Media Freedoms, Coercive regimes and Blasphemy-mania: M. Amer Morgahi
Guest post by M. AMER MORGAHI
[What the corporate interests have done to the Indian media the military is doing in Pakistan. In the continuing face-off, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has suspended Geo TV’s license for fifteen days and imposed a fine of $ 104, 000 on it. See report here]
Media revolutions in different developing countries are seen as an important factor in democratic process, in acquiring information and in enhancing consciousness. However, the media can be manipulated, coerced and used to develop certain consensuses that favors the ruling groups, as the example of recent happenings in Pakistan shows.
On 19 April, a famous anchorperson, Hamid Mir, of Pakistani Geo TV was targeted in an attack in Karachi. He was shot six times but luckily he survived his injuries. Just minutes after the attack his family, and the channel named head of main intelligence agency of Pakistan, Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), for its involvement in the incident. Apparently the anchorperson had named his would-be killers, and the channel released the allegation with pictures of the intelligence head. The military intelligence denied the allegations and asked for impartial investigation. It was not the first attack on a journalist in Pakistan. Since its participation in the so called ‘war against terrorism’ the country tops the list of those considered dangerous for the journalists. In the following days an open and discreet media-war started between the Geo and other print and electronic media, as well as different state and non-state actors, allegedly supported by the intelligence agencies.
The Geo TV, part of a dominant media group in Pakistan, emerged following media liberalization introduced ironically by the former military ruler, general Musharraf. He had thought he would use these freedoms to prop up his illegitimate rule. In the last decade, the print and electronic media has emerged as a force in Pakistan. However, these media developments are not uncritical. In absence of any media ethics, the electronic media like Geo have also been criticized for their intervention into the personal life of people, lack of editorial control, and for introducing eccentric methods to achieve ratings. Their corporate interests always matter for these media groups. However Geo TV touched upon some controversial issues and incurred the military’s ire as a result. It initiated a peace drive towards India by introducing exchange programs between Indian and Pakistan journalists through its program ‘Aman ki Asha’. Moreover, it highlighted the ‘missing persons’ cases mostly in the insurgency-hit Baluchistan province. For the last ten years thousands of people of Baluchi background have disappeared, while more than five hundred mutilated and tortured bodies of these missing persons have appeared in the last couple of years. The channel discussed these issues and in the process, raised its finger towards the military and intelligence agencies.
To protect itself from these eventualities the agencies in Pakistan check the media freedom through the mechanisms of control, intervention and intimidation. Thus the military intelligence has implanted its media figures that channelized the public opinion in its favor. Government advertisements are withheld from certain electronic or print media groups who refuse to toe the military’s line. Ultimately street power is used to mobilize people to create favorable opinion on certain issues. All these methods were used to convey a message to the ‘rebels’ of the Geo group in the last weeks. On the night when the Geo accused the ISI general, it was immediately closed in cantonments, a complaint was sent to the PEMRA—the media regulating body, to ban the Geo, and pro-military political groups were mobilized with the slogans ‘we love our armed forces’. In this context Geo was declared ‘traitor’ and working for ‘state enemies’.
As if that was not enough, the blasphemy charges were brought against Geo in a last attempt to enforce a closure of the channel. This occurred when the Geo held a marriage ceremony of the Bollywood Pakistani actress Veena Malik. Veena Malik, who recently also was portrayed in Femke Halsema’s program ‘Seks en de zonde’, is controversial in Pakistan for her ‘bold’ acts in Indian movies, and for her opinions about social and religious issues. Recently she married and the Pakistani media, led by Geo, re-enacted her marriage in its morning show. During the ceremony a qawwali symbolized the marriage with the marriage of Ali and Fatima— nephew and daughter of the Prophet. Such qawwali was sung during similar ceremonies among Shii followers of Islam, and thus is part of broader South traditional Muslim cultures. However, the event was blown up in media and opinions of different religious scholars were asked about the permissibility of such qawwali. Fatwas of blasphemy were proclaimed and even a blasphemy case was registered in the local court under infamous blasphemy act of Pakistan. The series of these events shows the manipulative aspects of the ruling groups to effect the ‘free media’, and how the consensus on certain issues are created and enforced for their benefit.
M. Amer Morgahi is working as a researcher at the faculty of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands