I am feeling quite chuffed while writing these lines. I want to express my thanks to the powers that be for forcing the organisers of the Faiz Festival held in Alhamra Arts Council Lahore on November 16-18, 2018 to ban my and two others’ participation in discussion panels. The two others are my son, Dr Taimur Rahman, and Dr Ammar Ali Jan. The organisers could not defy the dark hint that the festival as a whole may be at risk unless these instructions were complied with. I have no beef with the festival organisers. The Faiz family are old friends, almost family. The irony in this whole episode is that all three banned participants belong to the Left. There is no explanation as to their ‘sin’, which earned them the flattery of a ban from the public space at a festival celebrating the great poet and lifelong icon and doyen of the Left, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The mind fairly boggles what catastrophe would have ensued if all three individuals were allowed to participate.
But why complain of this instance of strangling freedom of expression alone? The issue is not of one or two individuals. It is far broader and encompasses by now both the mainstream and social media.
The former has been emasculated by heavy leaning on acceptable and unacceptable content, shrinking of government advertising by 70 percent and private by 50 percent. This has led to one TV channel closing down and many others, big and small, teetering on the brink of collapse. Managements have embarked on ‘right-sizing’ (which actually means downsizing), with hundreds of journalists across the country being thrown out of their jobs and many more on their way out or threatened with redundancy. Mainstream media outlets are also complaining of the heavy but invisible hand of the censor. Working journalists are out in protest at Press Clubs throughout the country against limits on freedom of the media and the financial crunch that is losing, and is likely to lose more, jobs in the industry.
Clearly, the mainstream media bubble in operation for the last 16 years (since Musharraf allowed private 24-hour satellite TV channels) has finally burst. As it is, the opening to private TV channels produced too many for the size of a media market like Pakistan’s. The wisdom earlier was that competition between these proliferating TV channels would eliminate some on the principle of survival of the fittest in a market with marked limitations. However, it is not competition but the twin menace of censorship and financial difficulties that may produce the culling expected.
Newspapers were hit with a double whammy when private TV channels proliferated. Their advertisement revenues suffered from diversion to the arguably larger (captive) audience for TV. Some of the best print journalists migrated to the greener pastures of TV, where they were joined by new recruits, especially anchors with no previous experience in the field but who nevertheless commanded huge salaries and perks. Not all of them are likely to survive the purge. Many old media friends are being readied for the chopping block.
Government and private advertising revenue having shrunk, the mountain of arrears owed by the government to media houses dating back to the tenure of previous governments also awaits clearance, with little but government assurances of redress to show so far. In the print media, the effects of the crisis have started showing in the form of reduction of pages, closure and possible closure of smaller newspapers and even iconic magazines. No good news is on the horizon so far.
If this indigenous crisis had not hit the media industry, it may have continued in its complacent state without taking account of the worldwide trends changing or threatening to change the media landscape. Print and electronic media, magazines and newspapers are threatened by the rise of the internet and social media. Young people today hardly get their news, information and entertainment from TV or newspapers and magazines. They prefer to remain glued to their computer or smart phone screens. In Pakistan, that means roughly 65 percent of the population may no longer be customers of the mainstream media. If the mainstream media is unable to reinvent itself in the brave new digital world we live in, it is likely to become history eventually. Debate on this problem has been inadequate the world over. Solutions, digital and other, have yet to offer a convincing business model in consonance with the new realities.
Mainstream media is not the only victim of the new age. Books for most youth are passé. What these generations of tech-savvy young people have failed to realize is that the internet and social media has a downside too. Notwithstanding the revolution in communications wrought by these new forms, they suffer from lack of gatekeepers, vetting of news and information, and the anomaly of putting out both correct and incorrect, true and false news without let or hindrance. This barrage of mixed up information can only cause mental indigestion, i.e. confusion. The clarity that books supply, repositories as they are of systematic knowledge, is in increasingly short supply.
In our case, the education system having been virtually reduced to degree-awarding factories without heed to the intellectual development of the system’s charges, i.e. young minds, leaves them vulnerable to the saturated news and information cycle of the internet and social media without the intellectual tools or capacity to sift right from wrong, true from false. There are by now many instances of how social media lends itself to hate speech, instigation to violence and other such anti-social trends. The answer to this conundrum is lost in the din and pace of our times, which may rightly be dubbed ‘The Age of Distraction’.
Revisiting the lines with which this column began, bans and severe limitations on freedom of the media and expression lead to the conclusion that we now live under a controlled democracy that the deep state wishes to micro-manage in order to dominate the national narrative by means subtle where possible, worse where necessary.
Dark times indeed.