Understanding ‘jahalat’ as incivility, rather than illiteracy

What are some of the things that come to your mind when you hear the word ‘China’?

1- Large population

2- CPEC

3- Chaptay (‘flat faced’, in local parlance)

4- Godless

5- Food (more specifically, Chicken corn soup and Chinese rice)

6- Weirdos?

Do any of these responses sound familiar? There is probably a lot more to the only sophisticated ancient civilisation that has resisted the throes of Western modernity than a chicken corn soup recipe.

Indeed this is but one instance of our stereotype towards people of other nationalities. And, it should be of concern to any rational Pakistani why he/she has such a limited understanding of a country that they believe is an all weather ally.

But this post is not about clarifying stereotypes.

The responses above also say a lot about our media diet; a healthy doze of local television and newspapers and a large platter of heresay (word of mouth on WhatsApp or face-to-face conversations with others like us). It shows how what we have seen, read and heard about China has shaped our views, attitudes and behaviour towards it. You can do a similar mental exercise for any other country, object or individual.

The information we consume shapes our reality.

See there is nothing inherently wrong with consuming the local media content (which will gradually mature). Living on Pakistani soil we are dependent on it and have entrusted it with the sacred duty to provide credible information and serve the public.

As do citizens of other nations on the content of their media industry.

After all, Chinese people may have similar misgivings about Pakistanis; ‘brothers of the Chinese people’, ‘unsafe’, ‘supporters of Islam’, ‘women and hijab’, ‘terrorist’, etc. going by the typical comments of Chinese tourists on their travel websites.

Nor is there anything inherently wrong with our local media system. It gives us a sense of identity and projects a point of view that is typically Pakistani in the global market place of ideas.

However when we become dependent on this media diet it becomes a problem. Or in other words when what we see, read or hear comes mostly from our local media.

Now despite this seemingly common sensical explanation the ignorance in our society (myself included) about the media never ceases to amaze me. For instance, we blame television channels for broadcasting junk but conveniently forget that it is our tastes that it cater. And by the way, I have lived in Hong Kong for four years where the Chinese chicken soup looks and tastes nothing like you would imagine. Hint: they don’t ever add cornflour!

Last Monday I led a workshop titled “Thinking beyond professionalism: the role of journalism outside the newsroom”, at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) at IBA in Karachi, where I elaborated on this point.

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Participants were masters students of the journalism program at CEJ-IBA. Image: author

The problems of the media industry are manifold but a crucial part is our lack of basic media literacy. It’s important to understand the distinction between ‘literacy’ and ‘media literacy’ here. Although I suspect we are implicitly aware of it when we use the cheeky phrase paray likhay jahil (a countryside bumpkin who has acquired formal education, transliterated from Urdu).

Typically it is assumed that the rote learning centred public education system is the root cause of our jahalat (‘iliteracy’ – if transliterated from Urdu; ‘incivility’ – more accurately as I will now argue). This argument doesn’t explain the many foreign educated Pakistanis who return to their home towns with the same attitudes towards women, religion, family ties, tribalism etc., they took with them.

That we must ‘do as the Romans when in Rome’ is a bit off-mark as well; many of us think it is justified to break laws because of circumstances. Although there are those who break laws as a natural right or a force of habit. Similarly, many educated Pakistani expats seem to harbour a tribal mindsets with those of us back home.

While I’m not an expert on education psychology the need for ‘civic education’ for Pakistanis of all colour, age, creed, class and education is abundantly clear. Have a look at this TedxLahore talk by Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi on the issue for further clarity.

Media literacy continues in this tradition of raising standards of civility in a society. It aims to inculcate critical and clear thinking about the messages we receive. But at it’s core is the creation of an informed society. Where civic values, fact based reasoning and consensus building are cherished and go-to method to solve problems.

Learning about media is thus necessary for everyone. Not only for quality television content that will be needed for an informed public unwilling to accept junk but also for a public that must learn to co-exist with mutual respect and harmony in practice, rather than paying lip service to these values.

