In times of media curbs

The freedom of the press has nosedived since the general elections in 2018

Recently, a TV star called the main cast of the Turkish drama serial, Dirili : Ertu rul, international garbage. The reaction of Pakistani social media users was swift and unmistakable. Twitterati cut the Pakistani star down to size and reminded him of the abysmal quality of Pakistani dramas that he symbolised.

The common theme of the reaction was that Pakistani TV dramas were garbage because they projected a worldview that militated against the cultural norms of Pakistani society. What came for particular bashing was the alleged extramarital relationships and incestuous love in Pakistani plays. The irony of all this is that an unprecedented amount of media content is being broadcast in Pakistan at a time when the mainstream media is under an unprecedented gag.

The state of media freedom has rarely been satisfactory in Pakistan. However, freedom of the press has nosedived since the general election in 2018. Extreme fear and self-censorship have been the defining characteristics of the state of freedom of media post-2018 elections. Many voices critical of the state have been silenced. Many prominent voices have fallen in line, either enthusiastically or begrudgingly. Many senior journalists have been fired and media houses face financial meltdown because of selective allocation of advertising funds by the government. In this situation, it is the working journalists who are at the receiving end. Journalists deprived of their earned salaries for months on end are now the rule rather than the exception.

When real issues are not allowed to be discussed, non-issues take centre stage. Poverty, inequality, and lack of access to basic amenities of life are real issues for ordinary Pakistanis. Gender-based discrimination is also a severe problem. Another issue of utmost public interest is the nature of the social contract under which the state and the people have to operate, and how this social contract is violated to favour the powerful. Globalisation and the resulting urbanisation and uprootedness as well as fundamental shifts in the family structures, are also the problem of ordinary people.

When public opinion is muzzled, new narratives are framed in an attempt to divert the attention of the people from the existing problems. In the process, long-term damage is done to socio-economic institutions. During the time of the former military dictator Ziaul Haq, there was a complete ban on the electronic and print media on discussions on issues of legitimacy of the government, people’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and the right to democratic governance.

That also was a time marked by a sharp increase in sectarian strife and ethnic fault lines. Religious scholars were free to engage in hate speech from the pulpit and public forums, leading to an unprecedented spate of sectarian killings. It was also the time when ethnic differences reached a level where the country was virtually on the verge of a civil war.

The media has remarkable educational value. There is no gainsaying the fact that the media helps both the creation of new social norms and reinforces the existing ones.

Celebrities, for examples, are routinely hired to promote the concept of gated residential neighbourhoods with advantages like security and access to civic amenities and exclusive culture. The overarching goals of many individuals is to buy homes in posh neighbourhoods.

The current trend has helped create the oases of plenty surrounded by mystery and mayhem. How sustainable this model can be, is anybody’s guess. As regards the reinforcement of the existing social norms, media has reinforced paternalism and discrimination against women. When a girl is shown to openly challenge the decision of her family members to force her into an unacceptable marriage, it is a challenge to the existing normative structure of the society.

Voices critical of the state have been silenced. Many prominent voices fell in line, enthusiastically or begrudgingly. Many journalists have been fired and media houses face financial meltdown because of selective allocation by government’s advertising funds.

When many Pakistanis took to social media to defend the Turkish drama as an emblem of Islamic resurgence, they missed a fundamental issue. It is true that with the help of a few hundred characters, the Turkish drama created a convincing artistic narrative by pitting two great powers of the 13th century that were in the quest for global leadership against each other.

While Turkish drama effectively portrayed the military exploits of Ertugrul, the Turkish society cannot be taken as a torch-bearer of pristine Islamic values. It is erroneous to filter moral lessons from the Turkish TV drama. The reason is that except for the persona of only a few characters, the rest of the cast depicts moral abominations, such as treachery and tribal intrigues, moral simplicity, and lack of discretion.

Pakistani TV drama predominantly revolves around the issue of marriage. It is not to downplay the importance of marriage in one’s life because how an individual’s married life turns out is the single most important outcome in one’s career. Love and marriage have historically remained central issues in the world’s greatest literature. It is, in fact, the context in which the marriages take place in Pakistan that gives rise to several disturbing questions.

Marriage generally takes place in the context of a joint family system mainly headed by the father. The stock theme is that most of the protagonists feel miserable because either they are, in the words of Jane Austen, in want of a good spouse, or they have inadvertently run into bad marriages. The plot thickens when wily characters, and they are in the majority, in the microcosm of TV dramas, shatter the prospects of a happy life. Many characters now challenge the patriarchal system in terms of asserting their choice in marital affairs.

Educational institutions or the workplaces provide the necessary space for relations to develop and mature into marriages. The nuclear family system is still a distant dream for many. The match-making thus takes place in a context where the individual’s decisions have to be validated by the extended family.

According to the current orthodoxy, love marriage still lacks legitimacy. To seek legitimacy, young girls have done the duties that are becoming only of the slaves of erstwhile times. No girl can be good unless she goes the extra mile to mollycoddle the fastidious in-laws.

Once it is clear that gagging the public opinion disproportionately brings into limelight the less important issues or even non-issues of life, it is worth asking how Pakistanis would have behaved in a counterfactual world where freedom of expression was ensured. Social media provides a near-perfect answer to this perplexing question because social media provides a largely unconstrained space for the expression of opinion.

The freedom of expression that is available in social media is not being used for developing a more coherent national narrative. Ideally, the freedom of expression should have been used to air the differences and agree on the principles required for the national development. The freedom of expression should have been used to soften the angularities in public opinion on the issues of public interest, leading to mature, informed, and polite dialogue. Even a cursory look at the quality of debate shows that people are generally ill-informed, have entrenched positions, and rarely revise and revisit their views.

The bottom line is that muzzling the public opinion brings into limelight non-issues. An informed public opinion is a function of education. No real education is possible in a situation where freedoms of thought and expression are denied.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus)

In times of media curbs: Freedom of press has nosedived since 2018 general elections