When Taliban militants stormed two minority-sect mosques in Lahore last month, Pakistani television crews swung into action, breaking police lines to document a dramatic siege that left 95 people dead. What they left out of the coverage highlights the Pakistani media's increasingly belligerent bent.
Reporters refrained from honoring these victims, part of the frequently persecuted Ahmadi sect of Islam, with the title shaheed, or martyr, as they had done for thousands of others killed in militant violence in recent years. Nor did they refer to the places of worship as mosques. TV news programs downplayed the sectarian nature of the attack. Some instead accused India of trying to undermine Pakistan on the anniversary of successful nuclear tests, or America for fomenting instability to expand its presence in the country.
While Pakistani media are banned by law from recognizing Ahmadis as Muslims, their apparent lack of sympathy for the victims underscored the growing dominance of a worldview that's rooted more in the country's conservative religious seminaries than its Western-oriented universities. Nowhere is this more evident than in a bevy of news and talk shows that promote anti-Americanism, the idea of a transnational Islamic government, and minority bashing.
“These [programs] need to be looked at and reviewed. Instead of demonizing the Taliban, they glamorize them,” says Sherry Rehman, a lawmaker from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and former minister of information.
As in Pakistan, American media has its share of rabble-rousers, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News host Glenn Beck, whom the Anti-Defamation League has called America's “fearmonger-in-chief." But they don't talk openly about links with religious militants.
Pakistan's new firebrands raising eyebrows include televangelists such as Amir Liaquat Hussain, who hosts the popular "Alim Online" show on Geo Television, Pakistan's largest private TV network; the fez-sporting ex-jihadi Zaid Hamid who famously coined the term "Hindu Zionist" to describe what he sees as the unholy alliance of Israel and India in their quest to undermine Pakistan; and Hamid Mir, host of "Capital Talk," who counts among the country's most respected journalists and who interviewed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her last visit to Pakistan, and is currently in the midst of scandal regarding his alleged ties with the Taliban uncovered in a taped phone recording.
Dozens of private cable channels sprouted during the early 2000s under the rule of former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who liberalized the country's strict media laws. The newly-empowered broadcast media has played a key role in shaping public opinion on matters ranging from the militancy to the long-standing power struggle between the executive and judiciary which eventually helped lead to General Musharraf's ouster.
Today, every evening, millions of viewers tune-in to watch their preferred nightly hosts. According to industry insiders, Hamid Mir consistently rates No.1 as Pakistan’s most popular talk show host, with advertisers paying about $2,400 a minute for air-time during his slot – a princely sum in impoverished Pakistan.
Mr. Hamid has advocated the Pakistani conquest of India as a solution to poor Indian-Pakistani relations. Other bold declarations include an insistence that, if left unmolested by foreign powers, Pakistan would place a man on the moon within five years. Late last year, he claimed on his show to have evidence that Israel was on the verge of bombing Pakistan – an event that never came to pass.
"One of the reasons why he is beloved is because he's someone who helps absolve self-reflection. His insistence is that we were destined by greatness but we were robbed by America, by the Jews and the Hindus," says popular radio-show host and columnist Fasi Zaka.
Hamid has also used controversial (and widely discredited) religious texts to bolster his claims of being the savior of Islam – citing one as saying that the revival of Islam will come from South Asia, and another which says the savior Islam will wear a red hat (much like the hat Hamid is famous for).
Much of Hamid's target demographic – young middle-class professionals – grew up after widespread Islamization measures imposed by military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s. Policies include demonizing India and minorities and promoting Islamic government as the only solution to political problems, says Taimur Rahman, a political science lecturer at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "It's easy then to relate to what Zaid Hamid says because that's what they've grown up with. It takes more reasoning to challenge that."
Kamran Zia, a trader in the city of Karachi, says that for him, Zaid Hamid's show is about "believing in yourself, your culture, your religion and your identity, and not assuming that because something is Western it's automatically superior."
Mr. Hamid’s show often references the accomplishments of the Muslim empires that ruled India for close to a thousand years before being supplanted by British rule.
Mr. Zia says when he returned to Pakistan from university in Britain in 2007, "there was a lot of despondency" because of political unrest and a failing economy. “He gave us back that self-belief. It's good for us.”
Hashim Malik, an officer with Pakistan's National Bank, adds: "We do have a glorious past and today people look back and only remember the negative things. I like Hamid's shows because though I do believe in live-and-let-live, we still need to keep ourselves morally intact."
Despite his substantial following, Hamid’s show was recently cancelled owing to a torrent of opposition of right-wing student groups who felt Hamid has strayed too far in his self-aggrandizement, while allegations resurfaced that Hamid had been a close follower of Yusuf Kazzab, a man who claimed to be Islam’s final Prophet in the late 1990s. He is also being investigated in a murder case, and at present Hamid’s appearances on television are sporadic.
Calls to violence
While Hamid generally reserves his venom for what he perceives as Pakistan's external enemies, others, like televangelist Amir Liaquat Hussain openly call for violence against Pakistan's minorities. In a show recorded in 2008, the Karachi based religious-scholar, who held the post of minister of state for religious affairs in the Musharraf regime, said it was incumbent on all true-believers to kill Ahmadis.
Within two days, a prominent Ahmadi doctor and an Ahmadi rice trader were shot dead in Sindh province.
Though Hussain's membership in the secular MQM political party was terminated, no further action was taken against him or his channel, Geo, owned by Pakistan's largest media group.
Pakistani media outlets generally refrain from engaging in criticism of each other. But some liberal papers did criticize veteran reporter Hamid Mir – who has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times – when an alleged tape recording linked him to the execution of a Taliban hostage in May.
"We all know that journalists have sometimes to ingratiate themselves with dubious people who can provide them information. But you may want to ask yourself, how much information is Mir's 'source' actually sharing and how much of the conversation is the 'reporter' informing his 'source,' " wrote a blogger on Café Pyala, an anonymous media watch blog that helped break the story.
In the tape, Mir brands Khalid Khawaja, a former intelligence agent being held by the Taliban at the time, a "CIA collaborator" as well as an Ahmadi sympathizer. He also advises the Taliban spokesman not to let Khawaja go but instead interrogate him further. Khawaja was executed days later.
Mir hotly denied the allegations and called the tape faked. "They took my voice, sampled it, and manufactured this conspiracy against me," Mir told the UK's Guardian newspaper. Khawaja's son, meanwhile, announced he would take Mir to court.
After an initial storm of publicity, Mir has retained his show and to date no formal investigation has been launched.
Contrary voices silenced
In such an atmosphere, few hold out hope for positive change. There are no liberal personalities of comparable standing to counteract the right-wing voices, says Mr. Zaka, and the liberal press is largely restricted to English-language newspaper, channels, and blogs – all of which reach only highly-educated Pakistanis.
According to Abbas Nasir, editor of Dawn, Pakistan's leading English daily, Urdu newspapers outsell their English counterparts in Pakistan by approximately a 10:1 ratio.
“The dangerous thing … is that the middle and upper class are [falling] hook, line, and sinker for these conspiracy theories. The fringe argument has become the mainstream,” says Mr Zaka.