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Can The Media’s Silence Be Explained By Money Alone?

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Very few facts are clearly established beyond doubt about the recent incident involving violence against actress Uzma Khan and her sister Huma. The viral video clips, which brought this incident to the public notice, are extremely vague and hazy. What we can establish so far is as follows: Uzma Khan and her sister Huma Khan were attacked by a group of women, who were accompanied by armed guards, in a house in Lahore Defense, where the two sisters have been residing for the past four years. There is a man, Usman Malik, whose identity remains ambiguous and unclear, who was allegedly caught “red handed” in the company of the two sisters in the house. The two sisters allege that construction tycoon Malik Riaz’s daughters, who were accompanied by armed guards, attacked them. What is clear from videos is that the sisters were badly beaten and left in a bleeding physical condition in their house. There is another young lady by the name of Amna Malik, who in a video recorded message claimed that Usman Malik is her husband and she attacked the two sisters to save her marriage.

Construction tycoon Malik Riaz has been nominated in the First Information Report, although he denies any connection with the incident in any capacity.

Two things happened in Pakistani public life after these video clips went viral on social media. For five days Punjab Police refused to register FIR on the complaint of two sisters. Finally it reluctantly did register an FIR but in a fairly diluted form, according to Uzma Khan’s lawyer. The second development is even more sinister: Pakistani media, the 40-some news channels and countless newspapers, just blacked out the whole incident and didn’t even carry out basic reporting.

The fact that the Punjab police were reluctant to register the FIR is not a particularly disturbing piece of information – given what we are accustomed to. They normally behave in this manner when the complainant is too weak, poor or helpless and the accused is obnoxiously powerful like Malik Riaz. What is disturbing is that Pakistan’s whole electronic media and print media, including those newspapers which have a more than 80 years of tradition of independent journalism, just turned a blind eye to an incident in which issues related to violation of law, social values and public norms were the prime concern.

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Let me make an observation about the Pakistani media’s decision to black out this incident completely. I have heard from many people since the video went viral that Pakistani media has been sold out to the highest bidder. I strongly disagree. Money can buy you time and space on today’s media and you can even stop one, two or maybe three channels from broadcasting a news item by bribing them. But to force media to black out an entire incident cannot be the function of money alone. For this you need state power. I have 27 years of experience in newsrooms for newspapers and news channels. I can say with certainty that a black out is not possible with only a bribe as the tool.

One recent example of black out in Pakistan’s media history is Pakistani news channels and newspapers completely ignoring the protest demonstrations of the Pashtun Tuhufuz Movement (PTM). And it was a function of Pakistani state power. In the absence of such state power being brought to bear, there is always some dissenter who just refuses to listen or to take the bribe.

If Malik Riaz is not involved in this incident – as he claims – then who is behind this black out? Are there more powerful people involved who are in a position to manipulate state power? Who are they? If Uzma Khan had been a daughter of some powerful family too, would Pakistani police and media have ignored her? Teaching morality to a hapless woman is the favorite pastime of our morally bankrupt ruling classes. Two things happened together: shaming ill-fated women for “impious” behaviour and expecting them to be “religiously perfect”, while simultaneously extending religious justification for the inequalities that define the situation in which these two sisters and Malik Riaz’s family find themselves in respectively. The practical manifestations of inequalities that we witness in this incident will not go unnoticed in the larger social context.

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The state can control emotions and even the screens in this case – and thus manipulate the situation in favour of those classes and groups which dominate. But remember: such violent incidents get etched in the social memory of the society. The pent-up emotions sometimes burst out in a very violent manner. Those sitting behind seven curtains should keep this in mind.

Extreme inequalities could simply destroy the equilibrium on which society is based, leading to violence, bitter class conflicts and a permanent state of social antagonism. Pseudo-religiosity emerges as a prevalent justification for extreme inequalities in such societies. But how long can this, coupled with plain old black outs, keep a lid on the problem?

The attack on actress-model Uzma Khan and her sister Huma Khan, as well as the manner in which the Pakistani criminal justice system is treating these two sisters, is a classical manifestation the inequalities which our power structure reinforces – ruthlessly and shamelessly.

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