Selective perception

When media tries to prove itself more patriotic than others, it tramples public interest.


The French statesman, George Clemenceau, who led his country in the first world war, famously said, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.” Well, times have changed. Mass media, considered to be a soft power for a long time, has assumed an active and over-reaching role in trying to influence matters as serious as public policy, diplomacy, and at times, war.

In the case of countries where media’s dominating role is restricted to commercial interests only, perhaps the situation is still under control. However, if the countries are involved in a conflict, the game becomes a little more complex, and dare I say, extremely dangerous. The jingoism being displayed brazenly by media, and the professionals running the show, in both India and Pakistan these days is a prime example of that. News television channels are particularly running wild in whipping up war hysteria with no regard whatsoever for the implications any such adventure might have for the future of either country in the short and long term.

According to a recent report issued by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, television news viewing in western countries has declined by 3-4 percent since 2012 and is likely to reach a staggering 25-30 per cent over a ten-year period. This reduction in news television viewership is in line with the decline in newspaper readership as the audience is showing an increasing shift towards online mediums. Not quite in India and Pakistan where news television in private sector is a booming business and has sown exponential growth during the last two decades.

Ratings-driven television stations, in their quest to attract eyeballs, are going to every possible length to form public opinion in favour of another war between India and Pakistan. Be it the framing of news stories, the choice of words, the selection of guests for talk-shows and sound bites, or the ever-frenzied anchors, everything is pointing in a certain direction. Anybody refusing to wear overt patriotism on his/her sleeve is being termed a traitor, and the governments are being egged-on to show more aggression towards the “enemy”.

Whether these media houses are punching above their weight or the viewers are taking this content too seriously is another debate, but a dangerous game is on for sure. The television channels are apparently pushing both the leadership, and the general public, in both countries to the brink where restraint is off the table and anybody hinting even slighting towards this option is frowned upon.

What is most amazing in this circus is that the basic rule of thumb — objectivity, has been thrown out of the window. The trigger-happy anchors, and the hyper-nationalist news managers appear to believe everything coming from the government and military circles without questioning the content or the rationale, as if any such move would brand them a traitor as well. To make matters worse, social media gossip has become mainstream news. Actor Fawad Khan was condemned by Indian news channels for allegedly saying “Pakistan first” after his exit from India. Nobody reported that this story was lifted from an unknown website that carried it first with the disclaimer that “it was not verified”.

The manner in which the Indian and Pakistani television stations are reporting incidents, and particularly statements originating on either side, is utterly questionable to say the least. Om Puri, Mahesh Bhatt, and Salman Khan were Pakistan’s hero because they spoke in favour of Pakistani artists but Humayun Saeed was not, only because he disagreed with the call to ban Indian films in local theatres. These double standards are sickening and hint at a tendency to take the audience for granted by playing on their emotions.

These news channels take pride in “informing” and “shaping” public opinion. Shaping? Yes. Information? Not quite. There are several surveys that have provided evidence that those who watch a lot of television news, or believe everything that they watch on the idiot-box, actually know less. In a survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2012 that aimed at gauging the knowledge of American public about current affairs over a ten-year period, the results were shocking and exactly opposite to the popular belief.
However, one finding from the survey that the “ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, were just talking to one audience” captures the essence of what is happening in India and Pakistan these days. Media in both countries is knowingly preying on a select group of audience that has been brought-up on a steady diet of hyper-nationalism and doctored history and is unable to fathom reality in any other way.

Another survey conducted by a team of researchers in eleven countries was published in 2013. The main findings of the survey were foreign news offered by the main TV channel, was quite limited in scope, and mainly driven by a combination of national interest and geographic proximity. This interplay of framing and securitisation is driving the content of mass media in India and Pakistan. When the national security interests take over, and the consequences of going against the tide are grave in nature, the media professionals tend to choose the easier route. It suits the interests of the powers-that-be as well because the blatant show of patriotism, and the game of accusations and counter-accusations, helps mask the actual issues like poverty and governance that concern the common man. The quest to please the pressure groups is real, and immediate, and the public interest, well, is not such a priority when it comes to “national interest”.

Most of the arguments here pertain to the electronic media, only because they have held the most sway overtime. The print media is no different though. They are trying to match their illustrious partner (news television) at every step in this tango dance, albeit on a war song. The kind of adjectives being used in the headlines and news stories, and the pictures being printed to go with the news stories, are nothing short of selective perception. The only agenda appears to be to prove themselves, and their organisation, more patriotic than others even if it means that facts have to be concealed, distorted, or made-up.

Those who suggested that the news anchors from both sides, who are crying hoarse for the use of force, should be sent to war first, are wise, but who cares for sanity when emotions are running so high. The ruling elite in both countries, instead of being cognizant of the situation and showing some restraint, appears to have taken the bait.

How long will they be able to resist the temptation to act the way media wants them to is a frightening thought. Whether the media professionals will take a deep breath and do some soul-searching is perhaps too distant a dream as things stand now. They have smelled blood and would settle for nothing less than seeing this blood being spilled in a theatre of war.

This article first appeared in The News on Sunday on October 9, 2016.



ARY takes over BOL: New trends in Pakistani media industry

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The embattled TV channel, BOL’s story has taken a significant turn. ARY CEO, Salman Iqbal has announced to take over the yet-to-be-launched television channel in front of a packed house at BOL’s headquarters in Karachi that generated thunderous applause. The merger/take-over has been made possible under a percentage formula agreed upon by the managements of both BOL and ARY whereby the administrative control of BOL will rest with ARY.

This sets a new precedent in the media landscape of Pakistan, and particularly the television industry that has so-far been marked with fierce competition and hinging the bets on the downfall of others. To their credit, ARY management was also the first one that announced to stand by the BOL employees, who were facing an uncertain future after the NYT expose of Axact, BOL’s parent company, almost three months ago. Under the circumstances, this presents the most viable alternative for BOL and its employees. The protests that they had been arranging during this period to press for BOL’s launching were nothing more than a shot in the dark.

The take-over by ARY and the resolve to launch BOL within the next three weeks must have become possible after some background assurances from the powers-that-be. If the change in command helps troubleshoot the impediments in the issuance of the no-objection certificate (NOC) to BOL to kick-start formal transmission, it certainly will be a welcome sign. This will also resolve the most pressing issue (future of BOL’s employees) in the near-term that was also the primary concern of the journalistic community and the government. In the wake of this latest move, only time will tell whether the decision of those who couldn’t wait that long and have already left BOL for other channels was justified or not? The way these mass departures will impact the day-to-day running of BOL in future is another debate altogether.

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However, there are some long-term questions that will spring up once the dust on the take-over euphoria settles down. To start with, whether ARY management will be able to keep the inflated salary structure of BOL and provide all those facilities promised to the staff earlier by Mr. Shoaib Shaikh? If it happens to be the case, how will Mr. Salman Iqbal reconcile it with the salary structures of employees working for other ARY channels? The second question pertains to the promises that journalists will be making all the editorial decisions in BOL. The editorial freedom enjoyed by ARY staffers so-far is as good or as bad as any other player in the market. One doesn’t expect a radical change after this take-over either.

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It is difficult to predict the future but if ARY’s almost 15 years old legacy is any indication, BOL will just be another kid on the block with salary structures in line with the prevalent industry standards. Regarding the editorial freedom, the less said the better. Even with those limitations, addition of another competitive outlet can only be termed good for the overall health of the industry. The ARY management and those associated with BOL will do well though if they get rid of the “biggest TV channel” rhetoric and be a little realistic. The illusion (or should it be called a pipedream?) that Mr. Shoaib Shaikh was so successfully able to create and sell, albeit for a whisker, is well and truly dead.

There is enough food for thought in this development for other media owners in the market. One does hope that this take-over paves the way for other such mergers whereby the media organizations doing well and willing to expand would think about negotiating a deal with other smaller / struggling entities. This will only make these smaller organizations commercially more viable and resolve at least some of the complaints about working conditions and delayed salaries.

Archive – Blast from the Past



(Originally published in Daily The News, Pakistan)



(For Indo-Asian News Service – IANS, India)



(Originally published in Express Tribune)



(Originally carried by

TTP chooses Fazlullah, makes intentions towards Pakistan clear

TTPBy Awais Saleem

It’s official. Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has elected a new chief. In doing so, it has displayed such uncanny clarity regarding its path ahead that it is difficult not to envy it. By choosing a leader who is known for his extremely hardline stance and a personal history of hostility towards the State of Pakistan, they have made their violent intentions quite clear.

If there was any confusion as to what kind of conclusions can possibly be drawn from Mullah Fazlullah’s elevation, the new TTP chief himself has minced no words in rejecting the idea of holding peace talks and making it evident that the battle-lines are drawn. The hopes for a negotiated peace settlement, as some have argued, are thus nothing but daydreaming.

The TTP has given this message loud and clear at a time when Pakistan, despite being torn by terrorism for over a decade now, continues to search for the right kind of narrative – let alone strategy – to combat it. Much of the debate in the aftermath of the killing of Hakemullah Mehsud (Fazlullah’s predecessor) in an American drone strike last week betrays logic. It has only highlighted the disarray with the ranks of ruling elite when it comes to a counter-terrorism strategy while also compounding the existing confusion within the society.

While the soft stance of politicians like Imran Khan, Syed Munawar Hasan, Molana Fazal-ur-Rehman and the likes towards militants is already known, the way they have gone berserk in portraying Hakeemullah and TTP, at war with the State of Pakistan, as heroes, certainly raises alarm bells. These leaders do owe a clarification or two for equating the killing of a most-wanted criminal with the sacrifices given by thousands of innocent Pakistanis and soldiers in this valiant fight.

However, it is the abject manner in which the central government, represented by interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has chosen to align with these TTP sympathizers that raises the red flag. When a State starts falling prey to populist jingoistic narrative, this can’t be taken as anything else but meek surrender. Half the battle is in the intent, which this government has looked like losing from the word go.

Whichever way one tries to analyze possible reasons for this official posture, it appears mind-boggling. If the Nawaz government is doing it out of the fear of losing the right wing’s support to more radical parties, it is risking the country’s very existence. In case the government believes that burying its head in the sand will save it from TTP, they are again mistaken. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, holding fort in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has tried it and lost three of its legislators (including a sitting law minister) so far in just four months. Just how they refuse to learn their lessons, despite the TTP giving an emphatic snub to their ‘lovey dovey’ overtures, is a debate for some other time.

Lastly, if the regime thinks that the killing of a terrorist can be used for gaining leverage in diplomatic relations with the U. S., in a replay of hyped reactions after Osama bin Laden’s killing in May 2011, this is as bad a strategy as one can think of. The ethical and legal considerations surrounding drone strikes as well as the violation of national sovereignty are indeed genuine concerns, but how can that be allowed to give credence of anti-state elements is quite perplexing. These are two entirely separate issues and must be dealt as such.

The policy of appeasement has been counterproductive previously, and it is highly unlikely to work in future. Mullah Fazlullah himself played the role of the wrecker-in-chief when a peace agreement was negotiated in 2008 between his father in law, Molana Sufi Muhammad (head of the Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi) and the provincial government (Awami National Party) of the time for imposition of Shariah law in Malakand. It didn’t take TTP long in violating the terms of agreement that eventually led to the military offensive in order to cleanse the valley of militant elements.

More recently, Pakistani security apparatus has been raising concerns over Mullah Fazlullah’s activities in Afghanistan, allegedly in sync with Afghan intelligence, to wage terrorist activities in Pakistan. Just days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made his intention to hold talks with TTP, Fazlullah orchestrated the attack in which Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi (G.O.C Swat) was martyred. Prior to that, he masterminded the attempt to kill teenage prodigy, Malala Yusufzai last year.

Thankfully, Malala survived, but the militant ideology that has been so pervasive in today’s Pakistan, owing to these jumbled priorities by the politicians and sections of the media, has continued to thrive. With Fazlullah’s elevation to the TTP throne, this ideological battle has become official. There is no clear answer as to what the result will be, but the initial signs are dangerous and don’t inspire much confidence.

Desperate times, it is believed, call for desperate measures. Present times are indeed desperate for Pakistan but the measures to confront such an arduous challenge are nowhere in sight. Shallow sloganeering and point scoring will serve nobody’s purpose. This war requires immense clarity of thought and impeccable courage to take action. It will not be won by any half measures. But the way things are going, merely calling for a rational approach, sadly, sounds like asking for too much.

Congress move for Dr Afridi’s US citizenship not legally binding

rohrabacherCongressman Dana Rohrabacher had moved a bill on Friday with the recommendation to grant US citizenship to Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who has been under custody in Pakistan on charges of covertly running a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad to help CIA reach Osama bin Laden s compound.

The US state department s spokesperson, Victoria Nuland said “we are aware of the Congress resolution forwarded for granting US citizenship to Dr. Shakeel Afridi”.  She, however, stressed that the bill had not been finalized as yet, and neither had it been formally presented in the Congress.

“Such resolutions forwarded by individual members, even if approved, are only recommendations and have no legal binding on the administration”, she stated. The Pentagon spokesman, George Little also declined to publicly comment on the case of Dr. Shakeel Afridi in a separate briefing.

He, however, emphasized that “anybody helping US to reach Osama bin Laden was working against al-Qaeda and not against Pakistan”, hinting that the US was not really happy with the treatment meted out to Dr. Afridi, who was being accused of treason for helping a foreign country s forces covertly.

The spokespersons of Pentagon and State Department also expressed ignorance about a letter written by Pakistan s lobbyist in Washington, DC, Mark Siegel to US officials seeking apology for the NATO airstrike on November 26 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The incident has led to heightened tensions between both countries.

“We are not aware of Pakistani lobbyist s letter  to US officials asking for apology on NATO attacks”, Victoria Nuland said. She, however, sought to press home a point that “we don t conduct our business with Pakistan through private lobbyists, but through officials channels like Ambassador Munter in Islamabad and Ambassador Rehman in Washington”.