Media discourses after all occupy our public airwaves similar to what we do in our public squares, D-Chowks, roads, malls etc.

 

 

 

A resource for humanitarian reporting in Pakistan

Aerial view of a destroyed bridge in Upper Swat valley during floods in 2010. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Most of us have travelled by road to Northern Areas alongside the twists and turns that characterise the spectacular banks of the river Indus. The lush scenery was not so pleasant in the aftermath of flooding in Pakistan.

“When we visited Swat (a popular destination along the route) in 2010, most bridges connecting the valley were found destroyed,” says Arif Bilgaumi, a well-regarded architect and urban planner based in Karachi.

Arif was alluding to the risk of debris from illegal construction such as dhabas, hotels and restaurants, along the river banks which gets dislodged during natural calamities and destroys everything in its wake. He was talking to reporters from a wide array of news organisations across the country attending a workshop on humanitarian reporting recently organised by the Centre of Excellence in Journalism at IBA in Karachi.

I was auditing the workshop for a day and found it personally exciting for two reasons. It brought me back to the ‘roots’, or a professional teaching environment in Pakistan, since I haven’t stepped foot in a local classroom in nearly ten years. Secondly, the training program was well thought out between experts who kept the sessions engaging and informative. Mind you I was not appraising the workshop for which I’m neither qualified or inclined. Think of my role as a participating observer.

Workshop participants. Photo: author.

It was refreshing to interact with marginalised media workers; a reporter from Quetta, the capital city of the restive Balochistan province, for instance told me how their head office in Karachi is often not interested in anything but terrorism and crisis related stories. As if people in Balochistan have no other life. Pakistanis of all shades and colours complain about similar treatment by the Western media.

The combination of expert knowledge and its professional delivery came in to stark focus on the issue of crisis reporting in areas where the state lacks infrastructure. A senior member of a development organisations talked about their role in creating national awareness. Aid is often the first organised collective response in such areas. Reporters of resource constrained media organisations often rely on ‘aid vehicles’ to reach effected areas.

Understandably, this part of the session was off record. Often these areas consists of non-state actors engaged in their own development efforts and agendas. The remaining session was on nurturing a ‘situational awareness’, safety, strategies to negotiate the demands of various stakeholders, traveling to and across the terrain and of course reporting in those conditions.

It was a welcome change to be in my country and talk constructively in Urdu on sensitive issues. It reminded me of a sharing session on the controversial Tiananmen Square Protest I attended in Hong Kong few years back.

The workshop program, classroom facilities and visiting experts wouldn’t be out of place in any of the conferences or universities outside Pakistan that I have had the pleasure of attending. Near the end instructors sneaked in an ‘anonymous questionnaire’ that was in fact a psychological well-being test presumably for reporters often working under stressful conditions.

By the end of the day I was nostalgic of my time as a sub-editor at The News. There is after all a charm and a sense of purpose when doing good old fashioned journalism; a powerful method of storytelling in the service of the public.

Some resources recommended by Arif Bilgaumi for reporting on natural disasters in Pakistan.

Doing journalism where public life is synonymous with violence

Originally published as a collection of case studies on ethics.mediaasia.info in 2018.

Dawn, Pakistan

In Pakistan, the politics of confrontation not only have material consequences but also manifest themselves in the symbolic realm. In this environment, Dawn, the most widely circulated and respected English daily, maintains a zero tolerance policy against “attack ads”.

“We only accept ads from political parties that are in praise of their activities, not if they are attacking a rival party,” says Zaffar Abbas.

Dawn’s attempt to foster a constructive national debate in a violently polarized political culture is no accident and is reflected in its commitment to professional practice. Ever since the paper’s foundation in 1941, managements have allowed the editors a level of autonomy unparalleled in the local media industry.

Indeed, Abbas, a career journalist with over 30 years of experience, is the most revered person at the newspaper’s headquarters; the custom is that even “the sahib (CEO) must walk down to the editorial floor for a meeting”. Something all staffers take enormous pride in.

