The vernacular Urdu media, both print and electronic, remains the main source of news and information for the majority of the people in Pakistan. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 4.6 million out of over six million daily circulated newspapers in the country were Urdu dailies. Among the Urdu newspapers, Jang is the most circulated newspaper with a subscription of 8,50,000. Nawa-i-Waqt holds the second place with 5,00,000 subscribers, followed by Pakistan (2,79,000) and Khabrain (2,32,000). Other important Urdu dailies are Ausaf, Ummat and Jasarat. In comparison, the subscription of English language dailies is low with the top three among them – The News (1,20,000), Dawn (1,09,000) and Business Recorder (22,000) together selling less than Pakistan, which is third in the list of vernacular newspapers. According to another Pakistan Bureau of Statistics report, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have the highest number of Urdu dailies. Overall, out of 695 newspapers and periodicals published in Pakistan, 84 are in English whereas the corresponding number for Urdu is 514.
Opinion pieces and editorials in Urdu dailies are mostly conservative and regressive in orientation. The meagre liberal voice, mostly in Jang but also sporadically in some other newspapers, gets drowned in the cacophony of impassioned orthodoxy peddled by a huge army of commentators who wear their sectarian/religious consciousness up their sleeves. Views of columnists writing such orthodox opinion pieces find their way into Pakistan’s collective consciousness much easily than that of the sane and reasoned observers who find it difficult to overwhelm their counterparts in the vernacular media. A report in Dawn had once noted that in Pakistan, “objectivity, balance, fairness and the right to reply are alien concepts for Urdu newspapers.”
Given its reach among the common masses, media’s power to shape people’s perceptions remains significant. As Florian Zollmann points out, “the news media provide a significant portion of the information on which citizens base their political choices.” In Pakistan, given its outreach and wide readership, the role of vernacular media is important. It is also the reason why the Pakistan Army tries to influence Urdu media through both ‘envelope journalism’ and coercion.
At a time when COVID-19 is posing a major non-conventional threat to Pakistan, it is thus pertinent to examine the line adopted by the vernacular media, especially since the government’s narrative on methods to fight such a disease is getting embroiled in an increasingly regressive religious discourse.
Reportage on Coronavirus
Like elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as a major issue in Pakistan around which comments are being written and debates being held. The federal government’s approach in dealing with the issue has come under severe criticism. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision of not working with the opposition and asking the provinces to not enforce a complete lockdown reflects the unpreparedness of the government. Meanwhile, the country’s health system remains inadequate while an economic crisis looms around the horizon, as evident from an external debt of US $105 billion and currency depreciation by a whopping 30 per cent in 2019. Several business lobbies with vested interests are also seeking to influence the government against adopting tough measures that include a complete lockdown.
These issues are being increasingly reflected in the editorial pages of the Urdu media. Interestingly, while the narratives in vernacular media revolve around criticising the government for its failures, several commentators have been peddling various conspiracy theories and advocating that people’s sufferings are due to God’s wrath or punishment (azab). This is particularly evident from the insistence of several ulemas on holding Friday congregational prayers, in defiance of the government’s orders. Their participation in prayers held in mosques has led to violence in Islamabad and Karachi.
Corona a ‘God’s Punishment’
The argument that COVID-19 is God’s wrath on the people for the sins they have committed is believed by many in Pakistan. One commentator labelled the pandemic as a “test for humans, to ensure that sinful followers go back to the Allah for seeking His forgiveness for their sins”. Others have argued that it is time for human beings to be truthful in their acts to avoid such wraths of God. A commentator, while calling it an azab (torment or punishment) from Allah, argued that “such azabs have come upon people whenever they have committed sins and have indulged in fornication/adultery, strayed from the path of the God and became selfish (ooswaqt Allah ke azab se dochaar huye, jab un mein bigaad payada huwa, bilkhasoos jab insaan burayee aur badkari ke raste per chal nikla).” These comments reflect the views of some of the conservative ulema, who remain unhappy over the government’s decision to impose lockdown on mosques and stop congregational prayers.
