ON February 16th I presented a paper on Pakistan’s Dual Media System in a panel on journalism practice comprising of the Ex-advisor to the President of Pakistan, Chair media school University of Peshawar, and other distinguished speakers at the International Media Conference 2022 convened by Karachi University in collaboration with Greenwich University Pakistan.
My talk was based on a chapter of my thesis that attempts to conceptualise changes in commercial, political and professional imperatives of Pakistan’s media system since 1988. The thesis is available Open Access at HKBU thesis repository on this link.
I have grown up listening to such scholars so when it was my turn to present I told the audience how I’m used to sitting on the other side of this table and that it was a honour to dialogue with more experienced scholars.
As the focal person from Greenwich University for this conference I led my team to, among other tasks, successfully host ALL online panels for scholars who couldn’t make it to Karachi. Our collaboration with Karachi University media school, the conference convener, helped turned this two day academic conference into a truly hybrid event.
Yes, last few months have been crazy busy as I entered into my first full-time academic appointment while juggling married life. More on that later.
But do stay tune for conference proceedings that we are preparing with the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad which is a conservative think tank in Pakistan. I will upload them when they are ready in a months time. Meanwhile, check out our media team’s event coverage on the Facebook handle @IMCKUGU and social media in general on #IMCKUGU.
By 2020, I had dedicated six years of my life to understand the relationship between dharnas (Urdu for sit-ins) and media. I had interviewed key informants including campaign planners of various local political parties, dived into news archives, analysing bulletins and media texts, and of course looked at what scholars have said on the subject.
Yet I was struggling to convince my advisor and other notable media scholars on Pakistan about my thesis. Has politics in Pakistan really changed due in part to news media? Because at first glance, and through any study of the political economy of a repressive state, nothing seems to have changed.
They say that Pakistanis are stuck in a perpetual time loop. Has media liberalisation brought something new in this equation?
In the last two years I had barred myself to the confines of my bedroom-study-prison at my parents place determined to find a decent answer.
How can a few posters raised once a year in major urban centres, since 2018 on 8th March, by a tiny group of hapless womxn volunteers shake the very foundations of the militarised Islamic Republic of Pakistan?
Words, symbolism, discursive and the medias
This is where media-centric explanations for creating political advantage in an authoritarian context offer some guidance.
Firstly, it’s important to see Aurat March posters as political slogans; they resonate with certain people, a constituency, taking action against perceived injustice by raising awareness in public.
Aurat March slogans like Mera Jism Meri Marzi (Urdu for My Body My Consent) resonate with many people of similar values systems.
Just as slogan like Kafir (Urdu for Infidel), or Tabdeeli (Urdu for Change) resonates with others. Although, the latter two slogans resonate with many more people than any poster/slogan of Aurat March.
In fact, the latter two slogans are so powerful and unite so many people that they have utility for any political actor in Pakistan with national aspirations. Such as the PTI party.
But the effect is same in both instances. These slogans bring people together against perceived injustice. In other words, they operate in the hearts and minds of the people. In the realm of the symbolic and discursive where movement-media interaction takes places. Although, the eventual outcome of deploying these collective action frames may be different.
Secondly, the battle against patriarchy in a deeply conservative society untempered by civic norms means that reaction or backlash is swift. The controversy compounded by mainstream and social media coverage.
But while detractors of Aurat March may focus on the controversy they inadvertently open up fresh and sensitive conversations among bystanders. Conversations that a fossilised status-quo finds nearly impossible to handle without banning a peaceful demonstration altogether.
In the end, the outcome of the movement doesn’t really matter. It’s about extracting political advantage through agitation and leveraging the power of the media. The agitation builds on the advocacy and work of women’s right defenders in the government and society.
In a landmark judgement recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that women victims of sexual abuse are entitled to protection of the law irrespective of their ‘reputation’. Furthermore, it declared the ghastly ‘two-finger virginity test’ as irrelevant for such cases. The implications of these judgements will likely be profound and the fact that it took the state 70 years, since independence, to officially ban these colonial era practices at this time cannot be isolated from the feminist wave in Muslim Pakistan.
The activists are ok with what they can get. They are here for the long-game.
These posters and images continue to engage in discursive battles with mainstream representation of marginalised groups in Pakistan, South Asia and globally long after activists disperse from site. Posters are available online for any citizen to engage.