The separation of editorial control from the publisher is a common practice among free and independent news organizations globally. However, it has special significance in Pakistan’s emerging media landscape where muckraking media barons, like other local business owners, often circumvent corporate and informal rules.

Such editorial autonomy comes with a price. The paper is suffering from heavy advertising losses, after it reported details of a special meeting between the powerful military and the civilian government in October 2016. This is in a country where 90 percent of newspaper revenue comes from advertisers, of whom at least 30 percent are government or government-related.

The editor standing next to an exhibit outside his office. – Photo: author

The concept of blocking-a-story doesn’t exist at Dawn, unless of course the story is completely off-tangent and doesn’t fit the standards set by us. But one tries to be careful; this is not a revolutionary newspaper, it’s a decent, objective newspaper where we support democracy and you don’t want to destroy anyone’s business. These rules are made by them (management). They can change the rules but at the moment this is how they function.”  – Zaffar Abbas, editor Dawn.

A respected brand

At the same time, the flagship daily enjoys the prestige of catering to elite educated Pakistanis and claims the highest share of English print readership, giving it a status similar to a newspaper of record. The parent company, Dawn Media Group, understands this well and has managed to inextricably link the professional ethos of the daily with the Dawn brand.

The daily maintains a strict code of ethics for advertisers, in addition to charging a premium tariff. Standard restrictions are applicable on editorial space allocated for ads; for instance, no full front-page ad is ever allowed. Advertisers may also be turned away because of what the paper considers sensitive content. In addition to “attack ads”, these may include sensitive or controversial categories such as marriage, investment, and religious matters.

Pakistani advertisers in turn, understand that the Dawn brand has the potential to leverage their products and are willing to accept such terms.

While the group charges one of the highest tariffs in the country for its flagship product, it maintains a more flexible policy, in keeping with the market, for its other media businesses, which include magazines, a 24-hour news television station, a radio entertainment station and a fast growing news website. For instance, the Dawn TV news channel, managed and run independently of the newspaper, may offer considerable discounts to advertisers, most of whom buy in-bulk. While Dawn.com, the papers’ online extension, follows the general editorial and advertising ambit of the print edition, it can offer a 10 percent discount. No value addition is ever given for the print edition.

The group also organizes exhibitions and trade fairs, which are otherwise rare public events in Pakistan. One such event is the DawnSpelling Bee. A regular fixture in schools, the competition is another example of how the group has based its unique selling proposition on best practice. Previously housed inside the advertiser-focused marketing department, it was shifted to the more reader-centric, circulation department. “We realize that through this programme we are investing in the future. Good readers today, will become the readers of print tomorrow,” explains Ali Hasan Naqvi, the head of marketing.

Management to the rescue

Despite enviable brand equity, the editors forecast that profits for the daily will likely sink below break-even in five to ten years’ time. This is due to commercial factors beyond the battles with disgruntled advertisers and the powerful state apparatus. Recently, much advertising revenue has been encroached upon by the mushrooming of private television channels.

The staffers derive their confidence from the management and with good reason. Hailing from a wealthy business family in Pakistan, the current CEO, Hameed Haroon, is the president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, a patron of the arts and heritage for the local government and hosts a radio programme on South Asian music. “We don’t have a financial goal per se of survival,” he says, speaking about Dawn at his alma mater, the London School of Economics. By this he meant that if the paper is not viable with the existing commitment to editorial independence, it would not be worth continuing with it.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was arguably the paper’s first CEO, was a lawyer by profession and the president of the All-India Muslim League – the political party in British India which fought the constitutional battle for a separate Muslim majority nation-state, later called Pakistan. He became independent Pakistan’s first Governor General. Jinnah’s portrait is part of the paper’s masthead and reminds staffers to see their work as a professional public service, supported by their management.

