by Nadeem Paracha
I don’t know what the situation would be once this column goes into print, but a TV channel’s all out, constant outburst against Zardari certainly seems something that has very little to do with democracy or the notion of free media.
If the PPP is to be believed, this channel is on an absurd anti-Zardari roll because the government is pressurising it to cough up the money it says it owes to banks and the FBR.
For quite some time the channel is fixated on milking to death the ‘follies’ (both imagined and otherwise) of the nation’s favourite punching bag, the president. But the channel’s puffed-chest image of being a crusader against corruption is bound to get a thrashing if what Fauzia Wahab and her comrades in the PPP-led government say is true.
The October 14 issue of Dawn quoted Wahab as claiming that the media group in question was a defaulter of Rs8 billion and an evader of taxes up to Rs1.6 billion. On October 15, Dawn then quoted Sindh Chief Minister Qayam Ali Shah repeating the same allegations. Flabbergasted at the no-holds-barred criticism coming its way from the channel, the PPP leadership finally asked its members to boycott any participation on its shows.
There is nothing unprecedented about this. In 2009, US President Barak Obama, sickened by the way Fox News was gunning for his presidency and personality, announced that he would boycott the channel. Fox News which, over the years, rode to stardom on the back of a more tabloid and sensationalist form of electronic journalism, lashed back by increasing its attacks on Obama, even to the extent of becoming somewhat lurid and far more garish.
However, once the channel’s gung-ho exhibitionism exhausted itself and its right-wing slant became all too obvious in the absence of any worthwhile Democrat politician’s participation, Fox actually began losing the kind of ratings it had enjoyed till then. It still remains a top player, but even the most conservative of anti-Obama viewers began switching to other channels to watch what Obama or any other senior Democrat Party member had to say.
The result was the gradual toning down of Fox’s over-the-top negativity regarding Obama, and the president finally ending his boycott of the channel.
PPP’s boycott cannot be termed an overreaction. In fact, as even the most casual TV viewer can notice, the channel in question has quite clearly gone rather obsessively flippant about ‘exposing and rooting out corruption’ (thus Zardari and his government).
However, there remains a relevant question: If the government is so sure about the financial oddities of the media group, then why hasn’t it taken any direct legal action against it?
According to Fauzia Wahab some of the matter is already in the courts, but the media group has been able to use the process to delay decisive action in this respect. If so, then does this also mean that the evidence against the group is somewhat weak — enough for it to make the case linger on in the courts?
The other day I asked the information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, what he thought was the reason behind the news channel’s overtly barbed attitude towards the president. He just shook his head from side to side. Rhetorically replying to his haplessness, I asked why the party doesn’t simply boycott the channel in protest. Mr Kaira did not respond to the query. Clearly till then, he seemed to be sure that the PPP men and women who are regulars on TV talk shows would be able to somewhat balance things out.
Of course, that has not happened, in spite of the fact that the party soon introduced one of its most articulate and focused men on TV in the calm and calculated shape of Faisal Raza Abidi. ‘No matter who you put on this channel, he or she will be outnumbered by government opponents, including the host,’ feels Captain Wasif, a Kaira aide.
A famous intellectual and professor once told me that some non-affiliated ‘liberal’ scholars and intellectuals have also complained that many TV channels invite them but only to surround them with the loudest of their conservative guests. ‘By doing this, it sometimes seems that these guys call people like me so we begin to look like fools. It is as if they are bent on making things like reason and commonsense look like they were alien constructs out to destroy Pakistan,’ he added.
I am not sure at what stage the government’s boycott would be by the time this article appears. But one thing’s for sure. Just as Fox News did after Obama’s boycott, Zardari and co. should brace themselves for an even more intense round of vocal assault — apart from facing what this channel loves doing: i.e. turning the act of someone even raising an eyebrow against it into a full fledged advertising campaign highlighting the ‘attack on the freedom of media’ and the network’s ‘commitment to root out corruption.’
Come to think of it, this then becomes perhaps the only ‘revolutionary’ prerogative that actually translates itself into hefty salaries for some, and healthy advertising revenues for the organisation. Very noble, indeed.