Pakistan media: Through the looking glass

Raza Rumi

It is ironic that the electronic media which played a major role in the movement against a military dictatorship is now being cited as one of the challenges to the fractured democratic transition since 2008. Perhaps it is not by design. It is clear that the electronic media remains a nascent industry and like the rest of the country operates in a largely unregulated environment. Pakistan’s overall governance climate is marked by dynasties, oligarchies and mafias. Why should we expect the media to rise above the larger culture? Nevertheless, given its important role in shaping public opinion and attitudes, the need for media responsibility has increasingly been articulated by a wide range of actors and not just the wounded political players.

The current media freedoms are unprecedented. Gone are the days when holy cows could not be touched and certain subjects were taboos in the public domain. Indeed, the national security paradigm is ascendant and the official history of Pakistan is the major narrative but there are plenty of discordant and critical voices within the industry. However, the imperatives of a rating-advertising driven culture impair the ability to be objective and rational. This is why a highly respected English channel had to switch to Urdu to cater to the cruel corporate dynamics. Concurrently, Pakistan with a largely static readership has witnessed the launch of two major English dailies and a third one is likely to be launched by the end of this year!The outreach of electronic media has also given it a taste of untrammelled power. Musharraf’s downfall and the ability of the TV channels to question the Army during 2007-2008 reshaped its role as a power centre to reckon with. In this tumultuous period, the Judiciary also emerged as a new power centre and there has been a rare synergy between the two institutions in asserting their independence and guarding their turf vis-à-vis the Executive and after 2008, the Parliament.

Many analysts have noted that this is not a healthy trend as the two new power centres are unelected and therefore not directly accountable. The Judiciary is insular and can hardly be questioned and media accountability is almost non-existent due to the dysfunctional institutions. Hence the last two years have witnessed chaotic power dynamics which do not bode well for democratic governance. The media houses assume people’s representation role and some judges have remarked that they also articulate people’s will.

As testified by Pakistan’s history, the only workable governance framework is one which is representative. All military led modes of governance have damaged an uneasy federation and caused upheavals. For the media itself, democratic environment is even more important. Its long term growth and survival is contingent on retaining the hard earned freedoms. These days preserving democracy is even more urgent as the rise of sectarian and extremist ideologies reject democracy, constitutionalism and human rights. Therefore, the electronic media is now at the centre of these vital existentialist debates in the country. The record so far has been far from promising. Sections of the media continue to recycle the failed prescriptions of the security establishment.

First, typical to the uninformed opinion industry of the Urdu press, the electronic media has not kept up with the political consensus of fighting extremism and Islamism. Instead, there has been endless glorification of terrorists as mujahids and anti-US fighters. There are channels which take credit for airing the views of the leaders of banned organisations and promoting their disturbing worldviews. It is not uncommon to find a vigorous defence of strategic depth on a daily basis; and celebrations on occupying Kabul next year whether we are able to keep the country at peace or not.

Second, the demonisation of politics and politicians continues unabated. Undue attention is paid to the fake degrees of politicians whilst forgetting that the rules of the game were not set by the political class. Similarly, during the recent floods the politicians (of all hues and shades) were painted as villains as opposed to the Army which was donating its food rations (forgetting that the budgets for the institution were approved by the Parliament).

Thirdly, Pakistan’s ingrained ‘political instability’ is now the ultimate fodder for breaking-news-syndrome. Stories with imminent clash of the institutions are flashed as a matter of routine thereby generating an environment which is deeply hurtful for the economy and the investors. It is now difficult to separate fact from fiction. Whether it is the Government-Judiciary collision or the civil-military divide, the differences are accentuated to an uncontrollable degree fulfilling several prophecies and serving the prophets of doom.

In this context, the recent calls for media accountability at various events in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore are poignant. More voices in the civil society are backing the demand for media responsibility and objectivity. The government has a rare chance to forge a consensus on restructuring the useless Ministry of Information, reinvigorating PEMRA and strengthening the overall regulatory environment. The media should promptly respond to these calls and protect its credibility. With a failing economy and a fledgling democracy, the road ahead is fraught with uncertainties for the smug media industry.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Pakistan media: Through the looking glass

  1. amar

    Freedom of expression means the freedom to criticize or oppose the ruling ideology and that ruling ideology in Pakistan is islam. This ideology was created in Arabia in the 7th century and not in the Sindhu river basin in the 20th or 21st century. Why are pakistanis being made to waste their lives and chances and become violent enemies of the remaining world and be feared and scoffed at for an alien and outdated ideology?

