Islamabad: the ace of media base

The media has become a pivotal part of Pakistan's ongoing development, writes Kamran Rehmat

Friday, August 29, 2008

A FRIEND who came calling after spending more than a decade in Japan was stunned to see the charged atmosphere in Islamabad -- this was just after an experimental coalition government was sworn in last March. The electronic media scene is what caught his attention.

One had to explain to him that, in the interim, Pakistan had undergone massive transformation and he was not the only required to make adjustments.

To be sure, the comeback political leaders, too, were trying to come to terms with the unsettling media gaze that readily made pygmies out of once-haughty power purveyors.

Indeed, Islamabad is now more than just a seat of the federation in terms of setting the news agenda.

To be sure, its capacity to enthrall the rest of the country in political terms was rarely in doubt but now more than ever, it remains the fulcrum of all activity that determines where the country is headed.

Many put this down to increased activity in the corridors of power as well as an "enhanced street theatre" -- as one observer put it -- over time.

The defining lawyers movement (supplemented by a vigorous civil society presence) following the sacking of then-Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, an unprecedented military operation at Lal Masjid (after months of disturbing militant activity) and a spate of suicide attacks (a relatively new phenomenon) have certainly, lit the stage in more ways than one.

But the federal capital, which used to be derided as being "half the size of Arlington cemetery and twice as dead" not long ago assumed a larger-than-life proportion thanks to the amplifying base provided by the daredevils of Islamabad's electronic media 'village'.

Without a vigilant media, one dare say, the lawyers movement may not have achieved the progress it did in rallying the nation.

This is not to belittle the spirit of the lawyers and the supporting cast provided by the civil society. But the fact is the movement was primed for television, with a clear understanding of what impact it would have on a public now completely, absorbed in it. In fact, some media outlets suffered the consequences of "turning it on" with their offices damaged by law enforcers, no less!

There is absolutely, no doubt that, in their avatar as harbingers of a media revolution so-to-speak, these real-time practitioners have changed the national outlook by raising the profile of public participation.

Of course, not everyone is satisfied with the level of public discourse per se. In fact, some TV anchors based in Islamabad are charged with inherent bias and politicising issues on purpose.

However, the academic debate about rights and wrongs as well as dos and don'ts cannot be partaken in isolation. The fact is the electronic media is still undergoing growing pains and will take time to evolve. This is not to condone any shortcoming in terms of content and objectivity.

However, the inescapable conclusion is that the powers-that-be have found it difficult to digest the unpalatable truth on a daily basis -- in full public glare. To them, it is an anathema to be read out the riot act and therefore, the attempt to undermine open debate and sow seeds of doubt about the motive of discourse.

It says something for the power and reach of this medium that despite a draconian blackout as part of an extended Emergency measure last year to stop the 'revolution' being televised, the hand that tried to rock the cradle was himself forced to seek a foreign hand for secure hibernation but the same muzzled media is still coming out all guns blazing.

Of late, there have been murmurs in the federal capital of the 'outspoken' talk show hosts being warned not to even contemplate "doing what you did last summer" -- a Hollywood-like reference to the electronic media's candid depiction of last year's crises originating in Islamabad that eventually, took a political toll on the ruling clique of the time.

However, such threats did not work then and are much less likely to stand the test of time in Islamabad's hot cauldron. In short, shooting the messenger is no longer a guarantee of shooting the message itself.

A whole army of media persons that has survived to tell the tale for more times than one can comfortably count is, by now, used to watching over the public interest in the form of a tall fourth pillar.

And Islamabad is undoubtedly, the ace of media base.

The writer is News Editor at Dawn News.