For people in the news business, information is a drug. The quest for information makes journalists act irrationally, take unnecessary risks and put their lives on the line for that ultimate payoff; the high of seeing your story in print or broadcast at primetime.

Over the past decade or so, journalism in Pakistan has evolved. Private media houses have, over the course of their brief lifespan, gone from being pioneers to activists to judges to hangmen to bogeymen to saviors and back again. The media narrative has always been centered around this mythical construct of The Common Man and the troubles he (or she) faces in their day-to-day. News broadcasts are literally littered with stories that highlight a need of some sort, be it faulty drainage in Mughalpura, Talibanisation in Sohrab Goth, encroachments in Faizabad or the faulty construction of Peshawar Ring Road. The residents of Hazara Town will always be in the news protesting, and Young Doctors will always be scuffling with law enforcement personnel while ignoring their duties and letting innocent people die. Whichever page you flip to, whatever channel you tune, there will almost always be some sort of protest, where people wielding sticks and burning tyres will demand that their demands be met, post haste.

But for those of us who actually live in Pakistan, things are a little different.

The drains of Mughalpura are clogged because the residents throw everything into their kitchen sinks and expect their uncovered drains to do for them what toxic waste processing plants do in the first world; Sohrab Goth has a complex ecology that cannot be explained by one word, coined to make ‘lawlessness’ sound sexy; Faizabad is a mad house of bus terminals and flyovers modeled after the intricate architecture of the Aztec civilization, a tour de force of incompetence in urban planning; and potholes on the Ring Road are the least of Peshawar’s current worries. While I may be guilty of oversimplification, so is the news media: they create archetypes and mould coverage to fit the superlatives that sell the most copies and airtime. Things are not always what they seem, especially on TV.

Any journalist will tell you that there are certain things you don’t cover. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the need may be; there are topics and issues too taboo to be covered by the mainstream Urdu press. Crimes against women and children, the persecution of minorities and the exploitation of religion, even the drone strikes and the state’s love-hate relationship with its prodigal pupils, the Taliban: these are all subjects on which you must toe the line. A single article praising drone attacks for their ability to knock off high value targets with precision will invoke the ire of the hawkish Right. Any journalist brave enough to call out the exploitation of religion will piss off the Mullah Brigade. Even the military’s relationship (or lack thereof) with banned outfits is no longer a kosher topic for dinnertime chit-chat. You can fall in line or have a chalk outline drawn around your lifeless body, your choice. Of course I exaggerate, but you get the picture.

Now, it’s not like journalists and media organizations don’t know any better: they do. But they continue to pander to public perception rather than shaping it. They seek to reinforce stereotypes rather than debunking them. Japanese society, which has several parallels with Pakistan in terms of being a closed society, has a name for this hypocritical duplicity. They call it the honne and the tatemae; the way things are and the way things are perceived to be. The gap between the truth and the façade should ideally be the area that journalists seek to target. But instead, these are areas that have seen the least sunlight and feeling an acute deficiency of Vitamin D. Our flock of shepherd-less cattle has lost the ability to differentiate between truth and façade, so much so that tatemaes are fast becoming honne for us.

Take the drone debate. Any rational individual who is not swayed by political rhetoric will tell you that strategic strikes are OKed by Pakistani military and/or government officials. The tacit agreement is that we will share intel and support the strikes, but will publicly denounce them to save face. This was the deal under Musharraf, Zardari and now Mian Sahib. Admitting to this hypocrisy will be suicidal, so everybody does the next best thing; they go into denial. The press, the pundits, the people, they are all swept up by the charged and frenzied discourse around the illegality of the drones and the loss of innocent life and fail to see the bigger picture.

It is the same with our problems with the Taliban. Some of us are ashamed to live in a country where the Interior Minister brands the country’s most wanted man a martyr, but most of us agree with him. Many of us ridicule Munawwar Hassan for insinuating that soldiers killed in the line of duty are not martyrs, but many don’t. These ambiguities are caused by unwillingness on the part of the journalists to tell it like it is. While I don’t blame individuals per se and I understand that there may be several social, political, economic and personal pressures that force them to act this way, but the net effect cannot be ignored. The people of Pakistan today have no clearer idea of what the hell is wrong with this country than they did ten years ago. In the middle of all the clutter, actual information is being sacrificed at the altar of short-term memory loss.

Journalists are in withdrawal. Their favorite drug is fast disappearing off the market. Scoops are being replaced by “he said-she said” and actual investigative reporting is now overshadowed by interest-oriented reporting, or blackmail. The press needs to detox before the fourth estate gets plotted and sold off as DHA’s next venture. I can already hear the boots of status quo marching in. It was good while it lasted.

The writer is a former journalist currently working in the development sector.

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