This article has been published in the Sunday edition of Pakistan Today, dated 30th March 2014
( http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2014/03/29/comment/manufactured-consent/ )
(For published version: Page 7 at http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2014/03/30/dna/dna-issue-17/ )
The media is the modern weapon of choice
Omer Zaheer Meer
The author is a leading economist, a qualified chartered accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who is helping reshape businesses at Millennium Law Company. He can be reached on Twitter and http://www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or email@example.com
Malcolm X once said that if you are not careful, the news (media) may make you hate the oppressed while loving the oppressor. This has never been truer than the present times. The rising influence of media in shaping public opinion has granted it powers unlike anything before in human history. So much so that now media campaigns are launched for reasons ranging from protecting corporate interests to larger world order dominance battles, without an average user suspecting.
If one thinks about it, it actually makes perfect sense that media entities, which run as corporate profit-driven institutions, tend to subscribe to and further the agendas and vested interests of their sponsors. Opinions are manufactured to serve these interest groups using consistent media attention on a particular line. This reality was explored by Noam Chomsky in his work with Edward Herman in “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”.
When analyzing the situation in Pakistan, we can see the relevance and actual implementation of the mass media campaign to mould popular opinion in the country. But what is the need? Who would want that? All valid questions. So let us examine, shall we?
Pakistan has been blessed with a key strategic geographical position. With a weak leadership, the same blessing however has turned into a curse with different regional and global powers unfolding their desired world-order games in the country. The USA’s interests are related to the great-game currently in a complicated phase in Afghanistan. India, of course, is interested because of the inherent dogma of animosity against Pakistan. And the age-old Persian-Arab rivalry is also being played out at the expense of Pakistan, not just in Afghanistan, but very much within Pakistan. Add to that the clash of regional economic interests with Pakistan’s and you have a quagmire at your hands.
The question arises as to how to tame a vital country such as Pakistan without been seen as doing so? There needed to be an answer and it was found with the advent of private electronic media in Pakistan.
However, a nuclear power possessing a highly disciplined and sixth largest army in the world is not an easy cookie to swallow, even if one holds some sway on it. This has been proven by several steps taken over the last few decades. The prime examples of “alleged” nuclear sharing with friendly countries (which was not illegal by a non-signee of NPT), backing of “strategic assets” in Afghanistan (largely due to the dubious American track record of dumping Pakistan) and the blocking of NATO supply for months, had driven the above point to global policy makers planning their moves on the global stage to protect their national interests.
The question arises as to how to tame a vital country such as Pakistan without been seen as doing so? There needed to be an answer and it was found with the advent of private electronic media in Pakistan. The leading strategists in the global powers burning their brain cells at leading think tanks, both private and state-funded, saw an opening to be seized upon.
Media corporations are corporate entities driven by profits. The USA began the trend by pouring billions of rupees into the Pakistani media. This way the following of a certain perspective was nurtured right from the beginning.
This is not to totally dismiss the positive aspects of the electronic media revolution in Pakistan. Without doubt, the media has greatly enhanced the access of an ordinary citizen to information. Also, there are positive exceptions too. But even if one ignores the quality of information provided, the access to information alone is not enough without detailed knowledge and framework of understanding necessary for forming independent opinions, which is hard to expect from an average citizen in a country with a miserable literacy record. This can be proven with several examples where the national mood was made to swing in one direction only to be swung back to the opposite extreme later on, when it suited the “sponsors”.
In April 1971, the ‘success’ of an operation against Indian-sponsored Mukhti-Bahini in the then East-Pakistan was announced only to be followed by the worst nightmare just eight months later, culminating in Bangladesh. Today most of the intelligentsia curse the forces for alleged atrocities back then, while neutral writers even from India expose these myths as hugely fabricated. Similarly about Balochistan operations, the national opinion is made to swing like a pendulum from absolute support under Bhutto to major backing under Musharaf to major detestation at present.
In April 1971, the ‘success’ of an operation against Indian-sponsored Mukhti-Bahini in the then East-Pakistan was announced only to be followed by the worst nightmare just eight months later, culminating in Bangladesh.
If we recall the recent past, the episode of Lal-Masjid saga is all too fresh. The electronic media created a war-hysteria, pressurising a government facing its biggest challenge from lawyers movement and itself ready to oblige. Once the operation ensued the same media pointed out the massive human-rights abuses, turning the national support into nation-wide shock and anger. Problems, unfortunately, compounded in all these instances.
These days we’re facing yet another challenge in deciding the solution to TTP’s terror. It’s a complicated subject with more than fifty groups operating loosely under the TTP umbrella, warranting a detailed write-up. However, history has taught us that internal disorder can turn into chaos and possibly civil war with use of armed forces without proper strategies, especially to ensure avoidance of civilian miseries.
In the light of the above, one would have expected the media to be objective and to guide the nation towards logic rather than cashing in on popular sentiments. Opinion makers are expected to be neutral, and receptive to perspectives challenging mainstream sentiments of revenge against the inhumane terror unleashed by TTP factions. Instead, what we witness is a total dismissal of anything challenging the popular narrative of absolute use of force as sympathy for terrorism. So much so that the sane voices drawing on the East-Pakistan experience and asking for protection of civilians while proposing a strategy of disengaging from a foreign war to take away the narrative of “Jihad”, isolating the non-reformable TTP elements by getting as many to lay arms as possible, and then using targeted force to eliminate the non-reformable, are dismissed with bias by key opinion makers.
Sadly it has reached a stage where Imran Khan, who is leading this balanced alternate narrative at a heavy political cost and is the head of the second largest political party in terms of votes, is called “a man who sold Pakistan” and “Taliban apologist” for trying to put forward an alternate strategy, which his party believes to be best for Pakistan. Sadly this has bought us to a point where what seems to be another “manufactured consent” is now popularised. Let’s hope against hope that the cost is not as dear as it has been in the past.