The vernacular media has offered wide coverage to Sahabzada Peer Abdul Basheer, Chairman of Milli Yakjehti Council, who stated, “this is the moment that we should offer prayers and seek forgiveness from the God. But we have taken the opposite position and closed the doors of the God’s houses (masjids). This is like inviting the azab (suffering) from the God.” He asked people to pray instead.
Corona a ‘Conspiracy’
A few commentators in the vernacular media believe that coronavirus is designed to target Islam and Muslims, while others look at it as a strategy for containing China. One commentator wrote in Nawa-i-Waqt that Muslims need to recognise that there is a powerful anti-Islam and anti-Muslim lobby in the world which targets Islam/Muslims whenever it gets a chance. He further added, “The fear thus created (by the pandemic) is meant to close the holy places in Saudi Arabia and mosques across the world and in this way, (the lobby has been able) to stop five-time congregational prayers in mosques, which are integral to Islam. In the absence of any such scare, it would not have been possible to close down these places.”
The daily Ummat, in an editorial, lashed out at the Saudis for shutting down the two holiest sites of the Muslims – Kabbah and Masjid-e-Nabawi. It raised the question: “When a big country like China can control the coronavirus, why cannot countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan do so?” The editorial further opined that “any such policy of closing masajid (mosques) can only be adopted as per the wishes of Allah or for the security of the people. However, in a situation like this, all Muslims believe that the death will come only when Allah wants it to come. They should not feel insecure to visit and pray in mosques. The prevailing fear among the rulers because of the pandemic is a sign of the decline and fall of the Ummah.”
Domestically, the Tablighi Jamaat members have accused the government of trying to stop them from carrying out their proselytising activities, as ordained by Allah. One Jamaat leader stated that “the crime of the Tablighi members is that they invite people towards the righteous path and the government is scared of it.” According to him, the ban on religious congregations and closure of masjids are signs of God’s unhappiness. Therefore, Allah has unleashed his wrath upon the people and the only way the Muslims can overcome this situation is by collectively praying for Allah’s forgiveness. However, the government’s resolve in enforcing the lockdown is seen as a key obstacle in achieving this objective.
Corona a ‘Biological Weapon’
The vernacular media has widely reported COVID-19 as a biological weapon. Notably, this hypothesis has been discussed in detail. For instance, a commentator alleges that “people across the world will be put in prison-like places and some of them will be incarcerated in their homes. Then 5G will be used for surveillance on humans which will meet the requirements of the post-corona world.” He even went on to claim that people who were earlier reluctant to take vaccines for polio will now “blindly take any medicine (or vaccine) to avoid being infected. Scientists may now invent a vaccine that would introduce gene-mutation in the people so that they would not able to differentiate between likes and dislikes and could alter their taste. It may turn human beings into slaves, operating at the order of their masters.”
A report carried in Ummat highlighted the claims of an acclaimed American human rights lawyer and professor of international law, Francis Boyle, that the virus was invented in a laboratory and sold to China. According to the report, Boyle stated that “coronavirus is not natural but an artificial one created by scientists and was meant to be used as a biological weapon. However, the virus got leaked because of negligence.” He further claimed that “a certain technology (a technology in virology to introduce change in microbes/proteins) has been used so that the COVID-19 could be spread widely in humans.”
Another report quoting Chinese sources blamed the United States (US) for planting the virus in China during a joint US-China military exercise in Wuhan and subsequently calling it a “Chinese Virus”. The commentators argued that this was a well-crafted American conspiracy to not only damage China’s reputation as a responsible actor but also to contain it.
It is unfortunate that while scientists all over the world are working tirelessly to find an antidote to COVID-19, the narratives doing the rounds in Pakistan – pushed and peddled by the Urdu media, accuse them of conspiring to turn this virus into a weapon to not only kill but also to alter the human psyche. Given its deep reach in Pakistani society, the country’s vernacular media is working tirelessly to promote a yet another baseless and fictitious narrative. This is being ostensibly done to hide the failure of the state to provide basic health and other facilities as well as to strengthen the hold of the religious groups in the Pakistani society. The relative silence of the Pakistani civil society, the government and even the powerful military on this crucial issue indicates the diminishing influence of the liberal constituency in Pakistan.