Sunday, May 27, 2007

Killing the Messenger: Tell me the truth at your peril

Killing the messenger
By Ghazi Salahuddin: The News, May 27, 2007

We should have guessed it. President General Pervez Musharraf gives little credence to what he reads in newspapers or watches on our private television channels. We can understand why he would be wary of media coverage during at least the recent weeks. But how does he, living as he does in a security bubble, gather his information about the state of the nation? We are told that in addition to reading reports of the intelligence agencies, he moves around and interacts with his friends. The problem, though, is that his friends also do not like to read newspapers or watch television.

I have gathered this information from the speech he made at the inauguration of a new television channel in Karachi on Friday evening. Expectedly, he reiterated his claim that he had 'given' the media the freedom that it now enjoys. And he was also very critical of how this freedom is being used by the media. Now, this is a subject that demands a careful analysis and many of our columnists are constrained to touch upon it in passing. Last week, I had the occasion to offer some comments on media's coverage of events in Karachi on May 12.

But at this time, I feel more concerned about the rulers' ability as well as willingness to look squarely in the eye of Pakistan's existing reality. To some extent, I would agree with the assertion that the Pakistani media is often deficient in reflecting the truth, particularly in a professional context. Otherwise, the picture that would emerge would be so much more depressing, in spite of the rise and rise of our stock exchanges. Discerning consumers of the media have reasons to grumble about the its tendency to uncritically report speeches and statements made by the president, the prime minister and other high functionaries even when they keep chewing the cud.

Come to think of it, it is very crucial for the country that its rulers have access to reliable and independent information about what is happening and what the mood of the people is like. One thought is that perhaps they do know what it is like on the ground and being in denial is their only defence against a nervous breakdown. What is more alarming is that in order to camouflage the truth, they resort to devious means and effectively suppress the freedom that they believe is a kind of property they own and are in a position to bequeath it to others.

Indeed, it is a very dangerous time in the life of a country when its rulers are inclined to, as the expression goes, kill the messenger who brings bad news. By so assertively rejecting the validity of adverse news and comments, they are also conveying a message to their subordinates and advisors and, obviously, friends. This message is: tell me the truth at your peril.

Also on Friday, we had a resounding evidence of the rulers' disdain for truth. The main headline in this newspaper on Saturday, yesterday, was: "Musharraf rules out probe into May 12 carnage". Addressing a gathering at the Chief Minister's House in Karachi, he said that it was difficult to identify the elements that first opened fire on May 12. Hence, he underlined the need to close this chapter and think about the future.

Ah, but is it also difficult to identify people who had blocked the main roads during the night? Is it not possible to find out why the police and Rangers were not there until the evening of May 12? It is so simple for any sane person to see that the officials are insistent on covering up the making of the May 12 carnage. They would also wish to erase from viewers' memory the live television coverage of the day's events. My criticism of the media is that it got so entangled with the circle of deception drawn by the government that it did not properly follow up the human stories that would truly reveal the tragedy of that day and, in the process, uncover the elements that had planned it.

No less tragic than the events of May 12 is the government's attempt to wilfully distort the facts. As for journalists, they have once again discovered the limits of press freedom with the threats they encounter when they seek full, unvarnished truth. There was this statement of Mohajir Rabita Council in which a number of journalists were identified by name. There have been many other, more alarming, incidents that underline the quality of press freedom that exists in Pakistan.

With whatever sources of information that the president enjoys, he believes that the people are still with him. He points towards the big rallies he recently addressed, only conceding that the buses for bringing the people had to be hired. Don't you know that he knows the truth -- and he also knows that we know it too? Yes, the media has not been very descriptive about it.

Anyhow, if the domestic media is so unjustly negative in its coverage of the recent social and political developments, we can turn our attention towards the international media. Pakistan has remained in the news because of its front-line involvement in the war on terror and its struggle with the rising forces of Islamic militancy. However, the judicial crisis has provided a new perspective on the country. And the Karachi carnage has become a flaming reference to the mounting sorrows of Pakistan.

In addition to news, leading newspapers and television networks have offered their considered comments on these developments. I hope that our high functionaries will not quarrel with the journalistic ethics and standards of some of the most respected publications of the world. In its issue last week, The Economist had one editorial and one fairly detailed report on Pakistan. An editorial in The New York Times was published on Wednesday and The Washington Post editorially commented on Pakistan's situation as recently as Friday.

What is the message that these publications have carried? There is general agreement that Pakistan is "on the edge", to invoke the words The Economist has put on its cover. In the opinion of the news weekly, "the country looks more unstable than ever". The New York Times has chided the Bush administration for its unquestioned support for the army general, adding that "there is no security with General Musharraf". The Washington Post has argued for an alliance with the secular democrats and has concluded with this sentence: "If Mr Musharraf is now allowed to isolate himself behind riot police and militia forces while shunning secular democrats, he will set the stage for just the sort of nightmare scenario in Pakistan that has motivated US support for him since 2001".

One wonders if the president and his friends have also stopped reading the foreign publications.

The writer is a staff member. Email:

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