With this realisation everything has changed. I have a better idea of future direction of my work and have an unofficial book offer. My thesis framework looks more coherent and I passed my viva recently. I am now working on a presentation of these ideas for everyone’s benefit.
I was invited for an hour long Zoom talk on dealing with misinformation on 10th December, 10pm PST. It was organised by Art Concepts which is a unique artisanal space based in Bahrain.
Key points I addressed: – What are some global challenges posed by misinformation? – What is a functional perspective on media? – When is media content functional and dysfunctional? – How can citizens consume everyday media and communication messages more critically?
Part 1 of the talk has been embedded in this post. Kindly visit Art Concept’s Youtube Page for the complete talk.
Art Concepts can be reached on #instagram @jehansaleh_studio .
Slideshow: Thesis Title, Abstract and Contents Page.
On 22nd September 2020, I submitted my thesis for examination to the School of Communication at HKBU. Now, fingers crossed. Six years of reading, writing and travelling has reached a conclusion. Or has it really? I’m humbled by how little I really know and excited for what now lies ahead.
A milestone achieved
The year 2020 has been full of bitter-sweet-symphonies. More than my usual share of PhD life shenanigans, epiphanies and emergencies. The COVID 19 out break meant that what little public entertainment and recreation there is in Karachi was closed by the government to contain the virus. Add to that the passing away of several loved ones in my extended family (unrelated to COVID) and one faces a tough mental challenge.
Nevertheless, it appears that I prevailed thanks in no small part to my loving parents and wife. But a lot also has to do with the rigorous mental exercises and requirements of a typical doctoral program. There was a point where I seriously contemplated quitting the program. On these occasions I remembered lessons from ‘sticky’ situations in Hong Kong. What are those memorable lessons? Well the time isn’t right to disclose those tales. But the underlying theme will resonate with others in difficult situations; they train us to bend rather than break.
As entertainment venues begin to re-open in Karachi, I hunt for jobs, prepare for the oral defence and the next chapter of my life. I’m hopeful. Hopeful not because some Pakistani leaders say so but because my work these last six years may improve our understanding of activism, justice and the media systems in Pakistan.
In my latest essay for the Interface: a journal for and about social movements, I explain how the artistic expression generated around Aurat March, a radical appropriation of the #metoo movement, is a challenge for mainstream tribalism in Pakistan. In it I dissect the anatomy of some activist posters, describe what they may mean for Pakistan’s changing political context and ultimately, hopefully what they tells us about Muslim women politics elsewhere in the Arab world.
The essay was published as a series on global struggles around COVID 19 pandemic. It is free to access.
It was republished on The Left Berlin, a forum for progressive voices not usually covered in mainstream media.
My own March poster was picked by Diva Magazine Pakistan for their Instagram account. Checkout my earlier posts to learn more.
Women & men from all strata of Pakistani life gathered to commemorate International Women’s Day with the much-awaited Aurat March, holding placards with important messages, sharing poetry with deep meaning & celebrating the blessing of womanhood. Aurat means woman, & March means rallying, translated from Urdu.
I’m researching on campaign messages of mainstream opposition groups in Pakistan as part of my thesis. This ‘evangelical’ placard was an outcome of what I have learned. It has two elements; the text, which in English roughly means, ‘shame & honour isn’t determined by your clothes, it’s in the way you think’. In Roman Urdu, ‘sharam aur haya kapron mein nahi, soch mein soch mein’. Such framing irks mainstream sensibilities of morality by highlighting the double standards for men & women in Muslim Pakistan; the costume, a prayer cap & a garment, popularly associated with Muslim men attire in Asia, counters the assumption that Marchers are ‘immoral women’.
The unprecedented success of Aurat March is in effectively translating universal values of equality & human rights in Pakistan’s cultural lexicon. It moves these conversations from Parliament to the Kitchen. Much like the global #metoo movement.
Pakistan has a glorious history of women activism. Women have challenged military dictators & discriminatory laws through street demonstrations.
Learn more about the Aurat March 2020 here. Also, see it through my eyes here.
An editor of an Urdu newspaper once told me how the discourse in Pakistan’s English press is detached from the needs of the ‘common man’.
The gentleman justified the paper’s pro-establishment editorial policy saying, “it is impossible to explain the nuances of Pakistani politics to a fruit hawker.”
Implicit in the remarks (hypocrisy aside) was the assumption that Pakistanis are irrational people which means, they must be told what is right.