Journalism education in Pakistan must break out of the liberal mould that shaped it

Media liberalisation in Pakistan was ushered during the presidency of Gen. (rt) Pervez Musharraf in early 2000s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently scholars at the opening meeting of the premier International Communication Association conference, cautioned against the role of ‘fake news’ in elections around the world.

The menace can be observed in democracies from the most to the least mature. It highlights the changing paradigm in journalism dominated by liberal principals to one where context specific factors form the basis for journalism practice and development.

However, journalists in Pakistan continue to benchmark dated Western ideals about the profession.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals

They lash out against any curbs on press freedom by seeking refuge in the liberal market place of ideas. The argument goes that truth reigns supreme in an environment of unrestrained and free flow of information. Their opponents are quick to point out how the press in even the most liberal media markets, such as the United States, ‘tow-the-line’ during national crisis.

In the Asian context we have seen that a rampant growth of the media industry in the absence of civic norms flooded the market place with partisan voices and junk. The liberalized media in the Philippines after the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 is a notable case in point. Rather than enlightenment that facilitates a much needed national consensus a rambunctious media further disoriented the public.

Closer to home commercialization is also strongly associated with the erosion of editorial integrity by marketing departments or owner’s private agendas, as is documented on the Indian press.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals ultimately polarizes the debate in the limited public space there is for fact based informed opinion in Pakistan. Worse still, it allows societal elites that are contemptuous of public scrutiny to justify curbs on truth on grounds of a press perceived ill equipped to report it.

We must break out of the liberal-authoritarian binary in our public discourse where anything that goes against the state perspective is labelled ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ by the media. Just as any critique of religious extremism is seen as a past time of a ‘civil society crowd’

The problem with an unwavering faith in liberalism was starkly visible in the polarization of the American press during the election of President Trump. A large segment of the supposedly liberal media that had historically supported and preached impartiality and fairness in news reporting, more so than the conservative press, deemed it in the public interest to do away with an important journalism ideal.

Else where: why is liberalism failing to ignite imagination?

Implications for journalism education in Pakistan

Reality is a complex interplay of myriad factors. Not a zero-sum game. Consequently, journalism students must be taught to appreciate nuances of reporting in relation to factors such as institutional configuration, commercial and political imperatives.

To be sure, journalism is a profession, practiced and learned through participation in the routine activities of a news room. Journalism schools therefore re-create that environment in their training studios and production labs.

However this technical training is based on a strong theoretical foundation. Top journalism schools around the world are also very active in academic research. Professors offer special topics designed to arm students with a capacity to adapt context specific differences in practice with the democratic ideals upon which the discipline stands.

Comparative media research, for instance, shows that sustainable professional journalism can exist in pockets even in the harshest political environments. Just as democracies can exist in sustainable hybrid forms rather than an ideal (read Western) type on a continuum from low to high quality.

I’m involved in one such study, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, that investigates ethical best practices among media organisations in five Asian territories; China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Taiwan. We found that reputable organisations here are usually run by journalist-publishers with a strong ethos. Management policies facilitate a democratic culture in the newsroom itself. They understand branding but set their professional ethos as the value proposition.

The project is at a nascent stage but shows the significance for Pakistani media to observe journalism in contexts beyond the American and British benchmarks. Media practices in regions with whom we share commonalities in socio-cultural and economic development are more useful to understand and improve our own.

Why does this matter?

This won’t be easy. It requires updating curricula in our media schools and the particularly difficult task of designing pedagogy that can operationalize such knowledge to the unique requirement of the news industry in Pakistan.

This doesn’t mean that liberalism is inherently bad. On the contrary, liberal education is desperately needed for young Pakistanis to understand their role in society and learn to co-exist in harmony. Only that a liberal press is not necessarily professional and certainly not the most effective.

Else where: what is a liberal press?

If we do not arm our journalists with the state of play in the field they will struggle to stay relevant in building a democratic Pakistan. A key function of the press. Media students will face a disconnect between classroom learning and the work place upon graduation. Non-democratic forces will continue to encroach upon the vacuum left by our media institutions.

