In-Depth On The Cover

Flash! Bang! Fizzle…

Published 17 Mar, 2015 07:21pm

Thirty to forty-five seconds. That’s how long advertisers have to cram their message into one television spot before the viewer’s attention begins to wane. In Pakistan, our attention spans may be better measured in column inches and the heights to which our imaginations soar with conspiracy theories. Much like buzzards, our appetite is sated once we have stripped an event of all possible information and only the bare bones of gossip and rumours remain. But some stories in Pakistan this year took flight well before we’d had our fill — with a flash and a bang, a CIA contractor beat a hasty retreat, bin Laden slipped through our grasp and a letter of resignation all but buried a memo. Other stories, however, simply died out, much like damp sparklers. Here, the Herald takes a look at some of the people, projects and places that had us rapt with attention and interest, before a churning news cycle filled its seconds with yet another breaking story.

Kim’s gun misfires

By Asha’ar Rehman

If she was looking for popularity in Pakistan, then, according to her own version, former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker made the cardinal mistake of not heeding the advice of Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif.

Mian Sahib has chosen an advisory role for himself since his return from exile in 2007 and you ignore his big-brotherly words of wisdom at your own peril. Many, including President Asif Ali Zardari, have discovered just how dangerous a failure to conform to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) leader’s wishes can turn out to be.

Barker’s Taliban Shuffle, that hit bookshops in the spring of 2011, focuses on the various aspects of Pakistan that struck her in the course of her journalistic work here. Safely tucked inside the book is a chapter on Barker’s encounters with Sharif which an over-eager newsroom would want to describe as rendezvous. However, sobriety prevails and the patriotic, mainstream understanding of Barker’s story is that she cleverly led Mian Sahib on to bait the juiciest stories.

Sharif, a “cat with a claim to be a tiger”, reportedly told Barker he would find her a boyfriend. This story’s courted lady may have spent a lot of time in Pakistan but she has obviously not grasped the gentlemanly, at times almost fatherly, nuances of romance a la Pakistan. Bracing herself for a date with a sidekick, Barker finds that Sharif is actually forwarding his own candidature as the suitable boyfriend. PMLN has yet to challenge this version of events.

PMLN stalwarts may say that Barker made the whole thing up. But this is not the folly that cost the writer her Pakistani readership. After initial predictions that the tell-all chapters on Sharif would be the talk of the town for many months, the affair faded from the limelight after some attention by “known anti-Nawaz” television anchors. History may have read differently if the lady had accepted her matchmaker’s offer of facilitating a profound friendship with a certain Asif Ali Zardari. The magnet for all kinds of controversies, Zardari’s name could have been parlayed into sales of the book across Pakistan. It would have sold despite the formula: fact or fiction, politics or romance, a Nawaz Sharif cannot help but promote himself as the alternative to an Asif Zardari.

Sufism to the rescue

By Bahzad Alam Khan

The Trappist monks of Gethsemani Farms in centralKentucky,USA, bake the most divine fruitcake. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Sufi University that was supposed to have started functioning in Bhit Shah,Pakistan, a year ago. But there is food for thought in the holy men’s occupation — could the power of Sufism transform legions of potential Taliban into peaceable chefs, making biryani on order or sweetening palates with fresh rabri? Perhaps, that’s stretching it.

Yes, the Sufi University is supposed to do wonders for inculcating the values of religious and cultural tolerance by teaching Sufi thought to our restless youth. But other subjects too are presumably on the menu — after all, the title of the law approved by the Sindh governor for the setting up of the university is The University of Sufism and Modern Sciences in the Bhit Shah Bill, 2011.

Unfortunately, progress on the institute has been tediously slow, and to make matters worse, the expected funds from the Turkish government have yet to materialise. The Sindh government’s own pockets are empty on account of the flooding caused by torrential rains this year. So unless the saints give their blessings, this mega project – the initial cost of which is estimated to be more than 65 million rupees – may go the way of other grand schemes before it.

Meanwhile, how far will one Sufi university, that too in the heartland of Sufism, go in spreading the message of peace? For better results, perhaps the provincial governments should consider revising the contents of school textbooks to encourage a more pluralistic outlook and a more tolerant worldview. You can’t expect generations of students brought up on biased, often hate-filled, texts at schools and colleges to suddenly turn the other cheek in university.

The spin doctor

By Hajrah Mumtaz

The chequered career of Dr Shahid Masood continues apace. A Sindh Medical College alumnus who went on to journalism, Masood certainly has made his way through the ranks, getting his break with ARY in London in the first few years of the new millennium. This was a curious change in the professional direction for a person who attended as the physician on-board the flight that took ailing star Nazia Hassan to theUKfor treatment. Since then, the good doctor’s achievements have been myriad, from stints as the group executive director of the Geo TV network to the managing director of the Pakistan Television to president of the ARY Television network — and all this mainly since the onset of the ‘transition to democracy’.

Masood disappeared from the airwaves during the earlier part of this year after he was appointed as the chief executive officer of the Hashwani Group’s PearlCom Television. After that channel failed to launch, reportedly because of difficulties in attaining a licence, Masood joined the Express Media Group and now hosts Shahidnama on Express News. The title of his show is perhaps a more direct acknowledgment of his journalistic acumen than the subtitle of his previous show at GEO TV which described him as the most opinionated analyst in Pakistan.