Are Pakistanis really so irrational?
I can see why one can be inclined to believe so.
What else explains why they continue to skive off due share in tax? More taxes mean more funds for development.
Online campaigns questioning the ‘patriotism’ of some Pakistanis are common. Often, those who reside in Pakistan are considered more loyal as they have an innate (read irrational) love for the motherland. And those commenting from overseas are considered traitors as they have an irrational prejudice towards it.
However, the assumption that Pakistani citizens are incapable of reason reeks of elitism.
A collective action problem
A key concept of governance is the ‘collective action problem’. Such problems occur because of common goods in a society that everyone benefits from regardless of the effort society members put in to attain those goods.
An example of such goods is water. It is available for everyone residing in Pakistan where there is infrastructure. Rational Pakistanis freeride – they aim to have others pay the costs of providing water from which they then benefit. The cost can be borne by others by paying a water tax, reducing consumption of water even as others maximise it, having no water supply and so on.
The consequence of this problem is that if everyone thinks rationally and nobody works to provide the good, it is not attained. This leads to water scarcity.
Therefore, the outcome of our rational attitude is wholly irrational.
We can also bring this problem to bear on the on-going revenue drive. In theory, all Pakistanis residing in Pakistan will benefit from a higher development budget if everyone pay their due share of tax.
However, rational Pakistanis would aim to freeride – get away with as much undeclared wealth as possible, minimise the effort and cost of regulating their businesses, avoid the perceived risk at present of investing surplus revenue, etc.
The outcome of a rational response to the tax drive is that the government’s revenue targets will not be achieved.
A matter of perception
Dealing with collective action problems is also a matter of perception.
The contribution of any individual Pakistani to the overall benefits of everyone paying taxes is statistically rather low; the amount of benefits each Pakistani reaps are almost wholly unaffected by whether or not they pay their due share.
For instance, an opposition politician paid an agricultural income tax of Rs 3.83 million in 2017, according to the documents she submitted to the Election Commission. While the amount may appear substantial, it is peanuts (0.000383%) compared to the overall budget of roughly Rs 1 trillion allocated for development projects by the then Pakistan Muslim League (N) government for 2017-2018.
Meaning that in absolute terms, her share of tax hardly puts a dent on Pakistan’s development.
Thus, the rational strategy for the well-to-do like her could be to avoid taxes as they may not perceive their due share of tax as a significant contribution towards the exchequer.
What can Pakistani leadership do about it?
Collective action problems are difficult to resolve. Experts pose several solutions.
One is to limit the size of groups. Small groups are more homogenous (culturally for instance) and that increases the likelihood of cooperation.
Members of smaller groups are also likely to perceive the effect of their contribution and are therefore more willing to participate. Think about pitching in to fix your neighbourhood trash problem compared to that of your city.
In Pakistan’s’ case this is essentially a call for greater provincial autonomy. A formula more successfully implemented in India.
Another solution is to introduce a cost of group membership that individuals must pay if they are to benefit from the common goods.
This can be as ‘simple’ as introducing water pricing. Or more elaborate carrot and stick tactics that incentivise tax payers and punish non-payers. A proposal much written about in the media.
To be sure, collective action problems are difficult to quantify. They are based on assumptions that people everywhere act rationally in pursuit of their individual interests.
So, the more one observes society through this perspective, the more likely it is to debate possible solutions to them.
In other words, leaders must first think of citizens as rational individuals capable of independent decision making.
This may seem unfamiliar as many of us are used to a steady diet of derogatory stereotypes about each other’s identity – caste, sect, religion, nationality, etc. And, perhaps even physical and mental abilities.
So, we must observe closely.
Emotional appeals by Prime Minister Imran Khan might persuade some to file their returns. However, aware of rampant corruption and the failure of such drives in the past to bring meaningful change in the broken tax system incentivises many rational Pakistanis to not comply. Good intentions alone are not enough.
Online trolls who challenge the patriotism of Pakistani expats may appear to be speaking from genuine emotion. But their contempt for any criticism of state policies can also belie a calculation that such criticism poses a challenge to the status quo. With limited choice to find opportunities overseas, trolls in Pakistan may not have the luxury yet to offend or destabilise the status quo.
In the introduction my intention was not to compare the quality of the English and colloquial press. It was to emphasise the need to trust people with the truth however unsettling that may be.
Truth and reason go hand in hand.