Introduction to university teaching

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This term I’m teaching an elective under our MA in media management program at the school of communication. It has been a tremendous experience so far engaging with young Chinese students from the other side of the class desk.

The course is titled Communication Technology & Media Organizations. I have developed an outline meant to brief students on some useful concepts communication researchers have to characterize new media impact on media organizations and society more generally. I’ve tailored it to match my own interests in information society, media studies, public relations and advertising.

My immediate challenge was to relate with students from a context dramatically different from how I was born and raised, live and work and to do so in an engaging manner. Understanding a students frame of reference is a key concern of paedagogy (or the method of teaching).

My teaching strategy thus incentivises class participation and collective learning. For instance by making it clear that there are no right or wrong answers; only useful and not so useful ones. I also bring examples to class that show similarities in media development in Mainland China, Hong Kong and rest of the world, including Pakistan.

This ultimately is in line with my own philosophy of finding meaning rather than ‘winning’ and rhetoric. The course is also a starting point for an online course I’m developing for students and young people living in Pakistan.

 

The overemphasis on the digital divide in Pakistan.

There is an on going debate in Pakistan echoing global concern about the extent to which social media is simply replicating moribund and traditional impulses of the society.

The young ones are optimistic. With some reason. Just take a sample of the rich tapestry of awareness and advocacy currently on social media; a campaign to push for peace between India and Pakistan on Change.org initiated by folks on both sides of the hostile border; a funny viral video by fans of an opposition party around the recent ouster of the Prime Minister on corruption charges; accusation of stifling a story on injuries from an incident during a TV program shot in Pakistan’s premier gated community by a popular blogger, an online furore over a television anchor who had verbally abused a female guest on ‘patriotism’ during a live transmission.

More senior journalists and informed observers are cautious at best. A report by Bytes for all, a local Internet advocacy group, last year highlighted the increase in arbitrary government blocks on websites. While this year marked the first reports in the press on state-suspected attacks on online activists.

But going beyond the human rights perspectives on a restricted public sphere commonly associated with closed societies, question remains whether a more connected Pakistan will be conducive to deliberative and representative discussions en masse to begin with.

I want to bring attention to the copious amount of abuses and barbs traded by partisans on social media. Be it the progressively inclined fans of opposition parties, the conservative activists of the government or some combination of both. These ‘echo chambers’, to borrow a term from political communication, are by far the most prominent aspects of political discussions online. The notable journalist, Najam Sethi, goes as far as to refer to a thriving ‘anti-social media’. Where discussions are rich on emotions and rhetoric, little on substance and reminiscent of crazy talking heads on television.

Consider Youtube.com.pk, an open online public space, in a similar vein, setting aside for a moment the government’s absolute authority to ban it. Even a cursory look at the weekly trending will reveal mostly sensational television news stories regurgitated online, South Asian television soaps and films, ‘item numbers’ (bawdy dances of women on a background of Indian songs) and a sprinkling of Islamic evangelical content.

It appears that the roughly 28 million strong Internet user base, which by the way is no trivial figure (the entire population of Hong Kong is roughly 7 million), of highly educated Pakistanis, according to a recent survey on her Internet User’s Perspectives, seem mostly concerned with entertainment values in all their variants we usually associate with the ‘old’ broadcast age.

And while there is hardly any research on the quality of discussions Sethi isn’t far off the mark either. They fit our understanding of authoritarian emerging media conditions where most online content is used for broadcast purposes, traditional media successfully co-opts online spaces and a civil society voice is further confined or lost in the cacophony of misinformation.

Evegny Morozov in his cynical, albeit astute analysis, cautioned against cyber-utopianism; “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside”; that instead of serving as a panacea in the market place of ideas there is a growing fear that Internet in Pakistan is becoming a game changer for established individuals, politicians, television personalities and (retired) generals who now find it even more convenient to build on their offline persona.

