What gave rise to the fall of the media in Pakistan?

What gave rise to the fall of the media in Pakistan?


It is tragic that the electronic media, those running it, and those hosting the ‘formula-based’ political talk shows have disappointed the people, the country, and the activists who supported its rise and reach. A free media is an essential part of a progressive society and open democracy, and as such, every individual in Pakistan would like to see it develop, mature, and conduct itself in a responsible and responsive manner. The real fall is in its conduct, and that is not good for society, and more importantly, for itself.

The unspoken but naked truth of the matter is that the electronic media, to me,  has lost its credibility, truthfulness, and focus on what is necessary and substantive. The current state of affairs resembles scattered straws in the rough sea which are moving in different directions with the force of waves — unsettled, unsteady, and without a force of its own to follow a single direction. Just the straws, for too many years in meaningless cycles of motion, the media too has lost its compactness, energy, and its rightful place in society. 

Firstly, the real problem is the character of the forces that drive the media, give it - to a large extent- a direction, and use it for the purposes which they established the channels for in the first place. Here, it will be fair to make a distinction between the conventional print media houses and the new entrants. While it was quite a legitimate effort on part of the print media houses to venture into the electronic media after having served the country and society for generations, the new entrants had other motives. On the face of it, no one can deny anyone their rights to use their money in whichever way they would like. However, critics and others have the right to question the motive, dig into the background, and seek to know who the real players are behind several of these ventures.

When we dig deep into the background of many known public figures, and those that are not so well-known, we find uncanny figures, with tons of money (sources unknown) investing in the media. Owners of at least two of the mainstream channels — dealing with news, current affairs shows, religious programs, and everything ‘newsworthy’ — are convicted criminals. Private educational institutions are another business venture which is considered scandalous with such groups owning three to four of the television networks. Then, there are the old and new industrial families which have expanded their businesses by investing in media houses. It is true that big corporate conglomerates in the industrialized world own media houses from print to film, and television networks – something which is considered quite legitimate.

Every theory about the media will tell you that it cannot be independent of powerful influences in society.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

However, in terms of Pakistan the scenario is very different — does it make business sense, in terms of profitability? Or is owning a network about ‘power play’ behind the scenes. 

Every theory about the media will tell you that it cannot be independent of powerful influences in society. It plays a role in developing ideas, ideologies, and even in the making and breaking of governments, promoting leaders and their images and in igniting the opposition against the ruling party. In this sense, Pakistan is no different from other places in the world. However, there is a difference between legitimate businesses and working to just to establish and control the media as a refuge against the law and even the state. 

The style and conduct of the media are unfortunately immature and unprofessional. It has built its image on engaging in sensationalism, negativity, polarization, and scandalous debates. Very few programs and talk show hosts can offer substance, raise serious questions, and provide an opportunity for alternative perspectives. In most of the cases, one finds a cacophony of voices, hateful speech, volatile discourse, or the anchorpersons pouring fuel on the flames of a hostile conversation. The questionable conduct of the media has greatly contributed to political confusion, chaotic ideas, and a loss of good values such as political and religious tolerance. 

Will the media recreate itself when it seems to be losing public trust and confidence, especially in the age of globalization where other media platforms are offering wider choices? It depends on how long this can sustain. Ultimately, the market of viewers and sponsoring businesses will be the prime focus when downsizing the media to leave us with networks that are genuinely professional. 

• Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore.  His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017). @RasulRais
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