In the midst of all this gloom, we have a note of cheer in the Sindh Assembly’s adoption of a resolution on Thursday to repeal a law that serves as a justification for corporal punishment in schools.

And where did the provincial legislature acquire this wisdom to take this initiative at this time? Instructively, from a Geo television presentation of singer and social activist Shehzad Roy.

So there is still some hope that the electronic media in Pakistan that has become a major player in the power game can be inspired to recognise its social responsibility. After all, it is ultimately in the vested interest of the media itself that the society in which it functions is educated and civilised and open-minded.

But first, let us look at how Geo and Shehzad Roy have come to the aid of the persecuted little students of schools in this star-crossed country, though so many children – and a number of teachers – do not go to school at all.

Shehzad’s ‘Chal Parha’ serial is part of Geo’s focus on education in its Zara Sochiye campaign. ‘Chal Parha’ is a reality show that is exploring issues that relate to early education against the backdrop of Shezad’s personal encounters across the nation.

What we have – and the 23-episode serial is being shown twice weekly – is a journey of discovery that illustrates the reality of primary education in different and distant parts of the country.

In that sense, it is like a road movie in the Hollywood tradition. The dramatic impact is enhanced by the fact that Shehzad is seen riding a Harley Davidson bike, venturing into uncharted territory.

Anyhow, there was this episode on corporal punishment and it portrayed some harrowing instances of how severely some students are beaten by their teachers and how this practice contributes to an increase in the number of drop-outs from primary schools.

In a way, this episode touched the conscience of the nation, to the extent that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif personally took notice of an incident that had taken place in a school in Punjab. He, as he admitted on camera, had watched the show.

Similarly, Sindh Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq also paid tribute to the show to acknowledge that it was the ‘Chal Parha’ episode that had prompted the Sindh Assembly to unanimously approve the resolution. It called on the government to repeal Section 89 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) that allows guardians and persons having lawful charge of children to punish them “in good faith for their benefit”.

Be that as it may, we know that these measures would not, in themselves, make a great difference because the process of social change has its own complexities. Education, of course, is the foundation on which any national enterprise can be raised.

In this context, it may be relevant to review the ‘Zara Sochiye’ strategy to promote the cause of education in Pakistan. Projects of this nature do require a lot of reflection and planning and technical expertise.

But I want to quickly move on to highlight the role that the electronic media is playing to ‘educate’ its audience and to conduct an informed, rational debate on challenges that we confront at this critical hour in our history.

Indeed, the Geo campaign on education is advisedly timed to overlap the national electoral exercise and to remind the political parties of the paramount importance of education. We have arrived at a point where new beginnings are possible, though the overall situation also threatens to demolish all our hopes for a better tomorrow.

On this issue, I am tempted to reiterate my belief that our crisis is not so much political as it is intellectual and moral. We should be more concerned about society and not so much about the conspiratorial machinations of our political leaders and parties.

If the media has the power to change realities and perceptions – and many observers are truly apprehensive about how the media is exercising its authority – then it also has the responsibility to defend the country’s cultural and intellectual frontiers.

The real challenge is to explore the roots of what is happening to us. When ‘Chal Parha’ dealt with the problem of corporal punishment in schools it judiciously linked it with the prevalence of violence at all levels of our society. This linkage has considerable significance and it underlines the fact that we need the right kind of education and parenting to counter the evils that have seeped into our collective psyche.

With all this talk about the power of the media, it should be worthwhile to reflect on its influence on our society. All these news channels that merrily chew the cud of politics have dominated the cultural scene for almost a decade. Should they, then, accept some blame for the social drift that is taking place?

We can see that religious extremism is growing, the tempo of social disarray has increased, sectarian conflict is becoming more lethal, corruption is rampant and even at this time when the coming elections should raise people’s expectations and spirits, there is a sense of despair all around.

In this entire state of affairs, if the media has not played the role of an instigator then it has also not been able to check the pace of decline. I know that it is not easy to make any hasty judgement on the impact of media on our society in the absence of any in-depth and expert analysis. However, it seems obvious to me that the ratings-driven compulsion to cater to the lowest common denominator has undermined the potential purpose and strengths of the media.

I may be overstating its significance, but the attention earned by ‘Chal Parha’ is a lesson for the media. Yes, such programmes would not have the same ratings that are achieved by inane and repetitive talk shows. Perhaps this is just as well.

A programme that is meant for a select audience – an audience that is touched by its contents – should logically have a high social value than, say, the endless ranting of someone like Sheikh Rasheed.

Well, this is a subject that demands serious deliberation, including on the part of those advertisers that are fond of holding conferences on Corporate Social Responsibility. My lament is just that politics is too much with us, at the cost of serious investigations into crucial social phenomena.

We seem unable to come to terms with a virtual breakdown of the equilibrium of our society. Irrespective of the limitations of what the commercial popular media can do, there is an urgent need for it to take a good look at its potential and its performance. One can only say: Zara Sochiye.
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