In media markets around the world, liberals and conservatives are duking out their positions – often in increasingly vitriolic terms (the U.S. is a case in point.) Pakistan’s media is increasingly coming to look like the front line in their protracted battle between liberals and conservatives, too often with dangerous consequences. As the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, being a Pakistani journalist has become increasingly dangerous, especially for those reporting on the touchy subjects of politics and war. The number of Pakistani journalists killed for their reporting has quadrupled in recent years. In one high profile case last summer, Syed Saleem Shahzad was killed after investigating a story on links between the Pakistan military and Al Qaeda. Just this month, Mukarram Khan Atif, a freelance reporter who sometimes worked with the Pashto service of Voice of America was killed – this time by the Taliban.
Many brave Pakistani journalists have certainly stimulated public debate on important topics, and too many of them have paid with their lives. But in the search for ratings in the free-for-all of Pakistan’s lucrative media market, media has also played a significant role in whipping up popular sentiments to a dangerous pitch. One of the more shocking incidents was the 2010 blasphemy case against a Christian mother of five which resulted in a death sentence for her, and then the murder of Minister Salmaan Taseer by a religious fanatic. Taseer had courageously sought changes in the controversial law. The press whipped up a hate campaign against the woman, Aasia Bibi, no doubt contributing to the harshness of her sentence. They likewise went after Minister Taseer for calling for changes in the blasphemy law, and disturbingly characterized his murderer as a hero.
The most recent salvo has been the antics of Maya Khan, a Pakistani television host, who ran around Karachi’s public parks two weeks ago, pouncing on young couples, demanding to see their marriage licenses and to know if their parents knew their whereabouts. While Pakistan’s broadcast media has developed a reputation for pushing the limits of personal privacy, this particular stunt elicited a powerful outcry from liberal Pakistanis for its sinister resemblance to the tactics used by dictator General Zia-ul-Haq to Islamize the country in the 1980s. Under his rule, morality police harassed young couples, women were banned from participating in sports competitions, and most devastatingly, the Hudood Ordinance was passed. The Hudood Ordinance claimed to enforce sharia by imposing Quranic punishments for extramarital sex, theft, and drinking alcohol among other specific offenses. They drew international condemnation for the harsh punishments – flogging, stoning, amputation – they mandated and for their application to victims of rape who could not meet the exacting legal standard of producing four male witnesses. Convicted for extramarital sex, rape victims were imprisoned.
The television station, Samaa TV, that hosted Khan’s show took the liberal outcry on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook seriously. (For the most part, social media users are part of Pakistan’s elite, English speaking minority, though that may change in the near future. Twitter announced last week that users will now be able to access the site in Farsi and Urdu.) Over 5,000 people signed their name to a petition demanding that the station apologize and end the program. When Khan refused to issue an unconditional apology, the station fired her and took her show off the air. Whether this case shows the limits of the public’s willingness to tolerate “vigilante” television remains to be seen.