyist
Khan, co-host of Dawn News talk show Zara Hut Kay, said: “Neither are we bad nor are we good.” He shared an anecdote to express his view on the situation: The oppressor has a limit beyond which they would not oppress someone, and the oppressed must set an outline around them to prevent being oppressed.
He said journalism had been good when the journalist was a rebel and not a lobbyist. “In the past century, journalism may have grown in terms of quantity, but the standards have dropped drastically.”
Badami, host of ARY News programme 11th Hour, ended the discussion with reading out a couplet by poet Ahmed Faraz, father of Federal Minister for Information & Broadcasting Syed Shibli Faraz: “Shikva-e-zulmat-e-shab say tou kaheen behtar tha / apnay hissay ki koi shama jalaatay jaatay [Instead of complaining about the darkness of the night, it would have been better to light a candle oneself].”
Newspaper: The News