Malala Yousafzai – A polarizing figure in Pakistani Media
On Feb. 7, Dr. Danish, the host of Pakistan’s popular Urdu-language talk show “Ye Sawal Hai” (The Question is), was in full shouting form.
“This is the photograph of Waleed Khan who took eight bullets,” he yelled, pointing at the split screen flashing the photographs of a 14-year-old boy alongside Malala Yousafzai. Khan is a survivor of the Pakistani Taliban’s Dec. 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. He was in the headlines for his ambitions to join the army to avenge his friends.
“And this,” he screamed, “is the photograph of Malala Yousafzai, who took one bullet and is living out of the country, and her account has $68 billion.”
Dr. Danish’s rant opened an hour-long discussion of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and her father, who were labeled “traitor” and “kafir” (a derogatory term for non-believers) multiple times by his three talk show guests. The group implied Malala was an agent of Pakistan’s enemies, who were using her to attack Islam and the Pakistani military
That part of the story is not unusual. Though Malala enjoys widespread admiration around the world, within Pakistan she is a divisive figure – revered by some, but aggressively targeted by others.
What is unusual was the reaction of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Shortly after the broadcast, the agency censured ARY News network – which airs Ye Sawal Hai, one of the top five Urdu-language talk shows, according to Gallup media research. The charge was “hate speech.”
“The host and guests used such words about Malala Yousafzai and her family that undoubtedly fall under hate speech and use of such words are strictly banned under the law and constitution,” PEMRA’s notice said.
“Accusations of blasphemy could endanger lives,” PEMRA further noted.
The strong language and formal action against ARY News were surprising moves by an agency that has traditionally reserved such censure orders for media attacks on the Pakistan army. For example, the license of Geo News, Pakistan’s leading television channel was suspended in 2014 for 15 days with a hefty fine for charges of defaming the army and Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
So what would explain an aggressive new approach from PEMRA to protect Malala, a controversial figure within Pakistan?
Usman Ghani, a blogger and engineer, suggests the answer lies in the October appointment of a new chief, Absar Alam, by PEMRA President Mamnoon Hussain on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recommendation.
Alam has deep ties to the current ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
“That may be one of the reasons for PEMRA’s aggressiveness,” Ghani said, in an email interview from Lahore. “The other probable reason is Pak government’s decision to move forward with its war against terror.”
The new anti-terror effort, said Ghani, has made PML-N and the Pakistani military more aggressive in opposing “any hate speech or action in media that might help the terrorists.”
Will it matter?
PEMRA’s action may have been bold, but it’s not clear it will make much difference.
Soon after the censured broadcast, “Dr. Danish tweeted Malala’s name with Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen – controversial names in Pakistan because of their books and subject of hatred for the masses,” said Ghani. “It is an effective way of suggesting that Malala is as controversial as they are.”
The tweet also indicated that Dr. Danish – with 200,000 followers on Twitter — was unfazed by the PEMRA censure, said Ghani.
Ghani said public opinions about Malala reflect public anger at what is seen at western interventionism in Pakistan.
“The average people are not religious fanatics. They watch Hollywood movies and have mild ideology. But they hate anyone who is recognized by the West,” he said. “The anti-Malala sentiment is piggybacking on this anti-West sentiment.”
Cyril Almeida, a journalist at the leading English-language newspaper Dawn, said that many Pakistanis also feel resentful of the shame that the Taliban attack on Malala, and the subsequent international media coverage, brought to the country.
“There is also envy among the people,” Almeida said. “She got shot and got out, while most of the countrymen are stuck with their children in a situation where every day brings the possibility of death.”
Roots of polarization
The complex opinions about Malala have been reflected in Pakistani media coverage of her ever since a Taliban gunman shot her in 2012 as she was riding a bus home from a school exam.
Pakistani liberals were horrified, but some Pakistanis never believed the attack even took place, said Raza Ahmad Rumi, a columnist and policy analyst who was attacked by a Taliban affiliate in 2014 and now lives in upstate New York.
“There was a third category that believed that she was working as a pawn or a spy for the West, because she had met [U.S.] Ambassador Richard Holbrooke,” Rumi said in a phone interview.
Almeida, the Dawn journalist, said that the media divisions are far more complex than liberal versus conservative, or English-language versus Urdu media. “Even in the same news organizations, whether Urdu or English, some speak for her and some against her,” he said.
For instance, when Malala received honorary citizenship from Bethlehem, a Palestinian town in the West Bank in January, photographs of Malala and her father appeared in some news publications like Express News Pakistan and Channel 24 News, reporting that she is now a British citizen — which was not true. Even when it became clear that the honorary passports (with similar cover colors of a British passport) that Malala and her father had received were not British, none of these reports were corrected and led to a fresh wave of vitriol on social media, which has become a vicious echo of mainstream media.
Effects of Media Polarization
“One can’t actually divide opinions about Malala by language [of the media], class or even by type of leader because it is defying all categorization,” said Bilal Lakhani, a columnist for Express Tribune, an English-language daily newspaper.
“I am currently focusing a lot of my writing on education and personally I am a big fan of Malala,” said Lakhani. “But I have stopped mentioning her in my articles. My message is getting crowded out due to her polarized standing in society.