Media Freedoms, Coercive regimes and Blasphemy-mania

pakistanBy M. Amer Morgahi. Media revolutions in development countries are seen as important factors in democratization processes, in acquiring information and in enhancing consciousness. However, the media can be manipulated, coerced and used to develop certain consensuses that favor the ruling groups, as the example of recent happening in Pakistan show.

On 19 April, a famous anchorperson, Hamid Mir, of Pakistani Geo TV was attacked in Karachi. He was shot six times but luckily he survived his injuries. A few minutes after the attack his family and the channel accused the head of the main intelligence agency in Pakistan, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), of being involved in the incident. Apparently Hamid Mir 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 an 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 journalists. In the following days an open and discrete 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. Musharraf had thought to use these freedoms to substantiate his illegitimate rule. In the last decade, the print and electronic media has become an important force in Pakistan. However, these media developments are not uncritical. In absence of any media ethic electronic media like Geo TV are criticized for their intervention into the personal life of people, their lack of editorial control, and for introducing eccentric methods to achieve ratings. Their corporate interests always matter for these media groups, however Geo touched upon some controversial issues and therefore got military ire. It initiated a peace drive towards India by introducing exchange programs between Indian and Pakistan journalists through its program ‘Aman ki Asha’. Moreover, it was very active in highlighting the ‘missing persons’ cases in Baluchistan province, a province that is known for its . In the past ten years thousands of people of Baluchi background have disappeared, while more than five hundred mutilated and tortured bodies of these missing persons have been found recently. The channel discussed these issues while raising 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 canalized the public opinion in its favor. Government advertisements are withheld from certain un-dutiful electronic or print media groups. 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 past 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. A similar qawwali was sung during similar ceremonies among Shi’a followers of Islam, and thus is part of broader South traditional Muslim cultures. However, the event was blown up in the media and the opinion 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 Morghadi is a PhD student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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