By Dr. Haider Mehdi
Media pundits convinced of the need for social justice in a democratic society strongly assert that “the mass media and individual journalists need to become the advocates for the politically homeless.” It is a powerful role that is assigned to the media by many prominent social and political critics. In fact, this concept, in no uncertain terms, argues that the media’s role in a democracy is essentially political.
An eminent media ethicist suggests that “justice for the powerless stands at the centerpiece of a socially responsible press. Or, in other terms, the litmus test of whether or not the news profession fulfills its mission over the long term is the advocacy for those outside the socioeconomic establishment.”
“… One of the ironies of democratic politics is,” writes a social scientist, “that in order to accomplish something, you first have to get elected. But accomplishing something, not getting elected, is the major work of politics.”
Is the Pakistani media socially responsible? Is it politically active? Is media power real in Pakistan?
On November 3, 2008, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, fearful of the growing political power and activity of the electronic media, arbitrarily and unconstitutionally banned several national television broadcasts. The aim was to put an end to the media’s growing political power and restrain its possible influence on voters’ attitudes for the forthcoming national elections. Another objective was to undermine the process of democratization and use the media to support Musharraf’s dictatorial political establishment. Ironically, the censorship of the media and its absence from the political scene did not help Musharraf’s party, the PML(Q), to win the elections.
Interestingly enough, the massive use of government funds, an excessive application of media propaganda and coercive manipulation of broadcasts and other media techniques did not help the Chaudhry brothers to gain voters’ confidence either. Media employment, in fact, worked against the PML(Q)’s interests.
Several media experts are of the opinion that the media is simply not powerful enough to be an agent of social and political change. This view suggests that the potency and puissance of the media is restricted to reinforcing the prevailing social and political attitudes. So the vital question is: What does Musharraf’s monumental defeat at the hands of the Pakistani voters tell us about the power of the media in this country? Is it that, irrespective of the media’s role, the public’s consciousness of political and social issues determines which direction the country will go? This view is shared by political libertarians, who believe that people are competent to understand what’s “good and rational and able to judge good ideas from bad.” The advocates of this perspective also say that “good and truthful arguments will win out over lies and deceit” because people’s rationality plays a paramount role in political decision-making. Although, as a student of media and politics, I am not completely convinced of this argument, it seems quite evident that in the Feb. 18 elections the people of Pakistan did decide the future political management of the country on the basis of rationality — as well as on the sentiments of democratization built on the harsh political experience and ravages of a dictatorship that has lasted for nearly nine years. Did the media play any role in this psychological and metamorphic transformation of the public’s attitudes and the expression of their will? If it did not, then why was Musharraf’s political establishment fearful of its emerging political power? If it did, then why was the media ineffective in PML(Q)’s election campaigning?
The fact of the matter is that human behavior is so mysteriously unpredictable. It is in this context that the Feb. 18th elections reflected a drastic change of attitude in public temperament. It proved that the media did not have the power that was imagined. However, it also seems quite obvious that the media did have an impact in that it helped create a new national consciousness quite opposed to the one that was intended by the political establishment. The Feb. 18th elections are a testament to the fact that common citizens are aware of the direct and indirect results of the different national institutions on their level of existence – and their vote resulted in a revolutionary mandate rejecting the status quo and demanding an absolute change in political structure of the country. This would not have happened without the media’s role in politicizing the masses and mobilizing the public to active participation in the democratization process.
Pakistan, at its present stage of existence, is neither a profoundly accomplished nation (consider the ramifications of the last eight years of dictatorship and growing socio-economic gap between haves and have-nots – 8% holding 94% wealth of the nation) nor a completely failed state (consider the projection of national political consciousness in Feb. 18th elections). We have PML(N) leadership holding onto the “Politics of Pure-ism Paradigm” (a concept developed by this writer) and committed to the fulfillment of election campaign promises (yet Pervez Musharraf is still in presidency without any visible signs of leaving soon). The Lawyers Movement, headed by the able and principled leadership of Aitizaz Ahsan, is pushing for restoration and dignity of judiciary (however, formulas such as Minus 1 are being promoted). The PPP, in its approach of strategic political realism and national reconciliation cover, unfortunately remains uncommitted and unclear on several important national issues (hopefully in the near future the PPP will be obliged under public pressure to respect its mandate wholly and completely). It remains an ethical and political responsibility of the media to keep the pre-election national issues alive and make the public (and politicians) aware of its power to hold the new leadership accountable.
Extreme caution will have to be taken to make sure that the electronic media is not overly dominated by sheer commercialization by the profit-making corporate sector. Take, for instance, during the April 9th broadcast of “Bolta Pakistan”, the program was interrupted several times by TV commercials. At one point, a mobile phone commercial was repeated six consecutive times followed by several other advertisements. It is quite obvious that if the corporate world controls the media, it will have tremendous influence on the content and the management of the media. Indeed, a concentrated profit-making focus in media is known to have worked against the general public interests. This will have to be avoided at all costs.
Is media power real? The universal judgment is inconclusive on this matter. Should the media be all powerful? The civil society in Pakistan needs to debate this issue rationally and logically. We have to be careful that the media does not take up the role of socio-political indoctrination as has happened in the technologically-advanced US and other western European countries.
In the present political environment in Pakistan that is exploding with the demands of democratization of all national institutions, the media will have to take the role of a Fourth Estate in the affairs of the country.
The Fourth Estate stipulates: “Media as an independent social institution that ensures that other (state) institutions serve the public.”
The Nation, May 5, 2008