“We are respectful of the time Pakistan wants to complete its parliamentary review and remain open to discussion on every issue”, she said while disagreeing that communication lines with Pakistan were suspended as the US was awaiting the parliamentary recommendations.

“Our civilian programmes in Pakistan are going forward without any change or impediment. It s only a question of where we go on security and counter-terrorism issues with Pakistan”, she pointed out.

George Little, while saying that he was unaware of any such letter, said that “we signaled our willingness after the NATO airstrike to brief Pakistan after the completion of NATO attack inquiry report”.

“We have not had a chance to discuss the report with Pakistani authorities in person, but will welcome the opportunity to do so”, he observed while adding that there was no word from Pakistan yet on re-opening of ground supply routes for NATO forces that were closed down in protest after the incident.

Published at Dunya News on February 7, 2012

‘Pak-US relationship to be based on trust, mutual respect’

Ambassador Sherry Rehman to work for re-alignment of Pak-US relationship

Pakistani ambassador to United States, Sherry Rehman has said Monday that “Pakistan-US engagement has to be reinvented on the basis of parliamentary review regarding the current status of relationship between the two countries”.

She was referring to the Pakistani parliament s strategic review of relations with US following the back-to-back controversies that intensified after the November 26 Nato airstrike on Salala checkpost in Mohmand that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Sherry, a former member of Pakistani parliament before taking-up this assignment, said that the current phase of mistrust would not help either side. She hoped that “both sides would strive to build a future relationship on the basis of mutual trust, interest and respect”.

The special envoy of United States for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman, also agreed with the assessment of Ambassador Rehman and her views on the importance of Pak-US relationship. He said that both countries have a lot of shared interest to build upon and move forward.

“The two countries, Pakistan and United States, need to cooperate at this critical time”, he said while assuring of the American administration s intent in this regard. “The US administration looks forward to the parliamentary review recommendations besides working with Ambassador Rehman on taking the bilateral relationship forward”, he suggested.

Sherry Rehman was attending a luncheon meeting at renowned Pakistani-American social worker and ambassador-at-large, Riffat Mahmood s residence that was also attended by Congressman Jim Moran, high-ranking US administration officials, senior diplomats and leaders of Pakistani-American community.

Riffat Mahmood welcomed ambassador Rehman and assured that the Pakistani community would extend its full cooperation to the new ambassador. “We will support Sherry Rehman in the realization of the objective she has been assigned”, he stressed.

It may be mentioned here that Ambassador Rehman, speaking at a get-together with Pakistani media last week, had expressed her desire to work closely with Pakistani-American community and forge a partnership with them to project the case of Pakistan. The event at Riffat Mahmood, one of the most well-connected Pakistanis in Washington, DC, was perhaps the starting point of that agenda.

Pakistan not in support of Syrian regime change

Pakistan decided to support UN Security Council resolution against Syria on principles

Pakistan supported a Security Council resolution with regards to conflict in Syria tabled in the United Nations. The resolution could not be passed eventually when it was vetoed by China and Russia during the voting on Sunday.

Senior diplomatic sources, talking to Dunya News, explained Pakistan s decision to support Security Council resolution on Syria in UN. They said that Pakistan had made three specific demands during the deliberations process in the Security Council, and all of these were met.

“Pakistan had demanded that Syria s territorial integrity, unity and sovereignty will not be violated. Pakistan had also opposed the military intervention and regime change in Syria during parles in the Security Council,” sources informed.

“Pakistan also urged both parties in the conflict to bring killings to an end and respect human rights,” sources revealed adding that all three Pakistani demands were accepted by the members in the lead-up to the SC resolution in UN.

When asked about the decision of China and Russia to veto the resolution, diplomatic sources expressed surprise. “Even China and Russia were ready to support this resolution till Thursday after consensus was achieved on the draft. However, they probably had a change in heart on Friday,” they opined.

“Pakistan has good relations with China but has its own position on the Syrian issue, particularly when all its demands had also been met. Therefore, Pakistan went ahead with its principled position,” they pointed in response to another question.

Drawing attention towards the stance adopted by the Arab League on Syria, they said the entire Arab world was speaking in one voice against the Syrian situation and the Arab League had also supported the resolution. “It is difficult to ignore the Arab voice for Pakistan because of the good relations with them, and also because that is consistent with Pakistani position on the issue,” they asserted.

Recalling that the original draft of the resolution had already been changed quite a lot during the last 3-4 days of discussions between member countries of the Security Council, they said “the resolution supported by Pakistan only mentions the political process and human rights situation in Syria.”

“Security Council resolution also makes no mention of military intervention or regime change in Syria,” they said while reiterating the Pakistani position in this regard. “Pakistan is monitoring the situation as it unfolds as it is very hard to ignore killings and human rights injustice,” they observed.