The ultimate prize of speaking the truth, i.e. treating the population as rational and capable is a society that has learned to function independently, in practice.
A society on board with the policies of its leaders.
Convinced – not coerced or duped – that it is in their interest to do so.
The first time I set foot outside Pakistan was on a trip to Turkey to meet someone I had met on the internet.
The trip promised all the wonders of a Bollywood romance. And it did rock my world in more than one way.
I was literally speechless.
How could it be that a white Christian girl – my friend – had to inform her father before going out with me? And how could a Muslim host, observing a ritual fast during Ramadan, serve alcohol to guests at his hotel without batting an eye? What incredible self-control and discipline, I wondered.
Looking back, I realise that people everywhere are basically the same.
They want to prosper in good health, follow the rule of law, make more money, save for a stable future, send their children to good universities and so on.
But sometimes such a path isn’t so easy for everyone.
Muslims, fuelled by identity-based pride, forget that their perceived ‘others’ are just like them despite their privileges or lack thereof.
The recent terrorist attack on a mosque in New Zealand by a white male Australian that resulted in 50 deaths and 20 injuries demonstrates a similar lack of understanding about minorities in the West and in particular about the followers of Islam.
Clearly, Islamophobia is on the rise.
In general, there is a perception that political Islam emphasises on Huquq Allah (rights of god).
What is debatable, however, is that segments of Muslim communities are yet to reconcile with modernity in ways that privilege civic life – or, Huquq-ul Ibad (rights of god’s servants).
For this reconciliation to happen, Muslims must take ownership of the corrosive discourse that is peddled in their name by fringe elements within their own society – forget the world.
It is not enough to just condemn terrorist attacks; authorities and civil society must collectively admonish those who incite hate. They must encourage counter-narratives rooted in progressive voices within the Islamic school of thought.
In Pakistan, the authorities allegedly use militants to suit their interests. The country’s political leaders then strategically profit from the noxious discourse propagated by those militants.
As a result, this generates a public culture – one which is confrontational rather than deliberative. Over time, this culture creates a bad image of Pakistan.
For instance, the emergence of parties like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), that draw strength entirely from such discursive tactics, tells the world that extremism is mainstream in Pakistan.
For centuries, progressive and modern voices have been sidelined in many Muslim majority countries.
Rather than making an effort to understand complex socio-economic and political challenges, some of us take refuge in simplistic explanations which are often riddled with ambiguities.
Others lack the vocabulary to even describe the world beyond a ‘good Muslim right wing’ and ‘bad Muslim West liberal’ dichotomy.
Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a regular commentator in the Daily Dawn, observes that the debate on religion in Pakistan has mostly been about a modern Islam versus a puritanical orthodox Islam.
Amidst that, terms like ‘secularism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘liberalism’, have only muddied the debate.
This has resulted in what historian Ayesha Jalal refers to as “confusion of categories”. Meaning, our inability to distinguish theology – nature of God – from other disciplines, such as fiqh – jurisprudence.
Alarmingly, we can observe similar patterns in even non-Muslim majority countries, including India.
Progressive ideas are increasingly seen with suspicion when they lock horns with essentialist agendas of their populist opponents.
To be sure, I’m not advocating a spirit of self-reflection for its own sake. Many Muslims would prefer a reality that is easy to digest in these unsettling times. I’m advocating a smarter engagement with the modern world through frames of social justice on which it is built.
I have observed that, at times, even the strongest opponents of Islamophobia dismiss progressive ideas.
Scholars, who have studied the rise of Islamophobia in the US, say that inadequate representation of American Muslims in political spheres gives rise to such tendencies.
What are some of the things that come to your mind when you hear the word ‘China’?
1- Large population
3- Chaptay (‘flat faced’, in local parlance)
5- Food (more specifically, Chicken corn soup and Chinese rice)
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.
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 (Roman Urdu transliteration for: a countryside bumpkin who has acquired formal education).
Typically it is assumed that the rote learning centred public education system is the root cause of our jahalat جہالت(‘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 share the same tribal mindset with those of us back home.
Conversely, many graduates of local public schooling have a mature understanding of modern collective co-existence, respect for rule of law and empathy with the disenfranchised such as minorities and women.
It is becoming apparent that our formal education, public or private, foreign or domestic, doesn’t have a strong correlation with our jahalat. This is a common Pakistani problem.
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.
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 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.