How far has Pakistan’s emerging online culture succumbed to Morozov’s worst fears? My on going research aims to answer this question partly by examining the logic of her social media for civic engagement.

Figures 1 shows a social network analysis (SNA) I conducted based on the Facebook Page ‘like’ networks for two major political parties – the Pakistan Muslim League Noon (PMLN) in the government, and its nemesis the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the opposition. SNA uses mathematical tools to understand the relationship (‘like’) between nodes (Pages) and the overall structure (Network) they are embedded in. It is often used to understand online organisation. The analysis reveals that the PTI has five times the online presence, 319 Pages, of PMLN, 66 Pages. Although offline, the former commands a much larger share in the National Assembly. In fact the situation is reversed; PMLN has roughly five times the seats of PTI!

 

 PTI PMLN
Figure 1. PTI Facebook ‘like’ network (left) & its PMLN counterpart (right). The size of labels represents level of activity of pages. Thus overseas pages are most active on PTI network. Similar colours reveal pages that depict similar patterns of connectivity or community. For PTI; green = Azad Kashmir related, Black = Insaf Student & fans related, Purple = KPK related, Blue = Karachi related. The much smaller PMLN has been disproportionately enlarged for clarity’s sake. No clear communities are visible likely due to network mostly formed by techy savvy politicians as opposed to activist teams. Note: SNA visualised on Gephi using publicly available Facebook data. The latter is the most used social media platform in the country.

This shows the considerable disconnect between on-ground (offline) and online reality and could be of some consolation; notwithstanding the limited importance of online campaigning in Pakistan the gap means that there is some way to go before the ills of patronage and dynastic politics completely colonize online. An uncertain window that the marginalized exploit and the youth are optimistic about.

But for many it is primarily the digital divide that has limited marginalized voices to the fringe of public opinion proper. As if more Internet is just what is required to keep the window open or for more people to support progressive causes. Pick any recent report mapping media trends in Pakistan and you find a similar introduction emphasizing the poor state of Internet development.

The PTI case is illuminating here as well; its largest constituency lies in Khyber Pakthunkhawa (KPK). Those familiar with South Asian geography will recognize this rugged province, that shares a border with Afghanistan, as having very low Internet penetration compared to the rest of Pakistan. Clearly there are factors beyond simple voting considerations that seem to inform the party’s online strategy; reviving overseas Pakistanis, creating awareness among urban youth, supporting advocacy causes (see figure 1) and raising funds.

Similarly, the digital divide is but one factor, and not necessarily the most important one, Pakistani policy makers should bank on if they are serious about diversity in the online market place of ideas. Media literacy; critical thinking; the capacity of journalist and bloggers for investigative work, contribute equally, if not more, in this equation. It will be an uphill battle. These concerns require novel solutions that go beyond simply paving and clearing information highways.

Article under review: Comparative analysis of PPP Long March 1992 and PTI party’s Freedom March 2014.

Article under review in a peer-reviewed journal. Title and journal names and manuscript details have been left out.

Abstract

In the emerging field of media politics of dissent most studies concentrate on industrialized societies where protests usually target state institutions, where national media systems are mature and internet captures more attention. There are relatively few studies on the role of 24 hour news television which in some societies is the most game-changing ‘new media’. In many parts of the world, a commercial and plural television is not much older than public internet and more powerful. Movements born in such hybrid regime settings may also have implicit support of state actors. This paper aims to broaden the debate in the field by examining two political protests in Pakistan with specific regards to their organisation and division of labour related to national news media. It draws on 650 Daily Dawn news reports from the year 1992 and 2014, 17 in-depth interviews with key party campaign planners and a focus group conducted at the Karachi Press Club. It will show how a traditional protest form remains extremely relevant to protest elites but that it has been transformed by the arrival of electronic media. The study contributes to media and movement studies understanding of how protest activity in Southern contexts is shaped by media pluralisation.
Keywords: contentious collective action, movement and media interaction, hybrid regimes, 24-hour news television.