Pakistani Media: Achievements, Failures & Way Forward?

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Moeed Pirzada  | PAKISTAN KA KHUDA HAFIZ |

Pakistan’s electronic media has made huge strides in the last one decade. Today this industry has a massive structure and thousands of journalists, executives and technical professionals are directly or indirectly part of it. Whereas Pakistani media may appear less sexy, less liberal or colourful as compared to its Indian counterpart, it is certainly more developed, deeper and robust than the media in most other countries of the region. Contrary to popular discourse on global media, Pakistani media revolution was not an inevitable outcome of the forces of globalization. Musharraf regime’s (1999-2008) goal to break state’s monopoly on information and to open up political space to end the status quo was principally responsible for liberalizing Pakistani discourse. The fact that no parallel development took place in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, or Singapore which are more developed in many other indices, including the use of technology, is an ample proof of this clear policy shift and its dividends in Pakistan.

So what changed? Apart from ending state’s monopoly on information and images, Pakistani media liberalization has created three major impacts: First, by imparting credibility to their news bulletins, Pakistani privately owned satellite channels kicked out international and regional news portals like BBC, Voice of Germany, VOA, Radio Moscow and Akashwani (that had significant penetration into Pakistani domestic information flows) from Pakistani sphere of domestic narrative; Second, in a country where readership of the written word, in any language, has always been limited despite a near 100% comprehension of the spoken word in Urdu, expansion of the 24/7 news media, with its more trustworthy bulletins and racy current affairs programs created ‘national audio-visual platforms’ that started to provide a political and emotional connect across large parts of the country, especially those urban and sub-urban towns that were close to major road arteries and thus amenable to penetration by cable networks.

Third, this political and emotional connect of audio-visual images across large but diverse centres of population that also involved Pakistani diasporas across Europe, North America and Middle East created an altogether new sense of being “one nation” connected together by a shared sense of success and tragedy. This phenomenon hugely empowered, especially in its nascent phase, Pakistani civil society that emerged as a new watch dog on Pakistani politics. The images of 7th March 2007, when Chief Justice was being dragged by a policeman; of 12th May 2007 when MQM muscle men tried to block Chief Justice’s rally in Karachi; of 3rd November 2007 when Gen. Musharraf pronounced his emergency and tried displacing the supreme court and of March 2009 when PMLN initiated a march onto Islamabad leading to the restoration of judiciary all became epic moments of the success of Pakistani media and civil society emerging as a powerful watch dogs of politics and national conscience.

However three years down the line in year 2012, there is a palpable feeling across the country, its key institutions, academia, civil society organisations and even parts of journalistic community that despite a massive expansion of the industry media have lost their way and instead of contributing to ‘public interest’ they are leading towards political and social chaos; becoming prophets of anarchy rather than harbingers of a mature political discourse. This picture of “barbarians at the gate” may be somewhat exaggerated, but something definitely went wrong; and the nature and direction of Pakistani media is today a matter of concern for policy makers, academia, and civil society.

So what went wrong? The honest answer is, there is a huge list: inability of editorial institution to develop in electronic media; failure of Musharraf’s bureaucracy to define clear rules and framework for cross-media ownership; near strangulating control on new tv channels by powerful private investors euphemistically referred to as ‘Seths’ who own and use these public platforms in pursuance of their personal, economic and political interests; inability of the governments and media to develop any consensus on a code of conduct for journalists or for limiting the power of “neo-capitalists” on editorial decision making; mushroom growth of small cable operators who generate revenues in excess of Rs. 40 billion without sharing a dime with the content producers ie tv channels thus forcing tv channels to rely exclusively on commercial advertisements. This importance of absolute reliance on commercialisation and how this is effecting the nature and direction of media content can only be appreciated when we come to understand that over the last few years marketing departments and media buying houses have started to decide their budgets on the basis of reports from western style rating meters that are mostly in poor and uneducated households and have produced a ‘race towards the bottom’ in terms of the quality and taste of the content that is being encouraged and thus produced.

Though Pakistan, inspired by the vision of Gen. Musharraf’s media adviser Javaid Jabbar, took the lead in the region by establishing an Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) in 2002, unlike India where the issue is still in limbo and regulation of media is still being dealt by Ministry of Information and courts. However Pakistani problems got compounded by the fact that governments, working journalists, Media Mughals and the courts have all conspired to undermine the legitimacy of the media regulator rendering it toothless and often a subject of ridicule and contempt from all sides. Regulator abysmally failed to conceive, prescribe and enforce any entry barriers for all those who wanted to own “public platforms” like tv and radio channels. As a result, in Pakistan today owning a “public platform” like a tv channel which influences the collective mind of the society and its nature of political, economic and sociological discourse is considered little different from owing a sewerage pipe factory. This original sin in failing to understand the nature of media that led to the betrayal of “public interest” by the state of Pakistan today lies at the heart of the problem being confronted by the state and society.

Most problems either originate or are multiplied by the absence of a basic conceptual framework and the lack of institutional writ; for instance: there are no professional standards, pre-qualifications or entry barriers; neither the state nor the industry has grappled with the need of proper media schools or training institutions; tv channels don’t offer any on-job trainings or refresher courses for skill developments of editors, techies, producers, reporters or presenters; reporters and anchors both confuse “original information” and “opinions”; vacuum is being compounded by hurriedly established NGO’s that are draining the donor’s money and interest, under the broad poster of media training, without any clearly defined objectives or sense of direction.

