Media, judge and jury | Zahid Hussain

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Zahid Hussain Article

“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,”

Said cunning old Fury;

“I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.” — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

It is deplorable that a section of the media should label the missing bloggers and all those demanding their recovery as blasphemers and traitors — something that could sound their death knell. Those targeted in this way include journalists, civil right activists, writers and even a filmmaker who won an Oscar twice. This condemnation has been going on for a number of days, the electronic media regulators have only now taken action.

This kind of public incitement can put lives at risk. The spectacle outside the Karachi Press Club last week when members of a religious group tried to assault civil rights activists who were protesting against the enforced disappearances is just a glimpse of the kind of vigilantism that is being encouraged and that is on the rise throughout the country.

The allegations against the bloggers and their supporters have continued even after the statement of the interior minister that there was no blasphemy or other charge against the missing persons. Meanwhile, the families and friends of some of the bloggers, who disappeared three weeks ago, have firmly denied that they had any link to blasphemy-related material and to the blogs or tweets attributed to them.

The fire of bigotry can destroy the entire social fabric.
Accusing anyone of blasphemy in this country is tantamount to a death warrant ie the bigots have already given their verdict and now want it executed. The forced disappearances have raised questions about the rule of law and human rights. The government has maintained an intriguing silence over the whereabouts of the bloggers that further complicates the issue. They must be produced before a court of law if there is any charge against them. The unlawful detentions and trial by media have only brought shame to this country.

Most alarming, however, is that there is an attempt to quell those voices that dare to speak out. It is a highly dangerous game with extremely serious ramifications for the democratic process in the country. The fire of bigotry can destroy the entire social fabric. Questions are also raised about the freedom of expression and freedom of the media. But freedom of expression does not mean breaching the rights of others and inciting religious sentiment.

Surely this is not the first time we have seen channel hosts accusing media rivals of blasphemy. Last year, Hamza Ali Abbasi, an actor-cum-TV host, also had to face the wrath of a TV anchor during a live programme. While Abbasi was stopped from doing the programme, no action was taken against the rival anchor. Meanwhile, a female anchor of a channel had to leave her job and flee the country after being accused of blasphemy by a rival TV channel.

Even the late singer and religious TV personality Junaid Jamshed had to flee the country after being accused of making blasphemous comments during a programme. Jamshed was able to return to the country after a public apology. But many others have not been that lucky. A few years ago, the killing of two Ahmadis was attributed to similar accusations by commentators on TV.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel: this maxim is aptly applied to those who take on themselves the responsibility of deciding who is a patriot and who is a traitor. Those who embark on a witch-hunt labelling people who question their credentials and rival channels as anti-state and accuse them of working on a foreign agenda are playing with fire. Everything then becomes ‘right’ in this no-holds-barred war of the channels.

There are also those who attempt to speak on behalf of the security institutions, while questioning the patriotism of individuals. Nothing could be more damaging for our security forces that are engaged in fighting militancy and violent extremism than being unnecessarily dragged into a dirty campaign.

That also brings into question the values and professional ethics being spawned by channels that have provided some anchors the platform they need for often pursuing their own agenda. Few channels are blameless on this score, but the unprecedented bigotry and attacks being made against journalists, writers and social activists while linking them to blasphemy nowadays is the preserve of some. No one can absolve themselves of the responsibility of sponsoring such dangerous views in the race for ratings. It must be remembered that the flame of bigotry can also burn down media houses.

It is not a battle between liberals and conservatives or Islamists. The issue involves our democratic values being threatened by the dark forces of extremism. Using religion for vested interests fuels intolerance in a society where the sectarian divide is widening. The mushroom growth of the electronic media with no code of ethics in place and the virtually complete absence of any effective editorial control has spawned a culture of sensationalism for all to see.

The rise of the power of the electronic media works as a double-edged sword. While being the most effective means of disseminating information and for inculcating social and political awareness in all segments of society that are within its phenomenal reach, it is also often used as an instrument for disinformation and falsifying the facts.

Powerful demagogues in control of the mike, and owners of channels only interested in getting high ratings have brought into question the credibility and professionalism of the electronic media. This new and dangerous trend of media vigilantism raises questions about the misuse of freedom of expression endangering the lives and freedom of others. It has become much more imperative now than ever before to enforce a code of ethics to protect the hard-earned freedom of press and democratic rights.