Khalid Hasan writing for the Friday Times
Pakistan’s politicians, sportsmen, actors, VIPs – in short anyone who is anyone, or is likely to be anyone in the coming days – are under attack from a new breed of guerrillas, armed not with automatics but with microphones in various colours and sizes that they use as weapons of attack. They don’t demand, “Your money or your life,” as any self-respecting robber or highwayman would before taking one or the other. They simply thrust the microphone in their quarry’s face, sometimes hitting him or her on the chin and on occasion nearly knocking out his or her teeth, and demand that their question be answered. The waylaid one risks life, limb and reputation if he or she declines to provide the sound byte being demanded.
Every day I read, hear or get told that President Pervez Musharraf should be impeached. While I will not be marching from Lahore to Islamabad screaming slogans, I hope that to the list of charges against him will be added the free-for-all he is responsible for providing in the form of more TV channels in the Republic than there are mushrooms in Michigan. The microphone marauders on the prowl operate on behalf of one or the other channel. But what on earth are they looking for? A sound byte, three words that can feed the running strip of “feeta” on their screens, provided the perpetually running commercials leave an inch or two for the “breaking story.”
Out here in Amercia and Europe, a running programme is only interrupted for “breaking news” if it relates to a major and important event in which the majority of the viewers would have an interest. Sudden violent weather is also sometimes the reason that a strip “feeta” is inserted or flashed. But what does American and European television know compared to us Pakistanis. As we know more about Islam than the people in whose language the Quran was revealed, by the same token we know what breaking news is and what sound bites are. One day I sat in front of a television reading with great care what was being flashed to the world. The “feeta” that never stopped running had such earth shattering stories as “Ramzan Ali Goraya appointed OSD.” Another day, on another channel, the “feeta” read, “Negroponte coming to Pakistan.” The new ambassador of Pakistan in Washington, Husain Haqqani, nearly fell out of his chair when he read that since he had no such information. He rang the State Department, which was as surprised as the he was, and denied the report. Haqqani passed this on to the channel. The old “feeta” was replaced with one that said “Haqqani denies Negroponte visit to Pakistan.” A while later, this “feeta” was replaced by another that said “Negroponte cancels visit to Pakistan.”
But to return to the microphone marauders, a cabinet minister of my acquaintance, to whom I suggested fewer appearances on TV, wrote back, “Couldn’t agree more, but things have changed since print journalism. I am accosted at every door step, every airport by a phalanx of aggressive, pugnacious reporters who refuse to be spurned unless their 24/7 ‘live’ recording demand for sound bytes is met. I declined while coming out of a museum a week or so ago. Result: they ran nasty reports and tickers against me saying they would boycott the government etc. Often, even after answering a few questions, some reporters get very pushy, blocking car doors and exits in order to ambush one for exclusive chats. All this is very intrusive and downright obnoxious. This is a nasty, daily blackmail environment, and I am at my wits’ end. No agreed-upon code of conduct seems to be able to curb this new hunger for episodic news, and it is hurting as all. Only today, I was harangued at the airport to answer questions I had already answered over the last few days. They just don’t seem to want anything but to fill camera time. Suggest a way out if you can.”
Aggression appears to have become the calling card of reporters and anchors, some of whom were described the other day by Nazir Naji as “broadcast terrorists.” Things used to be calm and civilised before this electronic tsunami hit us. I asked my friend Akmal Aleemi, who was the chief reporter of Imroze in the old days, what things used to be like. He said, “Our meetings with politicians always remained polite and civilised. We also made sure that we were properly dressed and did not raise our voices or get pushy. We always waited for our turn to ask a question, incisive rather than aggressive. But in the last 50 years, the world has changed. Journalism has entered the electronic age. The press corps has turned into a kind of Hulk. Many reporters appear more interested in promoting the outfit they work for than in news. I doubt they have any issue in mind when they set out. Their assignment seems to be to fill in the empty spaces on their screens. They may be trying to follow CNN without CNN’s technical and human resources. The other day I viewed a reporter asking a politician, “What do you think of the present situation?” The leader had no clue what situation he was being asked about. It seems to be the reporter’s first duty these days to drag the politician who is on his way in or out of a meeting in front of his camera. It is not really his concern if the politician has anything to say. Take the judges’ issue. There have been more half a dozen meetings between Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. After every meeting, party stalwarts are marched in front of TV cameras and they invariably say the same thing: ‘There is no disagreement in principle between the two parties. The only differences may relate to how the judges are restored. Mutual consultations will continue.’”
By now, I suspect even the deposed judges are so sick of hearing this that they may not wish to be reinstated.
– This is a regular column by TFT’s Washington correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org