Pakistani media, society and the pussycat vigil-aunties

Londonstani did not intend this blog to be dominated by crap in the Pakistani media. But, hey, sometimes the crap in the Pakistani media is just too amusing to ignore (eg. Mansoor Ijaz, Pakistan's own Austin Powers). And then, sometimes, something that seems frivolous and silly allows you a sneaky peak into the dynamics beneath the surface.

About a week ago, a Karachi television show host decided to spice up her regular format by descending on a public park to camera-ambush couples (who didn't seem to be doing much other than chatting or walking arm-in-arm) and demanding to see their marriage certificates.

So far so (sadly) predictable. However, what happened next says more about the direction of Pakistani society than any much of the social science research you are likely to come across.

Best to let Declan Walsh of the New York Times explain:

"This hourlong spectacle, broadcast live on Samaa TV on Jan. 17, set off a furious reaction in parts of Pakistan. Outrage sprang from the Internet and percolated into the national newspapers, where writers slammed Ms. [Maya] Khan's tactics as a "witch hunt...

"Now, the protests are headed to court. On Friday, four local nongovernment organizations will file a civil suit against Samaa TV in Pakistan's Supreme Court, hoping to galvanize the country's top judges into action."

In a country where estimates say that only about 10 percent of the population has access to the internet, it's interesting to see a protest that started on social media platforms amongst a wealthy minority (who are seen as detached and culturally unattuned to the "masses") trickled down to mainstream media and from there it made its way to the legal process. (Seasoned Pakistan watchers might not see this as surprising at all, but Londonstani suspects it would be news to many).

Declan balances this with the observation that the uproar against Maya Khan's intrusion is limited to the English press and has hardly been mentioned in the Urdu newspapers, which are far more widely read.  As for Maya Khan, she says that her critics are "an elite class that don't even watch my show".

But there's more to this than a cultural tussle (as central as that is to many of the currents that belie Pakistani society and politics). It's also about media and society in a country where most people are under 30.

Back to Declan:

"The controversy has rekindled a debate about the direction of Pakistan's TV industry. Since liberalization in 2000, the sector has exploded from one channel - the state-controlled one - to more than 80 today, 37 of which carry national or local current affairs.

"The media revolution has transformed social and political boundaries: in 2007, feisty coverage played a central role in pushing Pervez Musharraf toward the exit; in recent weeks it helped guard against a possible military coup.

"But television is also a lucrative business controlled by powerful, largely unaccountable tycoons. Last year Pakistan's television stations had advertising revenues of more than $200 million, according to Aurora, an industry journal - 28 percent more than the previous year.

"Amid stiff competition for viewers, channels have relied on populist measures - rowdy political talks shows and, in recent times, vigilante-style "investigative" shows modeled on programs in neighboring India."

Obviously, Pakistani media and the political and financial context it operates in is subject to the same pressures that you'd expect to find in many countries. Money needs to be made, the right (or wrong) people need to be placated and costs need to be kept down. The result is that what is presented as daring and edgy, is in fact very safe territory - in financial and political terms (ie. it's cheap and doesn't annoy the wrong people).

One of the people Declan spoke to called Maya Khan and her cohort of "crusading" reporters, "pussycat vigilantes" because they "avoided challenging rich or powerful Pakistanis, whose Western-style lifestyles go unexamined."

"They only go after the people they know will not bite back," said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture writer.

For those looking to see how not to do television on the cheap, here's Maya on her one-woman mission to fix Pakistan.