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Updated: August 7, 2010 13:22 IST

Media Matters: Polarised positions

Sevanti Ninan
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Much as in India, there is a perceptible divide in the Pakistani media discourse about the nation and its threats…

Liberty Bazar in Lahore is the equivalent of Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market, only less cluttered. The shops aren’t exactly full of goods you want to take back — they look too much like home. But a shopkeeper retailing cloth has a grumble you would not hear back home. Ever since Star Plus became popular here, he says, the demand for saris from his local clientele has gone up.

Cut to a member of the Punjab police posted in the hotel corridor, eager for conversation. “I’ve been stationed here for you all,” he says hospitably. “Bombs everywhere. We want to protect our foreign guests.” Indians value education, don’t they, he wants to know. “I watch your talent contests on TV. I watch Boogie Woogie. But my mother watches Star Plus… I love cricket so much — I am such a fan of Sourav Ganguly. And I wish I could go to India.”

Nationalistic zeal

But what Pakistanis get on their news channels offsets any positive impression our colourful melodramas and noisy reality shows may create about India. For each self-styled television patriot we have here, there seem to be half a dozen there. But can you imagine how many we would spawn if we were as much under siege?

Three-and-a-half days on the soil of a neighbour with whom we have a fractious relationship is not long enough to gain perspective, only pointers. On television and in newspapers, Pakistan’s media is telling people what to think, and there is a perceptible divide. Between English and Urdu, between The Nation and Dawn, and between those who think the Kerry Lugar Bill is a good thing (very few), and those who don’t. Pakistan’s media discourse is consumed by the KLB. They have even stopped spelling it out.

The morning after the General Headquarters attack the editorial in Dawn thinks this is partly a signal that the Enemy out there is feeling the heat. “It is clear that the Taliban and their affiliates are feeling the pressure of the military offensive…they are getting desperate.”

The Nation begs to differ. It is the Americans and the Indians, it says, pointing out that the timing is significant. The “incident occurred at a time when Islamabad was begin invaded by the US lobbyists for the KLB…” The other significant thing about the timing, it adds, is the fact that it follows the blast at the Indian embassy in Kabul. Right after that attack came two on Pakistan, the one on Peshawar, then this. “The Indian hand cannot be ruled out…”

Thriving on emotions

Khaled Ahmed, the rare Pakistani editorial commentator (for the Daily Times) who also comments on the media, says the Urdu press thrives on emotion, as with the language press elsewhere in the subcontinent. And from there it is a short distance to spewing poison. “I think our language press express nationalism more than they express information. The Urdu press scrutinises the state of nationalism, the English press scrutinises the state of the nation.” He thinks it is significant that the Urdu papers there do not have pages on the economy whereas all English newspapers have at least four, if not more.

Khalid Farooqi, the editor of an Urdu paper belonging to the Jang group, says delicately in Hindustani, “some elements in this organisation have a narrow soch (perspective) about India.” He then goes on to offer another way of looking at what happened in Mumbai. “Mumbai was terrorism, the fall of Dhaka was Dushmani (enemity),” he says.

By way of explaining the virulence of Pakistani television, he says 80 to 90 per cent of the electronic media anchors come from the ranks of reporters. “If you are a reporter you need a strong editor. But the channels have no strong producer to rein in these anchors.”

He also makes the point that the rise of satellite television has meant a quantum increase in religiosity on both sides of the border. “When we had only PTV we had may be half an hour a day of religious programming on TV, including something on Koran for children.” Now there are four or five religious channels on TV. “What you used to hear over a year before you now get in a day.”

From comments about the ISI’s (Inter Services Intelligence) influence on the media that Pakistani journalists make, often jocularly, you get the sense that it plays the same role there that Indian spokespersons for the foreign office and the security establishment play here. Direct regular briefings to journalists, among whom there is considerable receptivity. “They use all the column writers and TV anchors,” journalists tell you privately. Hamid Mir, often seen on Indian TV channels, and his channel GEO are seen as favoured by the ISI with information and leaks. Even while we were there Mir was on an Indian news channel, revealing that it was the ISI that had founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed in the Red Mosque.

CNBC Pakistan has a programme called “Awam ki Awaz” which invites audience response to the big issue of the day. The messages it scrolled the day after the GHQ attack, reflected anxiety, jingoism — read what you will into them: We must take our fight with India into Afghanistan…We must stop Afghans from moving into India…I love Pakistani army. I love ISI. I am proud of being a Pakistani…”

At the end of the day, the media industry in Pakistan is vociferous, but by Indian standards, small. Their economy does not support the sort of numbers you can get in India. A successful magazine there will sell maybe 20,000 copies. Long running monthly magazines such as Herald and Newsline are good and respected. But Khaled Ahmed says the effort to convert them into weeklies has not been successful. “Since the Indian economy took off it has been great for your media.”

Keywords: Pakistannews media

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