There are growing concerns about extremist forces making inroads into Pakistani media. These concerns are based on an increased projection of banned organizations like the Taliban and their messages in the mainstream media. While this increased projection of extremist forces may be seen by some as the talibanization of the media, this doesn’t solely reflect the extremist mindset of media practitioners. In fact, most of what is perceived as increased projection of extremist narratives only reflects what either exists in or is demanded by society.

Media, in some cases may only be following a demand and supply principle to survive economically. Special Ramadan, Moharram and now marathon entertainment and quiz programs hosted by religious media personalities are a case in point. Similarly, rating-conscious talk show hosts regularly invite a combo of religious and liberal extremists for a ready made shouting match to attract viewership. Some of these talk show combos have now developed a special liking for each other. At the climax of such duels, it is common to see one side waving the Quran and Quranic verses while the other side ruffles through pages of the constitution. So who should we expect the average Muslim Pakistani viewer to side with? These combo deals always “nuke” an objective discussion through casual use of the Holy Book and its verses. By doing so, apart from being a reflection of the dominant extremist narratives taking root, it is also promoting violent discourse at the cost of the most basic societal values of tolerance and mutual respect.

The other main reason for the increased religious media posturing is the growing sense of insecurity. Sometimes, as part of a community, people are compelled to turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of local religious clerics. Fearing a reaction, media persons too avoid enmity with militants who call them for publicity. This sense of insecurity is systematically injected through acts of calculated sabotage and terrorism to give a clear message. A television anchor in his live show publicly assured a Taliban spokesman that his statements would be given full coverage in the future. By doing so he not only secured his life but also the job. Such public displays of timidity by media icons are in fact, smaller reflections of the wider timidity and silence of the Government in the face of terrorism.

It is also fact that, mirroring society and politics, the media too has “professionals” who have a single point agenda and method of using religion to make up for their professional incompetence. Some of these professionals have acquired the status of verdict-issuing clerics in the name of “freedom of opinion;“ opinion which they love to express even as they are meant to report facts. Some of these media professionals are an integral part of the above mentioned “talk show combos.” While not all of them may be financially motivated, there are some who may be. These professionals not only write for their “extremist leaders,” but also provide them with inside information about colleagues perceived to be liberals.

The challenge of growing extremism within the media has to be dealt with on different fronts including that of the society. Media owners, editors and journalists in the field have to be on their guard against the enemy within. Media bodies and unions have to filter out non-journalistic elements, and draw the line at working with dummy news organizations who possess extremist leanings and are vulnerable to extremist influence. Similarly, the government’s media regulatory bodies have to act fast to screen out illegal media outlets under the direct or indirect use of militant organizations spreading hatred and militancy through these outlets.

The media is a valid part of any society and cannot be reformed in isolation. Our society as a whole must begin to change its institutions fundamentally. However, the media certainly has a central role to play in protecting itself from its own “home grown suicide bombers.” There may be risk of retaliation in taking action against such insiders but this is a risk worth taking at this stage. We, the society and media, sit today like a patient whose fingers must be amputated to save his life. If we don’t act now to uproot this viciousness in our institutions, we risk losing everything. Time is running out. This internal enemy, the one breeding stealthily inside us, is far more dangerous than the one we see preparing for a visible attack.

The writer is a senior supreme court reporter and anchor for Waqt News.

Email:matiullahjan@intermedia.org.pk