The Supreme Court bench hearing suo moto notice proceedings of the abusive language used at the Faizabad sit-in has expressed grave concern over the role of some media outlets in inflaming religious passions – a worry shared by a large body of public opinion. In a stinging indictment of the irresponsible manner in which certain private TV channels reported on the event, the court observed that society would be better off without the media if they did not correct themselves, raising the pertinent question, “why is the media propagating ‘fitna’ [strife] by intentionally inviting individuals who spew hatred and indulge in provocations?” Unfortunately, the court’s remarks seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The day after it asked that question, a private TV channel invited the leader of the Faizabad dharna Khadim Hussain Rizvi, introducing him as a learned religious scholar, to ‘enlighten’ the public on the life and teachings of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), thereby seeking to cement his position as a genuine religious leader.
There, of course, are two sides to the story. The media are routinely subjected to pressure by various extremist groups to carry their version of events, taking punitive action for non-compliance. During recent years, scores of journalists have lost their lives in the line of duty whilst the government stayed as an indifferent bystander. Yet in the present instance, it needs to be acknowledged that not all did a credible job. In crisis situations such as the one prevailing at Faizabad, a standard operating procedure for the electronic media is to avoid live coverage so as not to compromise security interests. That was ignored. On its part, the government responded irrationally, imposing a blanket blackout on all private TV channels, including those who were careful not to air instigative content. The regulatory authority, Pemra, could have approached the mischief-makers and, in case of refusal to observe necessary restraint, should have taken appropriate action against them.
The transmissions were restored following a conversation between the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and the government. Nonetheless as noted earlier, some of the TV channels continued to give airtime to leaders of both the Faizabad and Lahore sit-ins. Such media houses need to be made to realize that there is a huge difference between freedom of expression and hate speech. As a matter of fact, there is a law in place that prohibits hate speech. It is also important to remember that the media have no more or less freedom than ordinary citizens. Their duty is to inform and educate the public; stirring up religious passions is a disservice to this already deeply troubled society. PBA needs to step forward and play its role in ensuring its members play by the rules. No one should be allowed to make divisive statements exploiting religious sentiments, and destroy the country’s peace and security.