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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Allah on prime time

The top four channels watched in Pakistan are Star Plus, Geo News, Sony and Colors. Of these, Star Plus has over three times the viewership of Geo News. Pakistanis get their news from local channels but their entertainment from Indian channels. This is so because it is not possible to produce entertainment in a moral society. If we think about it, entertainment can only be produced on the cusp of immorality. Because Pakistan is a pious society, it must borrow entertainment from India. This is why Pakistanis watch the same Bollywood movies as we do. What actually separates us from them is their news channels. Let us look at them.

The first observation is that Pakistani news anchors begin their shows with a religious salutation.

Talk time: Hamid Mir (right) before his talk show Capital Talk goes on air on Geo TV. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/ Getty Images

Why assume all Pakistanis share your religion? And why inflict your piety on those who do? It is the equivalent of Arnab Goswami beginning his nightly broadcasts with “Jai Shri Ram!"

Mir is not alone. This greeting is sounded out by Shahid Masood and Javed Chaudhry on Express News, Asma Chaudhry on Dunya News, Mushtaq Minhas on Aaj TV and any number of anchors. Geo’s Kamran Khan always ends his show with “Allah hafiz o nasir (May Allah protect you)."

The second aspect is that the channels are in Urdu. There are a few Sindhi and Punjabi channels that aren’t significant. The urban Pakistani has an attractive bilingual character, and the quality of his Urdu is very good. It is pleasing to the ear, and it is one good thing to have come out of the Pakistani imposition of Urdu on all its citizens. India’s urban middle classes are notionally bilingual, but mostly read and write English, while speaking a broken version of their mother tongue.

The third observation is that the channels have strong religious content. This includes scholarly debate, often by first-rate intellectuals such as Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, but mostly it is reinforcing of faith. Frequently there is an attack of the most bigoted kind against fellow Pakistanis, such as those of Ahmedi confession.

While the language is pleasing, therefore, the content is otherwise and often it is unhinged. One of the most repeated words in Pakistani media is “saazish" (conspiracy). Conspiracies are usually the doing of “Yahood-o-Hanood (Jews and Hindus)", besides of course “Amrika".

This lunacy has no bounds. Nawaiwaqt’s Muhammad Ajmal Niazi once abused Geo News for being too soft on the West. Niazi did not refer to Geo by name, but said he meant the channel “jiska naam Yahoodi say milta hai" (whose name resembles “Jew").

Pakistanis see the Hindu’s evil hand in many things, including in acts that harmed India. Ajmal Kasab is not really Pakistani, but the Indian agent Amar Singh. This is the analysis of Zaid Hamid, who appears in his red beret as strategic affairs expert on Dawn News, Aaj TV, Dunya News and Samaa TV. He champions Ghazwa-e-Hind, a prophecy predicting Muslim conquest of India. This is debated as fact, the question being when it will come to fruition.

Ahmed Quraishi is an anchor, column writer and international expert. In 2010, he reported stories on the monstrous doings of Indians he got from WikiLeaks. These were repeated by newspapers, and by former ambassador Zafar Hilaly in his column. Then it turned out Quraishi had invented it all. To be fair to Pakistanis, he was exposed as a fraud by a fellow (anonymous) Pakistani who runs the media blog Cafe Pyala. But Quraishi remains an anchor, columnist and expert. These warriors prosper because of the closed minds of the channels’ audience.

Their free media is mostly a negative influence on Pakistanis. It validates their prejudices and makes it difficult for them to negotiate the modern world. And it isn’t all harmless. Samaa TV’s Meher Bukhari skewered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer for his empathy towards a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Taseer was then shot by his enraged bodyguard. Blogger Zia Ahmad wrote that Bukhari had “Taseer’s blood on her hands". The damage is done on Urdu television and cannot be undone by English bloggers. Ghamidi, the Islamic scholar, fled Pakistan and now lives in Malaysia. He questioned the blasphemy law, and was savaged on the channels. “It became impossible to live there," he told The Guardian.

Pakistan had two English channels, Dawn News and Express 24/7. Dawn News went Urdu and Express 24/7 shut down. One reason both failed is that fewer Pakistanis speak English than they do Urdu. But English is also spoken by fewer Indians and yet English news channels take in most money here. The fact is that Pakistan’s wild discourse cannot be properly communicated in English. The Economist attacks me in its Johnson Language column of 6 February for holding this view with reference to Gujarat, but I believe it to be true.

Pakistan does have balanced minds also on television. One is Geo’s Najam Sethi, for whose Lahore publication I write a column surveying the subcontinent’s Urdu, Hindi and Gujarati media. But it is a case of rotten apples comprising most of the basket.

India is fortunate that its news television was early on dominated by those with open minds like Prannoy Roy in English and S.P. Singh at Aaj Tak in Hindi. Roy gave us the wonderful line-up of stars who dominate today across channels: Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Vikram Chandra and Arnab Goswami. Familiar to us when only in their 20s, they have been on air for 17 years.

The first three clung to Roy’s secular liberalism. Goswami was perceptive enough to understand that for middle-class Indians, the fault always lies outside, never within. He has created his angry persona, positioning himself as one of them, though I suspect this is an act.

In Hindi, after Singh’s death, his tradition was carried forward by Uday Shankar at Aaj Tak and Star News. He made Hindi news television more urgent and tabloid-like, but kept it leaning on the liberal side. Shazi Zaman, Dibang, Naghma, and the rest have kept the medium respectable.

True populism came to Hindi news with Rajat Sharma’s India TV. It was a relief that it appeared as stories about cows being kidnapped by aliens rather than the hardening of identity as happened in Pakistan.

It must be admitted that the media in India is run by people who service a readership that is to the right of the editor on homosexuals’ rights, encounter killings, Muslim issues and such things.

This separates us from Pakistan.

The Times of India may have its faults, but its editor Joydeep Bose brings out a liberal and humane paper which is considerably to the left of its readership. Its website peddles soft pornography (on 28 February, the links included “Indian babes who love to pose topless") and that is fine. America’s free speech laws governed under the first amendment have been challenged, defined and strengthened by Playboy and Penthouse, not The Washington Post.

Our media is sometimes corrupt, often inept and always less than brilliant, which is why intelligent Indians seek solace in and (how many Americans bookmark But it means well and has been a positive, warm and constructive influence on Indian society. For such things, we must be grateful.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

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Also Read |Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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Updated: 02 Mar 2012, 09:24 PM IST
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