As seen on TV

In a terrific set of documentaries called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “South of the Border,” directors Kim Bartley and Oliver Stone convincingly push forward the idea that the right-wing coup that toppled Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez in 2002, was engineered and propagated by a string of private television channels that are owned by the country’s industrial and business elite.

With the help of a series of images and sound bytes taken from talk shows and news programmess on these channels, the documentary demonstrates how the media promoted demonstrations against Chavez, also explaining how the programming on these channels created an anti-Chavez climate leading to the day of the coup.

According to the Venezuelan TV channels, the coup, led by conservative politicians backed by some military personnel, was pulled off in the name of “democracy” and against Chavez’s “demagogic dictatorship.”

However, the overwhelming agitation and response by Chavez’s main constituency comprising of the urban working classes and the rural peasantry managed to send the new government packing within a week, paving the way for Chavez’s return.

This act rudely rendered as void and biased due to the sensationalist claim that the electronic media had insisted that Chavez’s toppling was a popular undertaking. The claim was nothing more than upper- and middle-class wishful thinking propagated by the channels as “revolutionary” and “democratic” action.

I feel these documentaries are just too close to what we have been witnessing in Pakistan in the last many years. Because as the many private TV channels (all owned by powerful business elites) continuously roll out the mantra of an independent and free media, the truth is, this so-called freedom that they are exhibiting and celebrating has little to do with either objectivity or for that matter, responsibility.

In fact just as these channels had mixed things up under Musharraf’s dictatorship – i.e., by chanting for democracy on one hand and glorifying Lal Masjid extremists on the other – they have now dropped the democracy façade, especially after the election of Asif Ali Zardari as the new president whose business prowess and acumen is being taken as formidable competition by the media-owning business elite.

In other words, in what is almost entirely a cynical battle of wits and name-calling between two opposing business elites, the people are being given lectures on democracy, corruption and good governance.

Nevertheless, just as Zardari manages to hold the upper hand in this tussle of rich men using their parties and media outlets against one another, those with the media outlets have begun to sound extremely desperate.

Some of their leading anchors are now going as far as alluding to the necessity of the Army’s intervention (they have suddenly all forgotten about Musharraf), while others are jumping on the most reactionary bandwagons driven by religious parties so the current government could be embarrassed; or even projected as being pro-West and not concerned about Islam.

The shameful coverage by the channels of Salman Taseer’s murder at the hands of a twisted fanatic, and the somewhat ill-informed and irrational coverage of the Raymond Davis affair are cases in point with two frontline anchors even suggesting that Qadri’s hanging and Davis’ release may trigger a Tunisia- and Egypt-like revolution in Pakistan!

Wishful thinking again, aimed not at the system but squarely at a wealthy political and business opponent.

The private electronic media in Pakistan is a stark reflection of what certain quarters of the country’s urban middle-classes are now metamorphosing into.

In a queer twist, most of the people who are churning out revolutionary slogans and demanding radical action in the name of faith, free media and the judiciary today, have had a history of backing military dictatorships, staunch politico-religious initiatives and social and economic conservatism.

So what have made parties like Jamat-e-Islami, certain sections of the lawyers’ community, talk show hosts, and even political minnows like Imran Khan pose as the new ambassadors of revolutionary politics in Pakistan?

The following may answer the above question.

In countries like Pakistan, whenever a populist political party manages to overtake a dictatorship and graduate from the streets to the corridors of governmental power, an ideological vacuum appears among the urban middle and upper class elite who (in Pakistan) have historically been on the side of establishmentarian politics due to its economic and ideological interests.

However, since such a vacuum is created due to a populist democratic process it requires ‘establishmentarian’ politics to at least sound as populist to fill this vacuum.

Therefore, entities that are inherently conservative alter their ideological orientation by giving their conservatism a face-lift and start to express it in a language that was once strictly the linguistic and symbolic part of the landscape of Cold War-era leftists.

The irony in such a case becomes even more startling when one realizes that during the Cold War, the leftists were gleefully bludgeoned by the same urban classes and political entities who today are claiming fresh revolutionary ground in Pakistan in the name of the people, patriotism and pride (the ‘ghairat brigade’).

Secondly, can it also be suggested keeping in mind the 2006-7 lawyers’ movement and the recent agitation exhibited by religious parties (sometimes openly supported by some PML-N, PML-Q and PTI members), that it is a symptom of an unprecedented occurrence in which the largest province of Pakistan, the Punjab, has for the first time found itself largely outside the power circles of state and federal government?

If so, then this may also suggest that parties such as the PPP, ANP and MQM, which have prospered more outside the Punjab in the last fifteen years, have discovered that if together they are able to win most seats in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh and they can still manage to construct a coalition government at the centre without the need to do well in the Punjab.

The reason why the so-called revolutionary and radical actions and language being heard from the streets in Punjab and drawing-rooms today is coming from conservatives and reactionaries, is because it was largely the ‘bourgeois conservatism’ that flourished in the Punjab as the dominant psyche ever since the 1980s. Now this conservatism is finding itself alienated by a newfound regional and ideological alignment at the centre, and thus the loud reaction.

It is this reaction that then transforms itself into the kind of pseudo-leftist, anti-West and anti-government ‘political programming’ on most news channels – loud revolutionary-meets-reactionary hoopla that is often interrupted for commercial breaks studded with ads of brands produced by western multinationals. Talk about black comedy!

Also, can this also mean that the current trend of angry anti-West/US rhetoric and assorted talk ofghairat and faith that is otherwise being portrayed as a nationwide phenomenon on the electronic media, is basically a chant largely confined to the Punjab?

Furthermore, even if there are some genuinely progressive elements among Punjab’s malcontents, not only have they failed to avoid being hijacked (or entirely cowed down) by reactionary elements, but some have perhaps themselves asked conservative political entities with street power to generate the momentum that their anger has been searching for recently.

Disturbing as this may seem, these questions may as well be taken as self-answering enquiries.

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