Bitch Slaps and Bias

Call the video what you will. The birth pangs of democracy. The slap heard all around Pakistan. But taking a deeper look, the whacking of Arbab Rahim with a shoe is a sign of how far Pakistan’s politics and media needs to grow.

I have little sympathy for Rahim. Yesterday’s ugliness, in a sense, was simply a matter of reciprocity. After all, Rahim slapped a journalist in the face last year. What goes around comes around.

Unfortunately, Rahim was simply hit with a shoe. Sense was not knocked into him. Yesterday afternoon, Rahim did an interview with Aaj TV’s Bolta Pakistan. After speaking with him, the show played the video of Rahim dishing out his own thapar (slap) last year. Rahim immediately called back to ‘clarify’. No apology. He simply said the person he hit was not a journalist, but a member of his security team who misbehaved with members of the media.

Aside from the inference that the media is almost a priestly class in this new Pakistan, Rahim’s excuse was telling, even though it was not true. It’s ok to slap another human being. Pakistanis have tended to react to Rahim’s twist of fate with disgust and/or a sense of pleasure at the irony. But I think Rahim represents not only some of the ultimate nastiness of feudalism in Pakistan, but also a broader culture that suffers from an almost inescapable hierarchy in which the ‘lessers’ are punished, often with humiliation. This sort of culture creates a false aristocracy. It breeds mediocrity and suppresses any real socio-economic change. Things, granted, are changing, but the new rich in Pakistan do their own crude imitation of the old guard.

And so in that sense perhaps it was good that Rahim was slapped (back). Pakistan’s distressed and underserved majority need to do some more slapping, albeit in a more constitutional and constructive fashion.

On a somewhat related note, it’s clear some news outlets in Pakistan have let sensationalism supplant journalism, making such stories the news of the day.

A smaller English-language newspaper has put out a story alleging the formation of a PPP splinter group led by Fatima Bhutto that would include Amin Fahim, Aitzaz Ahsan, and Ghinwa Bhutto. Simple logic would rule this story out. Feudal loathing Fatima + the “pro-establishment” Pir of Hala (Fahim) + the anti-establishment Ahsan? Please.

Similarly, the daily focus of a major public affairs show seems to be the supposedly imminent collapse of the People’s Party and Muslim League-Nawaz coalition. For weeks it has latched onto any news thats portends the doom of the governing coalition or its senior politicians.

But there are exceptions. In the midst of all this hulla bulla, there is Live with Talat (Hussain). Recent topics have included the emerging food crisis in Pakistan and two consecutive shows on the Kashmir issue. He even made an episode a call-in program after, I think, viewers of Bolta Pakistan (a partially call-in show that airs after Talat’s) complained the show wasn’t allocating enough time for calls. (Though I think they’d agree that Nusrat Javed and Mushtaq Minhas’ arguing is priceless). Anyway, Talat’s show is a clear contrast to its ADD-afflicted competitor. And I think his popularity demonstrates that the best restraint on the excesses of a free media is consumer choice, not paternalistic government censorship. After all, who censors the censors? In the end, Pakistanis are looking for a way out of their country’s malaise and the outlets that best address that need will be rewarded most.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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