Honourable Lies

by Nadeem Paracha

After basking in the sudden spat of freedom provided during the early 2000s, private news channels emerged treading as close to ‘objectivity’ as possible — until they discovered the commercial wonders of what is called a political talk show. But it wasn’t until 2005 (especially during the Lal Masjid episode) that many of such talk shows started mutating into the kind of anarchic ogres that they are today.

They took on the noble idea of missionary journalism, and instead of focussing it on objective middle ground, they began moving it way towards the populist right. And what’s more, once their bosses decided that this new trajectory was actually generating better monetary results, the channels never looked back, sloganeering all the way to the bank.

Today the most popular talk show anchors across the privately owned TV channels have all emerged from this kind of scenario. Also part of this largely reactionary phenomenon is the transformation of certain non-media personalities into regular TV feasts. 

These include men and women who have become mainstays on talk shows as ‘guests’: retired generals, small-time politicians and urban clerics whose job it is to maintain the duration of their individual 15 minutes of fame by adding rhetorical colour to the talk show hosts’ flammable innuendos.

TV talk shows have thrived on building whole ‘debates’ on what almost entirely belongs to the demagogic conspiracy theory sphere. The topics of shows may have a ring of intellectualism but it does not take much time for the so-called ‘debate’ to spiral down into populist sloganeering, wild theory casting (by the ‘guests’) and self-righteous preaching (by the hosts).

The electronic media has never been in the kind of free-floating situation it is today. Though the Musharraf regime blundered by putting an old-fashioned authoritarian cap on it in 2007 — not for entirely wrong reasons, mind you — the current coalition government, led by Pakistan People’s Party, is actually the one finding its democratic credentials taken hostage by a hostile electronic media. And, ironically, the media does so in the name of democracy.

So what is that narrative echoing in the corridors of the news channels that is making some of us suspect the ideological disposition of so many of the talk show hosts? One way to find out is to track this narrative’s evolution, especially in regard to matters of terrorism.

Till 2003, when, comparatively speaking, suicide bombings were a rare occurrence, they were reported by the newly inaugurated private TV channels as bombings undertaken by Al Qaeda in reaction to the United States’ post-9/11 action in Afghanistan. However, in the wake of Pakistan’s more aggressive involvement in the US-run ‘war on terror’, the narrative began being tampered with by talk show ‘guests’ — mainly from the Jamat-i-Islami, certain retired generals who still seem nostalgically stuck in the 1980s’ Afghan Jihad and the likes of Imran Khan.

As one started seeing talk show hosts and their guests now condemn Pakistan’s involvement against what are clearly monsters, one was left baffled when reasons for terrorists’ outrage were explained as having to do with ‘tribal Pathans’ great sense of honour and the tradition of revenge. I wonder how much of the manic and rabid reactionary sparks that one saw flying around TV studios at the time of, say, the Lal Masjid episode, contributed to the construction of minds seeking violent revenge in the shape of suicide bombings against the ordinary citizens of Pakistan.

The entirely lopsided and irresponsible coverage of the Lal Masjid event was clearly the electronic media’s darkest hour. Nonetheless, with the rise in terrorist attacks on civilians, the ‘justified revenge’ narrative forwarded by the likes of Imran Khan and Qazi Hussain Ahmad began weakening, until the sudden appearance of the likes of Zaid Hamid and others of his varying ilk.

Consequently conspiratorial conjectures about Mossad/ RAW/ CIA involvement, or theories that were once restricted to obscure crackpot websites suddenly exploded on the mainstream media scene. Some suggest this was done to justify the Pakistan Army’s operation in the north-west, making it look like a fight against infidels (as opposed to it being a civil war against monsters created and ignorantly tolerated by the state).

So the following has become the new narrative: ‘Those conducting suicide attacks against ordinary Pakistanis cannot be Muslims. They have to be infidel foreigners, most probably funded by enemy governments. These agencies want to take over Pakistan’s nuclear assets and control the rise of Islam.’

Much psychosomatic gibberish like this emerges from this highly unsubstantiated narrative peddled everyday on talk shows. And if this is the only answer that these ‘experts’ have for the besieged people of Pakistan, then, I’m afraid, we truly have become a wretched nation that has decided to hold on to half-truths, myths, and fantastical stories as a means to safeguard our ‘honour,’ instead of depending more on reason. 

But, alas, there is no bigger honour than saying and respecting the truth, no matter how disturbing it might be.

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