Shameful media blackout

Pakistan is perpetually on the verge of watershed moments — only to find itself sinking not swimming. The peaceful #PashtunLongMarch that started in Waziristan and has ended with the still ongoing sit-in promises to be one of the latter moments.

After all, it has all the makings of a revolution. Pashtun youth, tired of witnessing their community across the generations being persecuted by the state apparatus found themselves galvanised by Karachi police murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud — the 27-year-old shopkeeper from South Waziristan who harboured dreams of becoming a model — to say no more. Never again.

The FATA Youth Jirga was one of the organisers. And according to its representatives it had marched to the federal capital to decry, amongst other things, the picking up and ‘disappearing’ of Pashtuns at the hands of a bigoted state apparatus hiding beneath the false banner of fighting terrorism. Thus the group was there to demand due process. As of this week, the protesters were said to be at least 5,000-strong in numbers.

Yet were it not for the power of social media, Naqeebullah would likely have remained just another statistic passed off as dead Taliban. Indeed, this outreach also helped precipitate the political leadership into throwing its weight behind the demonstrators. Though we hope that this continues beyond the ballot-box. What is unacceptable, however, is that Pakistan’s fourth estate has conducted an almost blanket black-out of the gathering; particularly inexcusable given how the latter had set up tents right in front of the National Press Club.

For let us be clear, the primary function of the media is that of opposition.  Not of complicity in promoting state propaganda. For, here, equivocation becomes mere matter of semantics. Thus it was the duty of media across the board to at the very least give airtime or printed space to the list of the protestors’ four demands: the arrest and punishment of Rao Anwar and his team that are responsible for killing Naqeebullah; putting an end to the incessant stereotyping and ethnic profiling of Pashtuns that gives way to extra-judicial killings; recovery of missing persons and presenting them before a court of law to hear the evidence against them, while releasing the innocent; and removing landmines from FATA.

But above and beyond all this, we, the country’s mainstream media — particularly electronic — ought to hang our heads in collective shame at the breach of trust and in the reneging on our own unwritten mandate to serve the national interest. For this blackout of a peaceful protest by civil society makes us no better than those who would try and have a reformed asset with untold blood on his hands that he will never be able to wash off give an interview to a local channel to ‘prove’ that his new leaf had well and truly been overturned. Moreover, society’s fourth pillar was happy to give coverage to the religious right agenda that saw the federal capital held hostage for almost a month towards the end of last year; while calling for the Law minister’s head on a stick.

Some sections of our industry have (rightly) cautioned against so-called trials by the media. But it seems that we have gone one step further. For what we are seeing today is the fourth estate setting the parameters of the very trial that it has decided to preside over as judge and jury. This hardly bodes well for a country that seeks to have the electorate legitimise certain militants. All in name of vengeful democracy.  *

Published in Daily Times, February 8th 2018.