What is the Cost of a Free Media?

The Pakistani media is giving the Taliban’s wrongful stance an importance it never deserved.

pakistan-free-mediaTalks with the Taliban are yet again on the verge of breakdown. Among the main bone of contention between the two parties is the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Pakistan. Regrettably, the issue of Sharia is not only one of the main causes of discord between the Pakistani and the Taliban negotiators but has also polarized the population of the country. A cardinal reason for this polarization is the “free” media of Pakistan that immediately gets “hijacked” at the hands of dramatic topics such as this.

Instead of channeling the national mindset to a single page at this time, the “free” media is widening the already insurmountable rift between the secularists and the conservatives in the country by churning the absolutely non-negotiable issue of Sharia raised by the Taliban into recurrent, fiery debates on paper and on air. In short, a free media is a dangerous thing in a hot-blooded country that thinks more with its heart than its head.

Objectively, the Taliban demand for Sharia law is unacceptable at its core for many overwhelming reasons; the outstanding one being the audacity of negotiating with branded terrorists who have declared an all out war against Pakistan.

This said, there is little reason to debate the right or wrong of, let alone even consider, the demands put forth by the Taliban’s side. However, ironically enough, the Pakistani media itself is the very reason such baseless discourses even gain heat in the country. At present, it is because of the leg room given to the debate on Sharia and related issues in the Pakistani media that half of the 180 million people of Pakistan are suffering from a dearth of clarity about how they should feel vs. what they really feel.

Two divergent points of view

Ever since its creation in 1947, there have always existed two main groups in Pakistan who don’t always see eye to eye, but have nonetheless reconciled to coexist by agreeing to disagree. The conservative camp believes Pakistan to be an Islamic state because the country was founded on an Islamic ideology even if its main constitution is designed according to the British law. As for the secularists, even though they believe in going with the tide since they feel that holding on to a 65-year-old ideology is not going to fish out the country from its abysmal depths, they still respect religious boundaries and do not attempt to transcend them.

This is why when the question of Sharia blatantly raised by the Taliban is discussed in the media continually, it leaves the citizenry confused about where exactly their loyalties lie. Although even the least educated Pakistani is now convinced that the Islam the Taliban profess is a distorted and rather warped version of the religion, faith is still a territory one treads on very gingerly and cautiously.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in April 2013, an overwhelming 84 percent of the country’s Muslim supported having Sharia as the supreme law of the country. This again indicates how well the Taliban are playing their cards as they attempt to gain support from the Pakistani public. They know quite well that no matter how much Pakistan may tilt towards secularism, the fact is that there has always existed a very delicate balance between religion and secularism ever since the time of its creation.

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So how is the media making an already bad situation worse?

The media is giving the Taliban’s wrongful stance an importance it never deserved. Rather than make it very clear to the public that it is possible to support the Sharia without making it look like they were in fact supporting the Taliban, the media hype over the issue is doing the exact opposite. In the process, it has created a massive divide between religion and secularism at a time when the country just needs to come to a single page; operation-cleanup-Taliban.

Over the past few decades, there has been a burst of volatile talk shows on the local media that cash sensationalism. In order to boost ratings, the guests, highly visible political and social figures, are often selected for their fiery stances and views on current affairs. Since the talks started, this has resulted in steamy face-offs between the pro-Sharia personalities and those who see the Taliban for what they really are. It would be an understatement to say that television is a very important part of every Pakistani household.

In Pakistan the increase in the number of private channels after 2000, and especially those with licenses to broadcast news, has been phenomenal to say the least. Between 2002 and 2005 this has number tripled. Consequently, viewership leaped from 40 million to 124 million.

Where there were 10 million homes with televisions in 2002, there were 20 million in 2012

It is agreed that current affairs should be the top story of the day but not when it distorts and blurs public perception on sensitive issues that determine national security. Currently these include a spew of redundant debates on give and take the same issue of Sharia, what kind of Muslims the Taliban are, whether Pakistan should abandon all talks and start operations, etc.

Being Muslims, people feel uncomfortable in openly denying Sharia rule in a country that was founded on an Islamic ideology. Yet, they also cannot negate the intense damage being rendered by the fundamentalist stance of the Taliban who in no way support Sharia in the manner it is outlined in Islam.

Though freedom of press makes it impossible for these shows to be limited or monitored, at a critical time like this, it is essential to put the security of the country above a freedom that is shackling the national mindset to confusion and needless squabbling in the process. Pakistanis need a collective conscious that needs to be free from secular or religious influence. The media needs to give the message that it is time to finally get rid of an enemy that is playing with the minds of an 180 million strong population by exploiting their religious sentiments.

I agree that anchors and talk show guests have the right to an opinion. However, this is not the time to present multiple narratives on critical issues whether they are on Sharia law, jihad, or whether the Taliban terrorists killed in military operations will be martyrs.

Aalia Suleman is a freelance writer from Karachi, Pakistan. Her writings can be accessed at sociopoliticallypakistani.com. Aalia can be reached at aalia.suleman@gmail.com. Read other articles by Aalia.