    Is there any medium/journalist asking this openly in Pakistan today?

  2. Amar: You are obsessed with your phony argument. Please get a life and re-read your history. Pakistan was not created for Islamic ideology. It was meant to be a space for Indian Muslims when the Indian National Congress left no option for a confederal India where decentralised governance could keep various communities and interests together.

  3. karun

    well Raza you can believe that for as long as you want to. Does that change anything on the ground?

  4. karun

    Why not just cut asunder the past and start afresh.

  5. amar

    respected raza

    my comment was not directed against you or your good article.
    It was a more fundamental question that I asked.

    Your response to my comment has no place in today’s Pakistan. As Karun has rightly pointed out.

    I wrote: “… and that ruling ideology in Pakistan IS islam.”
    Your response was: “Pakistan WAS not created for Islamic ideology.”

    This is the big difference between 2010 and 1946.

    In fact I should have written: “… and that ruling ideology in Pakistan IS sunni fascism and arab imperialism with Pak army and its secret services and terrorist partners as the conduit.” That would have been more correct.

    Then you write: “It was meant to be a space for Indian Muslims…”

    How can there be “space for indian muslims” without islam coming, sooner or later, to dominate? Is it possible to have space for muslims with islam as a dormant-hybernating non-force that lets itself be relegated to some whim-dependent friday prayers?

    Muslims are best off when they are a quiet, modest-mderate, <10% minority in a non-muslim (incl. atheists, polytheists, faith-tourists etc.) majority area.

    Further you wrote: "…when the Indian National Congress left no option for a confederal India where decentralised governance could keep various communities and interests together."

    Neither INC nor ML were monoblocks. Hence the faction in the ML that was wanting partition (total muslim separation and supremacy) would have later invented or constructed many argeuments to go for full-fledged partition. Jinnah himself had talked of 10 years trial-time. So the whole muslim theatrics would have been postponed by 5 to 6 years at most. It is possible that a later partitioning would have been less bloody. But that would not have made Pakistan less of a quisling state or that hate against hindus would not have come up.

    Respected Raza – please don't go down to the ylh level.

  6. While it is easy to understand the discomfort that Raza Rumi displays at the prospect of an indisciplined, uncontrolled beast stalking the streets, it is still not entirely clear whether the new-found strength of the Pakistani media is a good thing or a bad thing. Perhaps, like everything else, it is a bit of both.

    On the minus side, its relentless pursuit of ratings drives it in the direction of the greatest common factor of public opinion. Sadly, this is a circular situation; the media define for themselves, without any basis, what they think the most popular position on any issue should be. Then they go out and push that position down everybody’s throats.

    One might argue that it would interesting to see any effort at educating public opinion, at consciously forming it, in directions that support democracy, liberalism and secularism; on the other hand, those who think differently, not democratic, liberal or secular, might argue just as strongly that the media are doing what they ought to be doing, that is, representing to the public the public’s own views, or at least the views of the most representative segment of the public. To them, the media are in step; it is the liberal, secular democrats who are out of step.

    Are they opposed to military rule? Maybe, maybe not. They certainly seem to have played a role, some of them, against the previous dictatorship. But if we are to go by their eccentric views on strategic depth, on America as conspirator-in-chief in the world at large, on the ‘good’ Taliban and the ‘bad’ Taliban, or even their view that the Taliban as a whole are quite all right, except to prejudiced, Islamophobic westerners and followers of the west, they come across as giving segments of the establishment the manouevering room that they need.

    Put very simply, against their extreme views, similar views with the colours muted down look almost moderate to an outside observer. Which is possibly, just possibly, precisely the intention.

