SOMETHING that should have happened long ago has finally come to pass – women working in the media have set up a platform for voicing their concerns. They have also sought out kindred souls in other countries of South Asia.
While quite a few women have been prominent in the Pakistan media, by and large they have been at the sufferance of their employers and male colleagues, except for establishments run by women themselves. The explosion in TV journalism, however, has increased the employment of young women.
The employers value these women especially because they represent the current phase of girls’ advances in the pursuit of knowledge. In view of their numbers and the quality of their input neither their weight nor counsel can now be ignored. This is undoubtedly one of the happier developments in Pakistan society.
That women in the media should get organised is a fact that can easily be appreciated. The justification for this is the principle that has inspired the formation of women workers’ unions, associations of women parliamentarians and, of course, such trailblazers as the Women’s Action Forum.
True, Pakistani media women share many problems with male journalists and for this they have to work together in broader associations, just as all media people’s organisations have to join other civil society organisations to steady the ship of state. A separate association of media women is needed not only because there are problems specific to them but also, and more importantly, because their perspective on life and issues is different than that of their male colleagues, and also relatively fresh.
This became evident at the launching of the South Asian Women in Media (SAWM) recently. One was pleasantly surprised to note that out of the 10 grounds offered as justification for the association’s founding (and its 10 objectives) none referred to the media women’s economic demands (wages, conditions of work). And questions about lack of space for women in decision-making at the workplace, the stereotyped portrayal of women in the media, and their potential for contributing to information technologies came at the end.
Precedence was given to matters of wider national concern – freedom of expression and the right to know, people’s empowerment for inclusive politics, rights-based governance and development, end to discrimination against women, and the hazards faced by women, especially media women, in conflict situations. Unfortunately, our social consciousness has declined so much that every initiative, however laudable, is suspected. Media women should not expect better reception. But they need not worry about such irritants so long as they can overcome inertia and the ill winds of obscurantism.
Three issues raised at the launch of the media women’s association merit a serious debate by entire society. First, it was said that the media had replaced the word ‘terrorists’ with ‘militants’ to describe the men who are challenging the Pakistani state through brutal violence and are training and dispatching suicide bombers. Since the expression ‘militant’ does not carry the opprobrium attached to ‘terrorist’ the subtle switch of nomenclature could be designed to soften disapproval of the terrorists.
The effect of the linguistic trick is more consequential in Urdu. The substitution of ‘askariat pasand’ for ‘dehshatgard’ casts some of the worst criminals the world has known into a heroic mould. For one thing, a large number of people do not understand ‘askariat pasand’. For another, ‘askar’, ‘askari’ and ‘askariat’ are sacred words in Pakistan and ordinary people will have difficulty in associating anything wrong with them.
Media people everywhere know the key role nomenclature plays in propaganda. They know why the Algerian and South African freedom fighters were called terrorists while the guerillas operating in Afghanistan became the mujahideen. Is somebody trying to lull the people of Pakistan into complacency and a false sense of security by dissuading them from recognising terrorists by the only word that defines them? Something we should be thinking about.
Secondly, references were made to the notoriety some TV behroopias have gained by instigating violence against the disadvantaged. The failure of state to address the preaching of hate, which is a serious crime not only against the individuals/communities targeted but also against society, seems to have made media bosses oblivious to their obligation to prevent any abuse of their facilities by mendicants of dubious credentials.
This is not a matter that can be solved by cancelling a programme or sacking an anchor, though both are necessary first steps. Much more important is the need to raise the level of public discourse, and encourage the frank and objective scrutiny of ideas and norms presented as dogma.
Finally, the new government was called upon to define the role of PTV in the task of raising a dynamic, forward-looking, and democratic society. In view of the fact that PTV still commands a larger audience than any cable network the importance of the subject is obvious. All governments have claimed to have hatched a media policy and the new outfit is unlikely to forego the distinction. But if PTV is following any such policy the government has a lot to answer for.
It seems that PTV has never been able to get rid of its foundational flaw. PTV was conceived as the Ayub regime’s final assault on the information and culture terrain, after the press, cinema and writers had been brought under its hegemony. Further, it was floated to help Ayub Khan stay in power. The vision and the policy framework drafted by the midwives attending PTV’s birth have not undergone any substantial change (other than change of privileged faces that regime changes ordain).
Despite a long history of criticism of the bureaucratic control of PTV and the whimsical leasing out of its key positions (unabashed favouritism or rank commercialism), nobody has had the brains or the will to use PTV as the vehicle of the people’s emancipation from ignorance, fanaticism and violence.
Of late one has surely been hearing of a policy to dismantle the curbs on the media and enlarge its freedom. That is essential but not enough. Indeed, our experience tells us that allowing unbridled freedom to raw minds or people with unsavoury affiliations is as dangerous as abusing the pulpit for promoting anarchy and murder.
The new government is expected not only to avoid the devices of authoritarian rulers to gag, control and manipulate the media but also to end state control of Radio Pakistan and PTV and help the media realise its potential as an instrument of healthy change. That will be a media policy a democratic authority could proudly own. It will cover, besides newspapers and television, literature, theatre, cinema and all the arts. But that is something to be taken up in greater detail on another occasion.