From Print Edition
Quickly following on the trail of seething sentiment in Rawalpindi, the ruling party woke up to the grimness of the speech of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s leader a night earlier. The government’s letter to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority excited the half-dormant authority into action. Now almost all broadcasters who had aired Altaf’s hateful speech have been served show-cause notices. Besides, anything – whether interviews or speeches – that attacks state institutions and malign the country is also now disallowed. Altaf Hussain’s usual post-facto explanations and apologies have not changed anything. He is not likely to get the propaganda time he has been enjoying at will all these years.
The new restriction may remove one thorn in the side of Karachi’s peace: Altaf Hussain’s speeches did provide incendiary material to party workers and leaders who then brought it all in the night talks shows and in press conferences, which in turn kept the pot of controversy burning for days. By keeping Altaf off air the state and the government aim to plug this hole and ensure that room for sane debate on how best to move forward in Karachi is not destroyed by oral drone attacks from London.
As a broadcaster I have long championed the cause of sober and deliberate caution in handling content that in any experienced judgement can have consequences. I have in my shows consistently argued against broadcasting endless speeches. Speeches can be particularly problematic. The more so Altaf Hussain’s speeches, which can go in any direction, can happen at any time, and can last any number of hours. Interviews can be made more balanced provided the interviewer hasn’t already sold his (or her) soul to the interviewee or is not under immense pressure from the owner of the broadcasting platform to ‘not interfere’.
In case of Altaf Hussain’s speeches and interviews both these problems have long persisted. That is why most interviewers cut such sorry figures interviewing him. He could tell them off or openly threaten them and they could do nothing about it. An added issue has been that of channels being shut down: non-cooperative broadcasters (and you don’t need even three fingers to count them) could be punished by manipulating people meters that define ratings, which in turn are essential for booking advertisements.
There is no denying the fact that broadcasters (even those who today have jumped on the other side of the fence) ingratiated themselves with Altaf Hussain, begged and pleaded to get his interviews on his terms, and never ever applied any professional or ethical code in deciding what to air and what not to air when it came to his statements. (The same thing happened during Imran Khan’s dharna, which arguably is one of the most astounding cases of collective compliance by broadcasters to the motive of throwing out a sitting a government and projection of only one side of the story.)
But all of the above only partly explains why and how Altaf Hussain’s speeches have been shown with such frequency, without interruption and without any regard for the consequences of his utterings. More importantly, the focus on ‘blocking’ misses the most important ingredient of the witches’ brew that Karachi has become – Altaf Hussain’s speeches (and politics) are not the cause of the trouble: they are a consequence of the benighted policies that our state institutions along with all governments have pursued all these years for their narrow and selfish interests.
It was immediately after the May 12 incident that I got the opportunity to interview the then strongman General Pervez Musharraf. The interface was tense and at some points exceedingly jarring. By the time the interview was over there was no goodwill or formal graces left in the room to use in order for us to wind up our equipment and leave without an off-camera incident. Sitting sullen in his chair and in the presence of my camera crew, producer and his team members the general as a parting note started to speak about May 12. Since he had already endorsed the killings of dozens of political workers and ordinary citizens in Karachi as a show of ‘people’s power’ it was not surprising that he was blaming everyone else except the MQM for the mess.
What was surprising was his insistence that, regardless of what he may stand for, Altaf Hussain was essential for keeping Pakistan together. As it is there was no space for any argument with him and since we simply wanted to leave with our interview tapes intact, I did not take any issue with his thesis that the country’s future was tied to Altaf Hussain.
In another informal sitting in the presence of his military secretary Musharraf joked about General Waheed Kakar using the word ‘mohajir’ for him when after he had written a research paper about how and why the MQM was the core of peace in the country. Clearly the general believed in this theory. But more than his theory, it was his policies that spoke for this views and his regard for Altaf Hussain. For a full decade Gen Musharraf nurtured, fed and empowered the MQM’s strongman and made him stronger. The entire state machinery, from top to bottom, was geared towards enabling the party structures to regain their strength and be in a position to ward off any political or administrative challenge.
Most of those who today find Altaf Hussain’s statements unacceptable were, not long ago, working overtime to provide him with precisely the kind of platform that he now uses. They were part and parcel of the system that allowed the freest hand to Altaf Hussain. Then there was no RAW talk. Then there was no langra, lamba, tunda, mota. Then there were just good people doing good things for the good of the country. Pakistan was one big party; Karachi provided the biggest dance floor.
The same goes for all political parties. Whoever came to power paid a visit to Nine-Zero. For support in the provincial and national assemblies, for holding rallies, for undermining opponents, for winning power, they all mollycoddled the MQM, bore with a smile all that they now find offensive and allowed Altaf Hussain’s party to carry on with kind of activity that they today find an affront to law. But hypocrisy is not an issue in this system. We have elevated it to the level of operational strategy. Therefore, there is no hope of anyone being held accountable for what they did in the recent past.
Therefore, let us all agree (because we cannot do otherwise these days) that it must be the fault of broadcasters that there is no peace in Karachi. That it must be the doing of the media that Altaf Hussain is what he is today and does what he did in his last speech or hundreds of other speeches before that one. That state institutions, its star politicians, its dictators, its businessmen have not played any part in poisoning the sweet wells of Karachi, unleashing banshees in every nook and cranny howling death upon its besieged citizens.
Let us today accept the narrative that Altaf Hussain is the problem exactly the way we accepted the narrative yesterday that Altaf Hussain was the key to keeping Pakistan together. Let us not question. There is a mirror on the wall of history that shows who the ugliest of them all is when it comes to knowing our sorrows, but let us not look at that. Not at all. Let us instead fix our attention on how curtailing live broadcasts of hateful material can solve all our problems.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.