Since the Pakistani bureaucracies failed to lay down a properly conceived legal framework for “cross-media ownership”, country has quickly become world’s worst example in terms of media concentration. The powerful newspaper groups, now owning equally powerful public platforms like tv channels, have developed an unprecedented ability to frighten the governments –through their handpicked columnists, anchors and selective news bulletins- thus making it virtually impossible for politicians or civil society to push any legislation or “Code of Conduct” that militates against the interests of these media Mughals.

The irony is that while private media were allowed to expand, multiply and define the norm, the state broadcasting media were not empowered with an autonomous structure, free from the Ministry of Information, that could have enabled them to keep pace with the demands and challenges of a new age. Consequently Pakistan Television (Ptv), especially it’s news and current affairs, has not only lost its viewership but is today without any capacity to define norms and conventions unlike BBC in the United Kingdom that may not have the ratings of the private media but still defines what it means to be “British”. So the awkward reality in Pakistan is that whereas governments, civil society and parts of journalistic community keep on trashing what they see on Pakistani screens as “sub-standard” but they can’t compare it with a “standard” for none exists. No wonder it is now difficult to envision and define an alternative; for instance if what is available through the idiot’s box is not acceptable then what should it look like? In today’s Pakistan, despite lots of biliary reactions and semantics, this question has no easy answer. And this should help understand the nature of the challenge that now confronts the Pakistani state and the society.

But all that discussion, though not exhaustive, still relates only to the issues of content. On technical front too, Pakistani television medium has failed to make the kind of progress it deserves. In terms of satellite penetration, use and conventions it is pretty advanced for instance almost all major tv channels, in contrast with the once powerful state broadcaster, are connected with their bureaus through multiple links and operate dozens of DSNG Vans (Digital Satellite News Gathering); uses of graphic design and animation have made significant progress; satellite up linking for both Pakistani and foreign channels is without government hassles unlike India where case to case permissions are often needed from the Ministry of Information. Despite this progress the Pakistani screen is not yet fully digital; industry has not been able to move to Direct to Home (DTH) broadcasts and Set Top Boxes (STB) principally for the reason that governments wanted to maintain a control through the physical infrastructure of cable networks that are more amenable to the old fashioned policing and pressure tactics bureaucracies excel in. This may however be changing soon. Indian DTH broadcasts are fast penetrating Pakistani homes at low costs and the whole regime of “potential control” through cable networks will soon become meaningless. Ironically this new “strategic need” to open up may further weaken the Pakistani state and society’s hold on the flow of sounds and images and may compel it to reconsider the whole concept of regulation through sophisticated legal instruments instead of physical tactics adopted by bureaucracies.

What should be done? What is the way forward? Unfortunately the extensive media discourse available across Europe and the United States helps understand that struggle of Pakistani state and civil society against media monopolies and crass commercialisation of content is not going to be an easy battle. But despite the gigantic hurdles on the way, for all those who want to fight the “barbarians at the gate” it’s time to start a well-conceived national debate on the subject.

This national debate needs to focus on number of issues, they include: the policy aspects of regulation through a genuinely autonomous regulator; a broadly accepted Code of Conduct for electronic media; challenge of media monopolies especially in view of unlimited and unregulated cross-media ownerships; need for alternate rating mechanisms to protect high quality content and to prevent this continuous race to the bottom in terms of quality and taste; the issues of entry qualifications for media, of training and capacity building for all those who are in the business of generating content; and finally the challenge of digitalization like DTH and this one way traffic of images and sounds into Pakistan without any parallel ability of Pakistani media to reach out and have its impact in the surrounding region.[1]

One of the biggest stumbling blocks on this way forward has been an almost ideological resistance in the Pakistani journalistic community against the very concept of regulation for media. This is mostly a result of confusion which is benefitting capitalists rather than the media. Most journalists have their background in print publications, and Pakistani print media had fought relentlessly against dictatorships, draconian laws and highhandedness of state apparatchiks. They fear giving away their hard won freedoms to the unreliable state authorities on any pretext and emphasize “self-regulation”.

This is however a misunderstanding based upon their inability to distinguish between the nature of print and electronic media. Whereas print is a medium of choice and has many barriers of access for instance money, necessary education and taste tv is a mass medium with limited barriers. In all developed societies print, like Pakistan, is now being self-regulated but powerful regulators exist for electronic media across UK, United States and European Union. Pakistan especially needs to learn from the experiences of Office of Communication (OfCom) in UK and Television without frontiers (TWF) in European Union. Additionally Indian experiences with the expansion of electronic media are relevant. Though India has still not developed an electronic media regulator but has given sufficient autonomy to the state broadcasters by assembling a powerful self-regulating corporation under the title of “Prasar Bharti”. Also the role of Indian legislations, Competition Commission and courts in fighting media concentration, abuse of dominant power, and decisions on issues like defamation will be highly relevant to Pakistani students of media sciences. Private entrepreneur’s capital, energy and self-interest will continue to be the defining spirit of Pakistani media but with better understanding the civil society and the state will be able to provide a framework inside which this ‘self-interested spirit’ will learn to operate.

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