Pakistanis are news addicts. With a mercurial political landscape and a continuing spate of security crises, the populace has come to find a bizarre sense of entertainment in the news cycle. Life has become an ongoing soap opera with all the melodrama we may crave to be found within real news. No wonder that Pakistan's TV news channels are among the most watched and lucrative sources of advertising revenue for the country's vibrant electronic media market. Media dynasties reminiscent of the Murdoch or Luce empires can be found in Pakistan as well. The family elders who started media houses in the era of printed news have passed on the baton to their children and grandchildren, who are often educated abroad and are savvy with modern electronic marketing and social media interfaces.
But don't be so easily taken in by the panache of the young executives who run these houses, nor deem them to be a modernizing hope for Pakistan. They remain committed to making profit as any other business enterprise, and in Pakistan the easiest route to profit is a theocratic twist to any and every enterprise. The most interesting case of how religion and modernity have been contested within TV journalism in Pakistan rests with Geo News, by far Pakistan's most watched Urdu news channel. Geo is part of the Jang Group of companies that was started by Mir Khalil-ur-Rehman, a self-made journalism entrepreneur from Gujranwala, Punjab (but of Kashmiri descent) who began a newspaper for the Muslims of pre-partition India called "Jang" -- which literally means 'war.' Yet he contended that the paper was a pacifist enterprise as its aim was to highlight the urgency of ending war between communities.
After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the Mir family moved from Delhi to Karachi where they consolidated their media presence. Over the years, they branched into English print and eventually into television. Currently Geo News, the most successful of their ventures, is operated by a Harvard-educated grandson of the founder, named Mir Ibrahim Rahman (MIR). Under MIR's leadership, Geo News has treaded an ambiguous path of modernist advocacy on some issues and theocratic entrenchment on others. The channel launched a determined campaign to reform gender discrimination laws and the network produced the film Bol (Speak) in 2011 with a strong social reform message to promote family planning and to quell the persecution of transvestites and homosexuals. To its credit, the channel has also provided space for debate of tough theological issues with reformist scholars such as Javed A. Ghamidi (who had to flee to Malaysia to escape death threats from fanatics). The network has also led a peace-building campaign with the Times of India called "aman-ki-asha" (aspiration for peace).
On the other hand, the channel still tends to pander to dominant religious ethos and orthodoxy. Theology permeates the programming as a stark reminder that Pakistan and Israel remain the only two nuclear nations that were formed at the behest of religion and continue to be subsumed by theocratic influence. Most recently, the channel reinstated the show of a highly controversial former government minister and polemicist, named Amir Liaquat Hussain, who is adored by the religious establishment for taking a hard line on issues like blasphemy. Mr. Hussain and Geo had parted ways before for some of his insinuations against minority sects and his alleged fabrication of doctoral degree credentials. Off-air footage of his misogynistic invective was subsequently leaked online but no definitive investigation was carried out to hold him or the network to account regarding its authenticity.
Mr. Hussain captivates the theologically inclined with his monologues in polished Urdu, and facilitated discussions on the minutiae of religious edicts that give clerics the pomp and prestige of "expertise." To his credit, Hussain has tried to bring Shia and Sunni scholars together to discuss points of convergence and divergence in a fairly civilized format but that has been the limit of his tolerance trip. Other sects, and non-Muslims were frequently marginalized or dismissed with patronizing supremacist rhetoric.
Just before the start of the Holy month of Ramadan, reinstating Mr. Hussain is clearly a marketable decision on the part of Mir Ibrahim Rahman. His self-righteous equivocations, cinematic vocal performances and ingratiating servility towards the ulama (religious scholars) will win Geo an ace in ratings. Yet the mixed messages being sent by this network of "running with the hares and hunting with the hounds" continues to perplex those who strive for some sustainable path towards modernity in Pakistan.
Thankfully, Pakistan's civil society networks have acquired the prowess to monitor and highlight media indiscretions. Such monitors will keep a close eye on the return of Mr. Hussain and the capricious cultural influence of Geo News. It is fine for the media to reflect popular opinion and, in a highly religious society such as Pakistan, having religious programming on television is inevitable and understandable. Yet the shaping and framing of such programming is a responsibility which educated professionals like Mir Ibrahim Rahman must take more seriously than market calculus. Ratings are empowering, but must also be humbling metrics. To quote Edward R. Murrow: "Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn't mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar."
Follow Saleem H. Ali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/saleem_ali