No accountability drive is credible without nabbing the powerful. So, it does seem impressive that Pakistan’s top anti-graft body arrested the longtime editor of the country’s largest media house. But regardless of how strong the case against him is, and the evidence so far is not public, no one should be surprised that the case is raising and will raise questions about freedoms and the state’s troubled relationship with the media. This is not a secondary subject, as the honorable prime minister suggested as he dismissed it during a media talk on March 24. To me, this is an important issue because it is linked to Pakistan’s struggle in projecting its message and narrative to the world. This is about a mindset. And this is a good time to discuss it.
This is also linked to a suspicion, which might be paranoid or exaggerated but deserves a mention nonetheless, that the troubles facing Pakistan’s largest media group will only end if this media network is dismantled or destroyed.
And none of this discussion is possible without a look at the man whose arrest has inadvertently triggered all these questions. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, or MSR as he is known within the industry, has played an outsize role in the growth of Pakistani print and electronic media than his job description would indicate, from revolutionizing Pakistan’s English-language print journalism in 1991, to introducing a seismic revolution to the Pakistani television news industry a decade later, where he continues to lead. You could disagree with some of the policies of the media outlets under him, like I did on numerous occasions, including when emergency rule was imposed in November 2007 and on several occasions after that, but I can’t overlook MSR’s role in the promotion of patriotism and pro-Pakistan narrative, which is seldom highlighted. I was thinking about this and was surprised that this list is not only long but also how little credit MSR gets for it.
I still remember joining Prime Minister Imran Khan, on 14th of August, 2009, when he was a struggling politician for a small political party, on the rooftop studio of Geo building in Islamabad, for a show full of patriotism on the roof of the Geo building in Islamabad. This was an unprecedented ensemble of firebrand patriotism and nationalism on Pakistani television at the time, that included Junoon lead singer Ali Azmat, me, PM Khan, and commentator Zaid Hamid. And one year earlier, immediately after the Mumbai terror attacks, as clouds of a Pak-India conflict loomed, amid a war drumbeat in Indian media which could not be countered by a fledgling Pakistani electronic media industry, it was Geo under MSR that provided a counternarrative. Not to digress, but just as a refresher, MSR’s team invited me to come down to Karachi and takeover the primetime slot of then Geo flagship show Lekin. I hosted the show daily for over a month, bringing to Pakistan’s most watched screen my India-centered research expertise and policy sources to better explain Pakistan’s positions. Not only did MSR’s team put his media organization’s massive resources at my disposal for this show, but I was astonished at the professionalism and the media ethics that permeated this organization. Lekin’s ace host then, the indomitable Sana Bucha, gracefully withdrew from the screen to allow me to take charge of her show (astonishing because this does not happen in our ego-driven industry).
Who can ignore Iqbal ka Pakistan, Geo’s unique series that revived Allama Iqbal’s legacy and re-introduced Pakistan’s ideological visionary poet to a younger generation? Also, I can’t forget, in Sept. 2013, the first Pak-India ‘taakra’ organized by any Pakistani channel, titled, ‘Aman ki Asha ya Jung ki Bhasha’, a show that tested Indian elite’s appetite for peace with Pakistan, and aired for two consecutive days by Geo, hosted by me in Islamabad and Abhisaar Sharma from ABP News in New Delhi. I still have a screen grab from a Pakistani viewer who wrote: ‘Now I have quit the boycott against Geo after watching this program. Geo has shown the dirty face of India to the world. Good job, Geo!’.
A month later, in Oct. 2013, Geo became the first Pakistani TV platform to air, live, an open-air talk show conducted in the middle of Jinnah Avenue, the heart of Islamabad, on Kashmir conflict. This was the first time that Pakistanis saw this level of importance given to Kashmir on primetime television in a long time. The capital city administration halted all traffic for this show, and I had the honor to host it for Geo’s viewers across Pakistan and abroad.
None of these things are unique now but they were then. Collectively, these efforts revived patriotism and galvanized the faith in unity and national identity when the Pakistani state needed it the most: When terror attacks were at a peak; state at its weakest, and the future uncertain. This content boosted morale.
It takes decades to build the expertise and professionalism that Geo/Jang Media Group have today. Last week, one or two Pakistani TV channels aired shows that told Pakistanis coronavirus is a sign of the return of end-of-time savior and the outbreak will topple governments of countries friendly to Pakistan. They named the countries, leading to some diplomatic misunderstandings. This is the level of professionalism that Pakistan’s media will see if the country’s remaining professional media organizations are dismantled or allowed to wither away.
The attempt to dismantle or destroy one of the last remaining Pakistani media institutions will have bad repercussions for our country, which needs a robust media for global projection. The state should develop better ways to engage our media institutions. The focus should be to help them build a forward-looking society while building trust and engagement with the state. Destroying what exists will push us decades back and we won’t be able to compete in the region
Newspaper: The News