Most Pakistanis dislike the police, blaming them for being corrupt and aggressive — but now the media is earning a similar reputation for its frequent attacks on people’s privacy.
Pakistan’s ever-growing freewheeling private TV stations have given birth to “vigilante journalism” aimed at exposing people — often ordinary members of the public — they say are breaching social morals.
Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf liberalized the media in 1999, opening the way for the first time to private news and entertainment channels. There are now more than 80, 40 of them broadcasting round-the-clock news in five languages.
In January, TV anchor Maya Khan caused a storm of protest with her show Raid in the Morning, in which she and a group of veiled women chased couples in a park accusing them of behaving immorally.
Many fled, but Khan pounced on one couple and badgered them with questions, tricking them into answering by telling them the camera was not running.
The show provoked furious criticism on social networking Web sites Facebook and Twitter, and eventually a 5,000-name petition forced bosses at Samaa TV station to fire her.
Khan refused repeated requests to talk to Agence France-Presse, but in an interview with Express TV, she was unrepentant, saying what she did was in the public interest.
“My heart is satisfied because whatever I did was done for the betterment of society, but, still if it hurt people, I apologize,” she said, saying that what she presented on her show was “not real, but a re-enactment” of the perceived events.
Pakistani liberals praised Samaa for getting rid of Khan, but their celebrations were short-lived as she was quickly hired by another station to host its morning show.
The Khan incident is typical of stunts carried out by TV stations who say they are safeguarding social morals in what is a deeply conservative country.
Morning shows, such as Khan’s, are the most popular. Hosts are well paid and eager to hold on to their audience in a competitive market.
“Which is why highly paid anchors go for ventures like Maya Khan to keep business going,” one senior official at a private channel said on condition of anonymity.
However, Mehnaz Rehman, a director of the Aurat Foundation, an organization that fights for women’s rights, said it was a dangerous trend that threatened social order.
“This is not journalism, this is purely vigilantism, something that does not suit good people, especially those who claim to be fighting for the rights of masses,” she said. “Media should be responsible and think beyond commercialization, especially where it hits the society’s very social fabric.”
In a country where young people already feel intimidated by intolerance, 25-year-old Mohsin Haleem, an executive, said media has harassed rather than empowered them.
Pakistan has suffered since the 1970s from encroaching Islamization that has made society, particularly in the cities and particularly for women, more conservative.
While the Internet, and sites such as Twitter and Facebook provide some interaction, gender segregation is common and public entertainment is limited.
“The events of vigilantism by our TV channels have discouraged many of our youth to go in public parks, even they preferred to stay elsewhere on Valentine’s Day,” he said.
It is not only courting couples that have been on the receiving end of intrusive TV exposes.