    From this rather Machiavellian point of view, the more extreme their postures get, the shriller their voices get, the greater the merit that accrues to the Foreign Ministry and to the military establishment in preaching a version which is far more restrained. It is no longer a question of celebrating in Kabul; instead, the country needs to have a role in settling the peace there, since as an intimately-connected neighbour, a neighbour which has paid a high price, it is only fair that the consultations and final determinations should include this country. So too about any and every other issue.

    On the other hand, they do serve a positive purpose as well. During the excavation of the previous dictatorship from its position of entrenched strength, and later, during the movement to restore the Chief Justice, it does seem to have played a constructive and positive role. So should it then be dismissed out of hand? Is it completely ruled out that on a future critical occasion, it will come to its senses again, and play – yet again – a constructive role?

    Regarding regulation of the media, this is a dangerous spectrum into which to thrust oneself. Regulation is, after all, only one end of a spectrum which includes censorship at the other, extreme end. As the experiences of the management of PTH with their blog at PTH itself would prove, no censorship is good; it still lets idiots and cranks through, and it inevitably sometimes, due to whatever reasons, stills sensible voices.

    It looks like we come back to the same situation: that only the media can regulate the media with any safety whatsoever. And that has its own problems; can we really trust the media, or even individual journalists, to behave like children over the age of 10 or 11?

    You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
    (Thank God!) the British journalist,
    But considering what the man will do,
    Unbribed, there is no occasion to.

    Quite honestly, it does not seem that there is any good way out of the situation, and all that can be done that makes sense is to just sit and pray.

    The perspicacious reader will observe that the entire comment above, apart from country-specific references, fits other countries, some South Asian countries not very far away, for instance, a large South Asian coun rather well. When readers from that country find a solution, no doubt they will let their friends on PTH know.

  7. Vajra
    Thanks for the comment and bringing the larger regional perspective. A more engaging and nuanced debate is needed.

  8. Rafia Noor

    The media may not give a story requisite importance if it does not fitinto an existing format or if it does not relate to an existing theme.It has been argued that the media has become self-referential to sucha degree that the newsworthiness of a story may be a self-fulfillingprophecy. Any topic is interesting or significant because the mediatalks about it.The dissemination of news is very rarely so selectiveand biased to mandate the accusation of manipulation and propaganda onthe media. Hence, generally, we do not have to impute dishonestmotives to producers or journalists in order to explain certain mediadistortions. Most cases of selection in the news media can beexplained by the capitalist free market nature of the media businessand structural factors, such as the organisation of news agencies,financing, dependence on sources and ratings competition. Infact meidais playing very negative role in current scenario of Pakistan ‘ sporblems.we do not want the media to leave democracy so far behindthat it gets lost.

  9. Amit Kumar

    Raza Rumi Bhai..
    Can you please put a post on a big media scandal going on in Inida?
    Please put the tape transcript. it can be a lesson to Pakistani people also.

    on twitter..search on #barkhagate All twitter guys are continuously twttting for last 3 days to maintain it at the top. finally our story published in WSJ.

    All Indian TV media is silent for last 3 days.

    Outlook magazine put this scandal.
    “It is not just the 2G Spectrum but the entire Republic of India that seems to be up for sale, with the dealers being a group of powerful telemarketers— corporate houses, lobbyists, bureaucrats and journalists”

    The whole tape is available on outlook india website. Only outlook as so far published it on print..

    http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?268063

    .

  10. Harriss Khan

    @ Raza Rumi,
    well brother jinnah once said,”pakistan was created when the first hindu converted to islam” and i can fairly give you many sayings of his which promotes islamic ideology. Pakistan is an islamic ideological state.
    you said:……..as opposed to the Army which was donating its food rations(forgetting that the budgets for the institution were approved by the Parliament). brother, atlest they have a heart to donate their foodrations, how much the politicans donate? i am a journalisy myself and hails from a political family background so please dont give me any argument in politicans favour what they have been doing.
    You are doing a great job brother by promoting debate but lets not dent our beloved pakitsan, refrain from demaging the already damaged!!!

  11. YLH

    Harriss Khan mian… we addressed the “Islamic Ideological State” lie in this article… https://pakteahouse.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/was-jinnah-secular/

    Read it with an open mind. You will see that we have addressed those so called “Islamic ideology” statements that people like you keep misquoting.