ANALYSIS: The great equaliser: death by 140 characters —Dr Mohammad Taqi
The man, who claims to be imbued with love for Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), is seen and heard uttering profanities while getting ready to recite and explain one of the most revered eulogies (qaseedah) of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). But that is not it. The ‘humanist’ seemed to be making light of a hypothetical question from a caller asking if suicide is permissible for a woman in imminent danger of rape
“You don’t own the eyeballs. You don’t own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us” — ‘The People Formerly Known as the Audience’, Professor Jay Rosen.
The traditional media has had the power to bring down the powerful with a single story, picture, sound byte or a video clip. And it has done so with great impunity. The media barons have acted like gods and media personalities have wielded power over lesser mortals without the fear of being confronted or called out on what they have peddled as the gospel truth.
In the post-judiciary movement in Pakistan, the media, especially the electronic media, has often acted like a rogue — intoxicated with its newly acquired might — ready to stomp on anything that did not conform to its whims. In a country over which the military and the mullahs have held sway, hand in glove with each other, for the better part of its existence, the establishment kept its foot in the door by launching two upgraded media weapons in the era of General Pervez Musharraf’s so-called enlightened moderation.
One was a breed of opinion writers, featuring predominantly in the English press, who, masquerading as ‘liberals,’ sold the Pakistani security establishment’s party line to the urban middle class youth that had already been softened through a barrage of chauvinism via the state-controlled textbooks inherited from the Ziaul Haq era. While similar propaganda materials appearing in the vernacular press were quite blatant and thus easy to spot, these ‘liberals’ were more subtle and it took a slight effort to figure out that despite their inflection and jargon, they operated within the confines of the establishment’s ideological framework.
The second line of characters were the televangelists — some brandishing their born-again credentials — who were lobbed into urban middle class living rooms, where the traditional preacher had thus far failed to make significant headway. These charlatans, clad in gaudy ‘designer’ shalwar kameez (traditional shirt and trousers), were marketed as religious scholars without anyone ever questioning their qualifications. Just as English language and a western diploma, ostensibly, were a sufficient measure of liberalism, a beard and a quasi-Arabic accent were considered enough to certify clerical bona fides. The media houses allowed these imposters to opine not just on simple topics but gave them carte blanche to issue edicts on matters literally of life and death.
I had lamented in these pages that “in countries like Pakistan, with a history of fairly robust political movements, the failure of opinion leaders to use the social media to harness the power of these conduits to firm up an alternative political discourse is rather disappointing” (‘Social media’s potential: breakups to breakthroughs’, Daily Times, June 9, 2011). I must submit that I stand corrected. But not by the opinion leaders or those described as established writers: it is the people formerly known as the audience who have brought down the traditional media Goliaths.
Several news reports and articles have appeared in the contemporary press that were a lazy piece of reporting or opinion writing and, to say the least, presented the vulnerable communities in a dangerously distasteful manner. But before any ‘established’ writer could or would respond to these pieces, the Gullivers had been tied down by the Lilliputians — and I use the term as a compliment — of the blogging and micro-blogging world. Thread by thread or in this case, tweet by tweet and blog post by blog post, the behemoths were pinned down, exposed and their flawed and odious narrative deconstructed. In the rejoinder pieces to these ‘bucking bloggers’, the Gullivers seemed stuttering, subdued and in retreat. The contemporary (new) media had successfully prised open the traditional media’s grip on the gospel truth.
This past weekend, a YouTube video of a self-declared religious scholar (Dr Aamir Liaquat Hussain) went viral over the contemporary media. The gentleman is not a nonentity — at least not to himself. His own website introduces him as “truly a legend of this modern age. A man of many qualities, prominent scholar who possesses a pleasing disposition, veteran journalist whose name becomes synonymous with truthfulness and bravery in the field of journalism, prolific columnist whose articles inspire his readers, a famous Naat Khawan whom Allah Almighty gifted a melodious voice. But above all he is a learned person and a true lover of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and even his adversaries acknowledged this fact...he raised his voice against those who violated humanistic values...he exposed double standards of this Hippocratic [sic] society.”
If the montage of clips, apparently put together from the ‘dailies’ (raw footage of a programme or film) recorded before, during and after his assorted religious programmes, is authentic, this ‘true legend of the modern age’ has been taking millions of viewers for a ride via the traditional tele-media. The man, who claims to be imbued with love for Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), is seen and heard uttering profanities while getting ready to recite and explain one of the most revered eulogies (qaseedah) of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). But that is not it. The ‘humanist’ seemed to be making light of a hypothetical question from a caller asking if suicide is permissible for a woman in imminent danger of rape. The irony reminded one of Hafiz Shirazi’s verse:
“Wa’izaan k’een jalwa der mehrab-o-mimber mikunand,
Choon ba khilwat mirawand aan kaar e deegar mikunand.”
(The religious preachers who show their glory on the pulpit under the arch of the mosque,
Indulge in different things when they retire to their privacy — translation by Ali Sardar Jafri.)
The said televangelist, speaking on his current television show, has since impugned the authenticity of the video and has claimed that the clip had been fabricated by way of editing and dubbing to malign him by other channels and jealous people. Maybe so. Moreover, in biometrics, voice authentication is already an established tool, along the lines of fingerprinting, available to forensic scientists to confirm identity.
The video was removed from YouTube due to a copyrights claim. But before that many users of contemporary media had reportedly downloaded it already. The new balance of power is apparently still lost on the media honchos giving space and airtime to hypocrisy, lies and slanted truths. Death by a thousand cuts has decimated superpowers. If they do not heed the audience, death by 140 characters (on Twitter) is the equaliser that could seal the fate of the traditional media dinosaurs running the show.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at http://twitter.com/mazdaki