The media madness in Pakistan is chaotic and conflictive
It was not a democratic but the military regime of Pervez Musharraf that freed, liberalized and proliferated electronic media about two decades ago. Before that, Pakistanis were used to watching only one channel, Pakistan Television, popularly known as PTV. Successive regimes in Pakistan had used a monopoly over the airwaves to use radio and television more as a tool of propaganda than to inform and educate the population. Many decades ago, PTV made some of the best drama serials and offered outstanding musical and entertainment programmes, but like other government run entities, it deteriorated and lost credibility with the people. Even for news about their own country, people would turn to foreign news channels.
Quite a few developments upended the conventional media policy of the government. Chief among them were satellite television technology, domestic cable networks carrying hundreds of Indian channels and one of the most powerful media houses of Pakistan, the Jang Group, establishing its channel in a Gulf country and telecasting for Pakistani viewers. Actually, the government made a virtue out of necessity by granting licenses to private parties to run channels for hefty fees, and also securing rights for at least 20 percent of the content to be fed by the government. As the economy boomed under Musharraf, private channels became an attractive option for all sorts of businesses in Pakistan for advertising. Then the government also pumped billions of rupees into the electronic media to publicize its programmes, policies, and achievements.
For a while the media played a friendly, often supportive role for the military regime. It served both, the military got stability and positive publicity, and the electronic media reaped material benefits. Huge revenues enabled the media to pay journalists shifting from newspaper to electronic channels massive amounts, especially the anchorpersons that have become national celebrities, part of the elite culture and elite networks of Pakistan.
The new electronic media and those running it got empowered so rapidly and on a scale never seen before in the country. Efforts by Musharraf during the movement for restoration of the ‘independent’ judiciary during 2007-08 to muzzle the media backfired. With the rise of the media we also saw the rise of civil society, urbanization and the proliferation of a new middle class that was supportive of the free media. Although there have been complaints about channels forced to practice some sort of self-censorship, in the comparative sense the media in Pakistan is one of the freest in the region.
Although there have been complaints about channels forced to practice some sort of self-censorship, in the comparative sense the media in Pakistan is one of the freest in the region.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
This freedom is a great value if exercised with restraint, responsibility and with the supremacy of societal and national interests in mind. The problem in many developing societies like Pakistan is weak professionalism and issues of integrity that enable vested economic and political interests to capture a bigger space on the media. Worse than that, in many cases, hidden hands and parties run the media through front companies. Powerful business houses, especially in real estate, and dynastic political families have established deep influences within the media through means of patronage that in the Western world would amount to bribery. Every party in Pakistan is concerned about self-image, as anywhere, and engaged in shaping supportive narrative and political discourses; and so is the government and some state institutions.
The media has emerged as the main battleground for competing ideas, controversies and debates, currently between the government and the opposition parties now united under the banner of Pakistan Democratic Movement. The political talk shows begin early in the evenings, seven days a week, and last till late in the night over every channel and in all national languages. Every hour, the anchor may change, but the issues under discussion for the day and the format of the participating commentators remain the same. In most shows, partisan spokespersons representing different parties dominate with some smattering of ‘independent’ journalists or experts on some issue. For two to three hours, Pakistanis get heavy doses of political controversies, half-truths, conspiracies and routine allegations and insinuations of wrongs against all sides of the political divide. What is interesting is that the moment we see the parade of spokespersons, the views become predictable. The representatives of different parties can be seen strictly following their party lines, defending allegations of corruption against their party bosses valiantly, and even picking up fights on camera.
What goes for a political ‘comment’ is hate-mongering, confrontation, and conflictive posturing. At the end of the day, a common viewer is left confused and pessimistic about the future of the country and himself or herself. I believe media cannot take refuge in being the messenger or acting as a common forum for all, as it leaves saner voices out and plays to the tunes of powerful political interests. They benefit from the chaos-- not the country, democracy or freedom in their truest sense.
– 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).