Matt J. Duffy

Pakistan Media ‘Mainstreaming’ Extremism

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The world was shocked earlier this month with the assassination of a progressive Pakistani politician. More disturbing than the murder of Salman Taseer – at the hands of his own bodyguard – is the reaction it provoked from a large segment of the Pakistani public.

Lawyers greeted the bodyguard in court by showering him with rose petals, pleased that he had killed a man who had dared to criticize the country’s anti-blasphemy law. Thousands of Pakistanis marched in support of the assassin’s actions and in support of the anti-blasphemy law that allows people to be put to death if they’re accused of criticizing the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

The reaction differs dramatically from the recent assassination attempt in the United States in which a gunman tried to kill a congresswoman and succeeded in murdering six others. Despite what some call a “hate-filled” sphere of public discourse, everyone in the United States widely denounced the gunman’s actions.

At least some of the difference can be attributed to the role of the mass media. As detailed in a well-researched article by journalist Salman Masood, the media in Pakistan has increasingly aired the extreme views surrounding the blasphemy laws and allowed no room for dialogue with people who advocated tolerance.

After the assassination, a popular talk show host, Meher Bokhari, nodded in agreement with a guest who explained that the bodyguard acted justly given the slain governor’s views. And other talk show hosts, such as Hamid Mir and Javed Chaudhry, said that Taseer brought his death upon himself.

These views are abhorrent. No one deserves to die for expressing a political belief (e.g., that a blasphemy law should be revised). In most societies, such a view would be rightly seen as a fringe belief. The media portrayal of the respectability of these beliefs helps explain why so many Pakistanis support the actions of Taseer’s killer.

Communication researchers have seen these media effects at play in other cultures with totally different outcomes. Researchers developed “cultivation theory” to explain the behavior seen in the United States. Cultivation theory holds that exposure to television messages can cultivate homogenous views, an outcome called “mainstreaming.”

The effect can lead to positive developments for a society. Since the 1970s, the mass media in the United States have peppered their news media and programming with subtle messages of tolerance, particularly of other races. At the same time, polls have shown a steady decline in racist beliefs and opposition to interracial marriage. The results of the 2008 elections were rather stunning as well.

But, cultivation can lead to negative effects as well. Researchers have found that audiences who watch a lot of crime shows tend to suffer from “Mean World Syndrome” – an incorrect belief that the world is more violent than in reality. In this sense, the media can help to shape reality for its audience.

In Pakistan, the cultivation effect appears to be leading to a reality that is damaging its society. The nation is suffering from the “mainstreaming” of extremist messages. But, the media are not merely reflecting these extremist beliefs. They are helping to make these beliefs acceptable – homogenizing them for the masses.

The government of Pakistan fined two television stations for showing an interview with the unrepentant assassin.  This is a step in the right direction. But, the interview could have produced some good – as long as the beliefs of the assassin were properly debunked and ridiculed. Apparently, the stations merely gave the assassin a forum to explain the morality of his actions. For the news media to produce this type of message only helps “mainstream” the message that violence is an appropriate response to unpopular speech.

The government and media producers should place more emphasis on making sure the media find voices of tolerance who declare unequivocally that murdering someone for the political belief is wrong. They should also emphasize finding media programming (dramas and comedies) that inculcate their shows with messages of toleration and understanding.

Of course, in the wake of Taseer’s murder, finding these voices of moderation – and making them the new mainstream – will prove to be quite difficult.

7 Responses to Pakistan Media ‘Mainstreaming’ Extremism

  1. ahsan rana 03/09/2011 at 2:10 PM

    Geo is doing well fifty fifty…… why you people are not arising the issue of Altaf Hussian MQM leader who was caught by British Police during migerating towads South Africa??? Why media is not broadcasting that issue??? Media people you should do well job and you have need to prove it….

  2. Matt J. Duffy 07/02/2011 at 1:08 PM


    What is it you’re saying? I can read this to say that you think Taseer should not have made his comments — that he would have been “safer” to move somewhere else. Is that what you’re saying? Forgive me if I’m wrong — you didn’t write much and I think your comment ended up being enigmatic.

  3. Hebatullah 05/02/2011 at 5:47 PM

    As if the world lacks ppl talking bad about Islam and Muslims…

    If someone has a problem with Islam or Muslims its better (and perhaps safer) for him to go and live with those who would welcome his beliefs…

  4. Qudsia Maqbool 02/02/2011 at 7:03 PM

    The media boom in Pakistan is an indication of the fact that we have an appetite for awareness. But I have personally experienced how negative impacts our media is leaving on the public and especially on young generation. It is no way wrong that media is taking utmost advantage of its freedom and playing in hands of anti- Pakistan and anti-democratic forces. This leads me to believe that the media is doing worst as the biggest advocacy tool for people and institutions in the country. Most Pakistani newspapers and news channels have played havoc with this nation and some pro- Taliban journalist playing a dangerous role in shaping the views of new generation towards militancy.

  5. Matt J. Duffy 30/01/2011 at 9:17 AM

    Mir seems like a reasonable figure — would like to know more about the varied opinions on him.

  6. Doa Khan 29/01/2011 at 11:53 PM

    @Haris Khan Afridi
    No we don’t.

  7. Haris Khan Afridi 27/01/2011 at 4:04 PM

    Hamid Mir is a very well respected and most watched journalist of Pakistan.He did two shows against the assassination of Salman Taseer.He wrote an article also.
    Hamid Mir is different from Mehar Bukhari and Javed Chaudhry.Hamid Mir is the one who always criticized Taliban activities in Pakistan but he is disliked by Americans because Hamid Mir exposed the killings of innocent civilians in drone attacks,Hamid Mir exposed the role of black water in Pakistan.He is against Taliban as well the imperialist role of America in the region.That is why he is the most popular journalist of Pakistan.We love him for his honesty,objectivity and liberal views.

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