Beheadings, mutilations, horrific executions; these are just some of the examples related to blood, gore and violence which global media likes to exploit time and again to attain maximum viewer ratings. Naturally, the more the ratings, the more sponsors a channel will get during regular airtime. For media owners, the smell of fresh money signals the dawn of an all-time high in competitive market standing.
In Pakistan, state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV) was the only electronic media channel which aired both domestic and global news. The content was well-selected, regulated and televised in multiple local languages/dialects. During the rule of former dictator Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, private companies headed by businessmen and industrialists were given permits to launch their own private media channels. From that period on, Pakistan has witnessed a steady rise in the number of new media groups providing news, entertainment, sports, health and other infotainment services to citizens.
With this ushering of an unprecedented “private media wave” came the rapid degeneration of humanity. Since the focus of this particular article is on desensitization, I will not be discussing entertainment channels; what I am focusing on is the way in which news groups in Pakistan (print, electronic and web) have removed the very care of humanity from our psyche. The damaging effects of ratings-hungry media groups can be ascertained from the fact that despite warnings from a usually-dormant Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and Association of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (APNE), these media groups continue broadcasting/publishing content which would otherwise be strictly banned in any sensible country.
Not that “freedom of information” is being restricted here, the audience/readers have no actual benefit watching gory videos and looking at heart-wrenching images in paper. At most, this is something which could only benefit forensics experts or crime and terror investigators.
Terrorist groups such as Taliban, ISIS et al thrive on the fear and awe of ordinary people because of the mass media. If these groups decide in principle not to give airtime to their atrocious and barbaric acts, they will lose their influence. The amount of psychological damage induced by broadcasts/publications of gory content is unimaginable. The dilemma is, people have actually gotten used to it. Why? How?
In psychology, when you want to “condition” i.e. mentally program someone, you subject them to the same images/sounds/physical torture again, and again, and again. A time will come when the brain will no longer treat the violence or torture as “bad”. Similarly, when media audiences watch and see violent images of people being killed and their bodies mutilated time and again, they become desensitized i.e. it doesn’t appear gruesome, offensive and violent to them anymore.
Consider the case of the Sialkot brothers who were brutally lynched by savages. Their video went viral not only on TV (which was somewhat censored) but it was available uncensored on Facebook and other social media platforms. Millions of people in Pakistan watched the video. If one observes on-lookers in the video standing and watching the brothers getting beaten to death, it makes one think: why didn’t any of them protect or save them from the ire of their savage killers? Instead, most of the people chose to “enjoy the live bloodbath” and went around trying to record the whole episode from different angles.
Another recent example is the suicide attack on a church in Lahore’s Youhanabad area after which a mob of violent Christians got hold of two passersby who were Muslim, and lynched them to death, later burning their bodies until they almost turned to ash. What many people fail to notice that a few Muslim fanatics had also joined the group of Christians to drag and mutilate the bodies of the two victims across Ferozepur Road. A careful observation of footage and photos from the crime scene show young men wielding batons and venting out their frustration on those two innocent victims. As in the Sialkot incident, in this case too the on-lookers made videos and took pictures instead of reaching out to protect the victims.
There are hundreds of other examples I can quote here in this context. What we need to look at is, how did the people of Pakistan become passive/unaffected towards crimes against humanity? Don’t Pakistanis have hearts?
They do. But the regular mental conditioning they have received over the years through private print and electronic media channels has rendered them insensitive. They have become zombies who look at killings and remain mum, do nothing.
A formal Code of Ethics for the media was formulated long ago by the government, with relevant input from media stakeholders. Despite these temporary efforts, no long-lasting implementation has been witnessed. Any child who tunes in to a news channel in the event of an unfortunate incident will see violent images on screen or view the same in newspapers. If not actually shown/printed, media persons tend to still describe through words and text the details of whatever horror befell victims. Expressions such as “jism ke tukre tukre hogaye” (the body was mutilated into pieces), “sar mila hay” (head was found) and “khoon-aalood galyan” (blood-filled neighborhoods) are common to see and read. Once again I ask, what use is all this detail?
Mass media is not the source of insensitivity, however it is a major promoter. Efforts must be put in place by the government in conjunction with renowned national psychologists, sociologists and responsible (senior) journalists to conduct workshops for media groups on the do’s and don’ts of airing/publishing violent content. Most importantly, the government must toughen up against law breaking media groups and impose heavy fines including warnings of suspending licenses in the future if ratings-hungry media groups continue to blatantly violate the Code of Ethics. The damage has already been done. We can at least prevent the next generation of Pakistanis, majority of whom comprise of youth, from become desensitized.
Another important front which should be regulated is in Internet. Irresponsible or miscreant elements who upload gory content on social media and elsewhere, targeting Pakistani audiences, should be arrested and prosecuted by the Pakistan Telecommunication Agency (PTA) through law-enforcement agencies. Although most Internet activities are by-and-large non-attributable because of the nature of actors in cyberspace, it is not an impossible task.
There was a time when Pakistanis rushed to condole with, and help, people subjected to wrongdoing. That time seems to have long gone. We have become so “unbothersome” about the routine killings and acts of crime and terror that, dare I say this, we have somewhat become “used” to it.
We Pakistanis should pride ourselves on our resilience but not at the cost of humanity!