Those silent TV screens

BY Themrise Khan| IN Media Freedom | 09/11/2007
Today, when Benazir Bhutto was due to leave Islamabad to attend a rally in Rawalpindi, there was no way of knowing which areas were cordoned off and which were still accessible. And without TV we are completely unaware about the world exploding just
THEMRISE KHAN describes life in Islamabad without access to TV news.

Living in Islamabad is not easy these days. Especially if one happens to live around the Constitution Avenue and the Supreme Court of Pakistan.  For the past year, this area has been a hotbed of political activity, shaking up this sleepy little capital. The judicial revolution has been unfolding right in the centre of the city, which has seen several protests and violent demonstrations over the last few months.


It was the media which alerted those residents living in close physical proximity to main Constitution Avenue as to the goings on out on the streets, as well as to the country as a whole. Those in Islamabad sat glued to their TV screens watching the drama unfold outside the Parliament and Supreme Court, calculating when it would be safe enough to step outside once the cameras showed live images of a restoration of peace. It was the media who showed us the army tanks moving into the Supreme Court the evening emergency was declared. Better not to venture out tonight, we deduced from our TV screens.


And then, everything went blank.


It has been six days since the emergency was declared in Pakistan . It has also been six days without access to live satellite television news. Six days without knowing what is happening right outside our gates. The end result - I almost drove past a clash between police and PPP protestors outside the Parliament unknowingly, because there was no television channel covering it live and telling me I should stay in doors. Today, when Benazir Bhutto was due to leave Islamabad to attend a rally in Rawalpindi, there was no way of knowing which areas were cordoned off and which were still accessible. We had to either go back to using simple common sense, or actually venture out to explore. 


We take everything for granted in this world. Access to information is one of them, post satellite television revolution (in Pakistan). At the mercy of the internet and live streaming, Pakistanis are now at a loss for what to expect in the next hour alone. The electronic media in such a short span of time has come to control our lives, our emotions, our political opinions and our day to day movement.


I wrote an article for this website some months ago, critically analyzing the faults that lay within Pakistan ’s new and independent electronic media. I assessed that this new media was too sensationalistic, too crude, too opinionated and too immature. I still stand by that analysis. That is probably one of the reasons they have irked the government’s wrath. But after six days of a complete ban on these very new media channels, the hard truth of the matter is, that this irresponsible, opinionated and sensationalistic electronic media, was the only and first visual access we ever had to even partial truth. Coming from a generation brought up on a very vocal but limited (in terms of readership) print media and regulated state television, this has only further magnified the loss. While the print media and more recently, the internet have been a continued source of uncensored information, they has not been able to replace the fact that television coverage has been able to captivate thousands more with their minute-by minute telecasts and visual coverage. Newspapers after all, only arrive once every morning - and not everyone in this country is literate.


As our thumbs now sit idly on the remote control, those who have the means, now stare at their computer screens watching live broadcasts of the various banned channels on the internet. This may not last very long either, seeing how things are progressing. It’s a helpless feeling. Not just because there is no minute-by-minute information, but because one realizes what slaves we have become to the media, television in particular. We love to hate it but we can’t live without it. We complain about incessant live coverage and bloody images of suicide bombers (which are still inexcusable and irresponsible on the media’s part), but without it, we are completely unaware about the world exploding just outside our front door.


Islamabad is a small city, yet it is very clearly physically divided into the two worlds on either side of Constitution Avenue; on the one side are a handful of people living and working in the environs of the Parliament and seats of power and are often in the direct line of fire when all hell breaks loose and the road blocks come up. The other, is the rest of the city who don’t even need to cross the dividing line and continue to go about their way oblivious to the shelling and protesting in the distance. It was the media that bridged that unnecessary but very real gap. It was they who told the oblivious side that something was not right in their city. Now, even those living across the roadblocks have no means of verifying the situation outside. Now, we are one and the same. 


It is not clear how long the electronic media blackout will last. But since there are still alternatives available, like the internet and print media, that is at the moment irrelevant. What is relevant is, whether our dependence on TV news will be less once (hopefully) the ban is lifted. And will television learn anything, and become more objective and responsible in its reporting? It seems this may not be the case, as while channels continue to function and broadcast (via satellite), the ban may give them more strength to become bolder and brasher and to come back with a greater bang as the lone supporters of democracy. They may be more of a threat to themselves now than they were before.


Sadly, it still doesn’t change the fact that the electronic media was all the Pakistani public had to go on in the absence of any political or civic space. It was all the politicians, lawyers and activists had to plead their case. Despite the ranting and raving of talk show hosts and participants alike, at least there was a semblance of a public debate being brought into our living rooms. At least there was an outlet for information that was common to more than just the English speaking elite of our country. The media both electronic and otherwise, still means something in Pakistan and it can still have the potential to contribute to providing a healthy space for voice and accountability. At the moment however, it has left a void, none of us thought we would ever have to experience.  So for now, the residents of Islamabad (and the rest of the country), will have to depend on the world outside to let them know of the situation unfolding  outside in their streets.



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