Like a Meera. Oooh.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
by Mosharraf Zaidi
There’s a lot more at play in the Meera circus than just sex, lies and videotape. Meera, while a useful instrument of allegory, is hardly instrumental in any serious discourse about Pakistan. Yet hordes of sympathetic old men are lined from here to the numerous gates of the walled city of Lahore, each making a valiant attempt to defend the talentless (unless overexposure counts as a talent) Pakistani Paris Hilton, from a predatory news media. Oooh.
Meera is a deer in the headlights of course. Poor thing wouldn’t know a t from a cross and an i from a dot. Meera has broken barriers, rocketed through the glass ceiling and trailblazed a Mallika Sherawat-esque path for future Pakistani vixens largely on the back of naviete and virgin-like innocence. Oooh.
Let us, in this Holiest of Holy Months, do the right thing by Meera. Grant the besieged woman her claims of purity. Grant her also the right to speak English with whatever mystery accent she pleases, because, well, she’s pretty. But we cannot grant the woman all of Rome, nor her defenders, this place called Pakistan.
Meera’s appeal, in a country that is so drearily overburdened by both its Hindu roots and its Muslim canopy, is obvious. Meera will go where few Pakistani women have gone before—on film, on You Tube, on cell phone cameras, and on anything else that will generate buzz. Watching the edifice of Meera unravel is temptation too big, and clearly too strong, even in the Holy Month.
Why can’t the entire Meera fiasco be about an opportunistic and talentless actress take it to the next level in her ability to captivate an otherwise uber-righteous nation of saints? It can’t because crusty old Pakistan will not cede a single opportunity to mock and malign the news media in this country. Old Pakistan hacks, with pens in one hand and carte blanches for the military and political elite of the country in another, are out in full force defending Meera. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with Meera’s virginal innocence. Meera is to be defended because if she is not, Pakistan’s news media will devour her whole. And this would be a travesty above all others. Crusty please.
The full scale blitzkrieg on the Pakistani media of course is not new at all. For months now, owing both to events past and events foreseen, Old Pakistan—a strange cocktail of traditional power brokers, scions and members of the political elite, apologists for the military’s senseless parades into civilian domains—has sought to delegitimize the most potent instrument of change available to Pakistan’s emerging urban middle class, the news media. Stain the credibility and veracity of the news media, and the entire Pakistani middle class narrative would stand delegitimized.
The campaign to achieve such an outcome has been long, sustained and brutal. It has of course, had to rely on some truly egregious attempts to stretch the truth and reconstruct reality.
My all-time favorite is the purported media sympathy for terrorism, based on its ideological right-wingedness. Not so long ago, before Pakistan’s brave soldiers took on the terrorists in Swat, a sustained campaign by old Pakistan helped to paint the news media as having a deep and demonic addiction to radicalism, extremism, fundamentalism, obscurantism, sectarianism, and fanaticism. These aren’t my -isms. These are some of the isms that were being used liberally by Old Pakistan (about which little but its scruples is liberal). By the spring of this year, the murmurs had reached a crescendo. One rarely had the opportunity to meet a foreign diplomat or donor or aid worker or multinational executive without being asked about the Pakistani media’s evil right-wing slant.
Then, all of a sudden, along came May 8th, and within days, Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike witnessed wall to wall coverage of Pakistan’s fallen soldiers, wall to wall promotions about Pakistan’s commitment to beat back terrorism and a whole new kind of anti-terror jingoism that at some level was alarming in its own right. It turns out that Pakistan’s news media did not have any right-wing tilt at all. On the contrary, when it came to Pakistan versus terrorism, the news media was instrumental in helping coalesce a major national consensus about the need to take the military fight to the Taliban in Swat, and indeed beyond. The same news media, that in March of 2009 had allegedly demonized the Pakistani military with its fervent support for rule of law and the restoration of the Chief Justice, was, only two months later, in May 2009, helping reconstruct the Pakistani military brand in Pakistan, with its coverage of Swat.
Old Pakistan’s obsessive compulsion to discredit the Pakistani news media of course, aren’t restricted to fabrications about its alignment with the wrong kind of politics. One of the most frequent instruments that Old Pakistan relies on, to discredit the news media, is to question its appetite for breaking news. The insinuation is that turning a legitimate profit, one that no news paper or television news channel has ever denied being interested in, is somehow a disservice to the reporting of news. Fancy, indeed. In a country where the proliferation of illegitimate profits is frequent, but its prosecution, rare, it’s more than a tad ironic that by profiting through its labour, the news media is somehow a villain.
Journalists themselves are a frequent target of Old Pakistan’s die hard pursuit of a discredited news media. If a reporter writes something positive about a person or a group of people, he’s a paid hack for that entity. If a reporter writes something negative about a person, or a group of people, he’s a paid hack for that entity’s opponents. No matter what journalists in Pakistan do, the easiest way to discredit them is to malign the motivation for why they are writing.
Luckily, the media is institutionally immune to attacks on its legitimacy. It has self-correcting mechanisms that will enable the articulation of increasingly sharper and more incisive versions of the truth. Those that seek to undermine the free news media in Pakistan don’t have any such self-correcting mechanisms. Old Pakistan operates out of an ever-shrinking space of narrow self-interest. That space, like the rural dimensions of this country, is shrinking fast. This is a losing battlefield for the forces of traditional power in Pakistan, and there is no armor that can stave off defeat.
Vociferous defenders of Meera are entitled to be starstruck by the damsel’s distress. But their attempts to discredit the news media for following a vacuous story that has commercial appeal are unfailingly linked to the larger project to demonize Pakistan’s premier middle class institution—the Pakistani news media. This is spilt milk. Crying is futile. Meera might be a virgin, but Pakistan’s middle class no longer is.