By Madiha Sattar, HuffingtonPost Contributor
"So, it's not okay for women to be touched by male doctors but male executioners can hold hands and slap bottoms in front of milling crowds?" asked a Lahore-based lawyer in an April 6 op-ed in Pakistan's English-language daily The News.
"Apparently only girls must be punished for their libido. Boys, after all, become men when they can 'tap that'."
He was referring to the video that surfaced recently of a woman being flogged by the Taliban in Swat, allegedly for contact with a man she wasn't married to. The column could have been more responsible; some reports claim, for example, that Chand Bibi's companion (if she had one) was also flogged. But the point here is the power of unfettered language. The frank, almost shocking nature of this piece showcases how Pakistan's media offers a more open platform for debate than many Americans might have realized, one that is vital for building public support against Taliban ideology.
Pakistan is not Saudi Arabia, Saddam-led Iraq or Taliban-led Afghanistan - one of its strongest civil institutions is a news media that relentlessly pursues the country's failures, with journalists routinely speaking out against the government, extremists, and the notion of a theocratic state, among other things.
At the same time the press has a vocal right-wing component that refuses to criticize anything with a socially conservative bent. But discussion of the media's relevance to Obama's "Af-Pak" strategy is conspicuously absent from American discourse, which analyzes political, military, developmental and economic efforts but seems unaware of the extent of media influence on the country's governance and on Pakistanis' worldviews.
Newspapers here have always been fiercely independent except under extreme coercion, and in a country with limited literacy, the liberalization of the electronic media in 2002 was nothing short of a cultural revolution. Water-cooler conversation here is about political talk shows, not television dramas, and watching these is now a national pastime. Their hosts are celebrities with passionate fans and detractors. Junkies can easily spend the hours between nine p.m and midnight every weeknight watching these shows after having poured through several newspapers earlier in the day. The more famous print journalists are known for their political leanings, and their politically linked contacts.
Certain media outlets draw a line so thin between reporting and comment that it might as well be invisible, and most news channels tend to sensationalize and exaggerate, but, warts and all, Pakistan's media is far more than what marketing nerds would call a "key influencer". It is nothing short of the most powerful element of civil society in the country, with a wider reach than educational institutions, religious organizations, trade unions, cultural groups, NGOs, corporations or the lawyers' movement.
It's true that all decisions are ultimately controlled by Pakistan's army, the intelligence agencies, our patronage-based political system and the United States. And for all the reform it has brought about, there are certain topics the media dare not touch or is not given access to - operations against the Baloch insurgency, for example, are hidden behind a media blackout.
There are journalists who have lost their lives and others who live under the constant threat of doing so. Despite all of this, the institution still helps more than any other in keeping power brokers honest and aware of public opinion.
But the problem with free media, as with democracy, is that people are free. The same newspaper that carried the op-ed mentioned above ran another on its front page on April 14, a day after parliament voted for a deal with the Taliban in Swat; peace in exchange for Islamic law, just 100 km from Islamabad.
"The collective wisdom of the country's prime public representative body . . . has put its weight behind the Swat peace deal. The parochial view of NGO types, liberal extremists and confused souls has been rejected . . . [parliamentarians] should be encouraged and praised,"
The op-ed gushed, conveniently failing to mention that the Taliban had threatened the lives of any parliamentarians voting against the deal. Another article immediately adjacent to it mentioned the threat, adding that:
"Only two sane voices were heard" in the 300-plus assembly. "This agreement was signed under the shadow of guns . . . the guns of the Taliban have turned out to be more powerful than the guns of the Pakistan Army,"
The piece quoted one of the two voices as saying:
"The most shocking part . . . was that not a single woman parliamentarian stood up to protest the sweeping laws which would greatly affect the women of Swat. . . . [the] Opposition Leader . . . turned his guns towards US Defence Secretary Roberts Gates instead of evaluating the peace deal."
And, this past Sunday, a piece in Dawn, the country's most widely read English newspaper, thundered about how "right-wing journalists, politicians and 'scholars' had carefully concocted a long-winded narrative that cleverly defended and explained religious extremism as an expression against 'American imperialism', 'Zionist conspiracies', 'Hindu infiltration', 'economic inequality', and 'injustice'. The barbarism that is being practiced in the name of faith in Pakistan can so easily puncture [this narrative]."
On television, too, the dialogue is ferociously antagonistic, since talk shows invite guests with diametrically opposed views. One episode had Swat's Taliban chief stating that girls would be allowed to attend school only if this was ruled permissible by Islamic courts set up under the peace deal; in reply, a journalist pointed out that it was ludicrous to send Swat's parents to court for permission to provide a fundamental human right to their children.
It is clear by now that Pakistan's press and its political analysts include religious conservatives who see the Taliban as upholders of the faith and nationalists who view Taliban violence as a justified reaction to American drone attacks. This is especially true of the Urdu press, which reaches far more people than English newspapers do. But that makes even more crucial the continued freedom of liberal commentators to show the Pakistani people what a theocratic, violent state would mean for their lives.
One of the worst scenarios for the country at this time would be a media crackdown, even if for unrelated reasons - a danger that is always present in Pakistan, and one that was all too real during coverage of the lawyers' protests in March. If it muzzles the press next time a political crisis emerges, the government will be losing a limb in its battle against the Taliban.
Separately, what the Pakistani government needs to do - if President Zardari is sincere about fighting terrorism - is use some of the five billion dollars in aid we just received to pay the world's best marketing firm to come up with an anti-Taliban PR blitz. It then needs to saturate Pakistani minds and hearts with this message, and it needs to use the established reach of the media to do so, leveraging it to run public service ads and programs.
It wouldn't hurt if our President went on air after all the violence we have seen in recent weeks to set out, in no unclear terms, his strategy for fighting extremist violence and a rousing appeal to our better natures.
If America is going to attach strings to aid, continued freedom for Pakistan's media and an all-out, over-the-top, government-led public relations campaign should be two of them. Without these, hope for both our immediate and long term futures might be lost.
Madiha Sattar is a Karachi-based editor and writer at the Herald, a Pakistani monthly covering domestic politics, society and culture.
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