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Where Is Pakistan's Media Leading Us?

Supporters of the political party Tehreek-e Insaf take part in a protest against Raymond Davis in Lahore on February 17.

Supporters of the political party Tehreek-e Insaf take part in a protest against Raymond Davis in Lahore on February 17.

From religious militancy and sectarianism to poverty and corruption, common Pakistanis are confronted with serious challenges to their survival. They are confused about the present, and seriously concerned about the future of the country they will pass on to coming generations.

On the political scene, right-wing religious and political leaders are holding demonstrations where they deliver fiery speeches on contentious issues like Palestine and Kashmir -- usually with a thinly veiled call to arms. All the while, these people adopt a deafening silence when thousands of civilians are killed in terrorist incidents and military operations.

One recent report paints a grave picture of the last decade: Taliban militants hit 54 Pakistani places of worship of various faiths, killing 1,165 worshippers and injuring about 2,900 in the past 10 years.

Sadly, if some civil society groups or human rights activists dare to break the silence and hold gatherings to condemn the atrocities of state and nonstate actors, they are threatened with dire consequences. Some of my friends, members of the Peace Movement in Peshawar, confided to me that the security establishment doesn't encourage them to raise their voices when military offensives in the tribal region spare important militant commanders and destroy the lives and properties of the local communities.

Often, Pakistan's mainstream media follow the same line. Thanks to the emergence of more than 30 news and current affairs TV channels, there is always a TV anchor ready to offer panacea for all the evils of the society according to their own religious and political affiliations. Their analysis most often culminates with anti-Americanism and threats to the country's security from neighboring India, while ignoring the fact the real threat posed to the country's future is internal.

The furor over the arrest of Afia Saddiqui, an American-educated Pakistani citizen convicted in a U.S. court of assault with intent to murder her U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan, and the religious frenzy on the issue of calls for reforms to Pakistan's blasphemy law and the consequent murder of Governor Salman Taseer, are two glaring examples of instances where the Pakistani media failed to bring an objective and realistic picture of the evolving situation to its bewildered audience.

The recent murder of two Pakistani citizens at the hands of Raymond Davis, a member of the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, blessed the TV anchors and self-proclaimed analysts with a new opportunity not to wait for the court decisions, but to solve it on their TV programs. Demonstrations broke out, and on January 31, while thousands of Egyptians protested against the excesses of Hosni Mubarak regime, thousands of Pakistanis gathered and chanted anti-American slogans in Lahore, demanding the hanging of the American official. Both are Muslim countries, but one can feel the different approaches toward resolving their respective national problems.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but in the context of the emerging situation in Pakistan, one wonders if all the issues can be addressed on the streets and what role the country's judiciary and elected parliament are left with to uphold the law of the land.

The media not only heightens religious and sectarian tensions. It also plays the role of catalyst, dividing the Pakistani nation along ethnic and linguistic lines.

Just last week, TV channels gave live coverage to a minor activity of a Karachi-based ethnic party but ignored the provincial legislature that discusses vital issues in the region along the volatile Pakistani-Afghan border region.

It's time for the media and mullahs to look at whether they are really doing any service to Pakistan by closing their eyes to the genuine socio-political and economic issues of the people and continue with an agenda that yields nothing except more conflict and confusion.

-- Shaheen Buneri