This article originally appeared in The Friday Times in 2015.
by: Mahwash Ajaz.
On April 4, 1979, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged in Central Jail, Rawalpindi.
It was a different time, though not too long ago. It was a time of great political upheaval, many social movements and various changes that decided the fate of Pakistan’s coming decades. Yet one of the very crucial differences that made that era vastly different from the one you and I witness at the moment is the power of information.
The information technology bombardment has completely revolutionised the way we see, appreciate and process current events. In the past ten years, the explosion of television channels, the internet and the reach of social media has turned out to be catalytic in many incidents. Ranging from live tweeting/microblogging the Arab Spring to celebrity feuds to using social media to connect with someone calling for help in a disaster-struck area, the power of information technology has taken human history onto a very interesting turn.
The trial and death of someone like Bhutto, for example, who had a mass following, a popular appeal and was targeted clearly by a martial law administrator, would have had a completely different impact had it happened in 2015 instead of 1979. ZA Bhutto was a legend in Pakistan’s political history. He was a charismatic leader, founder of Pakistan Peoples’ Party and the Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1973 to 1977. Ziaul Haq managed to carry out an unfair trial and ultimately executed a death sentence for a popular, democratically elected leader without many voices being heard or explanations offered. Such is the power of television and the internet that individuals are able to connect and organize their voices to rally for and against systems. Imagine hanging a democratically elected leader by a martial law administrator in this day and age. Imagine the power of information technology, with Twitter, blogs, media houses, lobbyists, activism, public relation experts – what it could all have done for something as monumental as the death of a leader like Bhutto.
Granted that the spread of information technology seems to have a somewhat anarchic nature in its dissemination – but its power cannot be denied. When Imran Khan marched to D Chowk back in August of last year, the number of people that followed him shrunk and grew sporadically. But through the power of media management, through social media, through the idea of a ‘televised event’ and appealing to the entertainment hungry masses, the rallies and the sit in became a national spectacle. It was all everyone could talk about, ranging from the drawing rooms to television studios to the parliament itself. Was it because Imran Khan was possibly uttering magic or was it because he was promising his much-famed ‘tabdeeli’/change? During the course of a hundred plus days, Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri and their supporters attacked state and media institutions and wreaked havoc in the middle of Pakistan’s capital city. Armed with feeble excuses for ‘dhandli’/tampering of elections as their cause for attacking the ‘fake parliament and fake PM’ as they called it, they were able to rally straight into conflict. And the entire nation watched and tweeted and facebooked.
What was interesting amongst this televised revolution was that the war on narratives that still seems to be going on in the country. One would think that the media explosion would help everyone decide and bifurcate the differences between the real and the manufactured – instead reality becomes more and more colluded. If you start traveling within a certain group of anchors, newspersons, media houses who have pledged their allegiance with a specific narrative, you will note that they have their own narrative set in place, fully equipped with ‘facts’ or versions of facts anyway. If you speak to their counterparts, you will find a similar situation. They too are ‘armed’ with facts and reasoning to support their arguments. It is like Goebbels on steroids. Everyone has their version and everyone has not one, not two but dozens of platforms to broadcast these opinions, leaving the average viewer/consumers completely polarised.
Today, even the smallest of arrests are ‘breaking news’, statements make fodder for the 24 hour news cycle, social media becomes the epicentre of all kinds of debates, memes, spoofs, diatribes ad infinitum. The food that is served at politicians’ meetings, Twitter squabbles, protests, scuffles, diplomatic visits, international celebrities, disasters, sporting events – everything is covered, everything is relayed, everything is information, nothing is the truth.
With these kinds of developments at your immediate disposal, at the very swipe of our hand, perhaps it creates an illusion of power and knowledge. Perhaps every bio/resume can read ‘social media guru’ because it has become as simple as having a smartphone. Perhaps it takes no effort to gain access to news – unlike the bygone era when an event would have to be reported in the ‘evening edition’ of the Urdu dailies. In that era, it took years of education and experience to be called a journalist. Now, all it takes is having an email account.