Controversy has tended to dog the heels of this doctor-turned-journalist, though, and his current job is no different. Many wonder why the Express News chose to replace Aadhi Raat Tak, a show that used to receive the highest ratings on some nights and aired during the prime time, with Shahidnama which has not done quite as well in the ratings game. We may never know; yet what can be said for sure is that Masood tends to land on his feet after every fall.

A yorker called a wide

By Saad Shafqat

Fast bowling has its ups and downs. Sometimes you find yourself in rhythm, with the ball pitching perfectly and your natural speed piercing the batsmen’s defences without difficulty. Yet there are moments when, despite your best efforts, you get whacked around the ground. In this respect, Shoaib Akhtar’s autobiography can be compared to his mercurial bowling spells. Its publication was foreshadowed by great excitement and anticipation, yet it got a turbulent reception, and has left an indifferent aftertaste.

The irony in all this is that Controversially Yours is actually quite a good book. The narrative is candid and flows easily, the timeline is coherent and well-constructed, and an abundance of anecdotes keeps you engaged throughout. It is an insightful window into an unsettled period in Pakistan cricket and, in its own way, an interesting slice of Pakistani society.

The book’s launch was marred by raging controversies, which in retrospect proved a needless distraction and perhaps could have been better handled. The Indian media had a field day, picking on a few provocative lines from the book, which carried a local context for them because it had an Indian co-author and publisher. Yes, Akhtar did take potshots at icons like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and Javed Miandad, but he has also said much else that is more important and more heartfelt.

It’s a pity that the initial hype was so misplaced, because it has undermined the impact that this book truly deserves. In typical fashion, the authenticity of Akhtar’s efforts has once again been eclipsed by his appetite for showmanship.

The pearl that could not shine

By Hasan Zaidi

Many claimed they saw it coming right from the get go. When Sadruddin Hashwani’s ambitious media project – the launch of multiple television channels, daily newspapers, periodicals as well as a media university – finally shuttered its doors, barely five months after it had been announced with great fanfare, we were only shocked at how a businessman as street savvy as Hashwani could have allowed himself to build such castles in the air.

Pearl Communications – as the media company was christened after Hashwani’s numerous other projects in the hotel and tourism industry – was announced on December 24, 2010, at a time when media all over Pakistan was experiencing a severe downturn in finances. Most television channels were scaling down their ambitious plans and many were in the process of downsizing existing expenditures, the result of a media boom bubble coming up against the sharp edges of a harsh economic climate. But even more confounding for many within the media was Hashwani’s choice of leader for this foray into the world of the media. Despite having been on television for close to a decade as an opinionated commentator, Dr Shahid Masood – a medical doctor who had once been associated with the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and then had a bitter falling out with President Asif Zardari – carried immense ideological baggage and most industry insiders felt he did not have the skills to launch a TV channel, much less the vision to head up a comprehensive media venture.

It seems Hashwani (who has himself lived in self-imposed exile abroad for quite some time because of ostensible differences with the government) and his other partners had hoped for quick licensing from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. When that ran into trouble and the beginning of the Arab Spring opened up hitherto closed avenues for investment in the media, it seems some of the alleged Middle Eastern and European backers of the project got cold feet. By the end of May, most of the staff who had been poached from other media houses had been summarily fired and on June 1, Dr Shahid Masood also tendered his resignation.

Dr Masood claimed in December 2010 that he was setting out to “redefine media history as we know it.” As it were, the story of Pearl Communications was not altogether much different from that of many grandiose projects before it: it ended not with a bang but a whimper.

City beyond judgement

By Madiha Sattar

It swooped in as an unlikely saviour and left a chastened one. After this summer saw one of the bloodiest periods of violence in Karachi’s history, the Supreme Court (SC) thought it was time to take matters into its own hands. And so a five-member SC bench, led by the chief justice himself, arrived dramatically in the port city in August.

The public response was cautiously un-optimistic.Karachi’s violence is one of the country’s knottiest problems, and no court hearing, residents reasoned, would be able to address the tangled mix of political, commercial and ethnic incentives that drives it. Turned on and off by design, the bloodshed seems like mayhem but is, in fact, a carefully governed and deeply entrenched system run by the same political groups that rule the city. And these groups knew exactly how to deal with the SC encroaching on their domain. Hearings degenerated into litanies of grievances against political rivals. Accusations and counter-accusations alternated with presentations from law-enforcement officials that the bench observed often consisted mainly of media reports.

After just a 10-day hearing, the SC left without revealing its judgement or achieving more than daily traffic jams caused by the judges’ movement in the heart of Karachi. And when it finally did deliver its verdict from Islamabad in October, what it achieved was mainly symbolic. The highest court in the land declared that political parties are behind the violence and named those parties. But the prescriptions on how to halt the violence were just that — suggestions that those in power will only carry out to their own detriment. Will they really de-weaponise the city, depoliticise the police or ‘eliminate’ no-go areas?

Karachi has indeed returned to some semblance of peace since the summer. But those who know the city know that that doesn’t have much to do with the SC.