Media in Pakistan – A Slippery Road

 

Media in Pakistan

Can Pakistan’s dynamic media negotiate successfully the slippery road ahead?

By Nasir Aijaz
The AsiaN Representative

 Islamabad: Freedom of Press in Pakistan had always been a hot topic to discuss but on February 4, 2021, certain stunning remarks by Justice Qazi Faez Isa, a judge of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, unleashed the debate afresh when he criticized the state of media freedom, democracy and governance in the country during the hearing of a petition on local government elections.

The senior judge said, “I won’t shy away from saying that the media is not free and that it is being controlled, with real journalists being thrown out of the country.”

“Pakistan is being destroyed in a systematic manner. When media is destroyed, a country is destroyed,” he said and directly addressing the Federal Government’s Attorney General threw a question, “Tell me! Is media free in Pakistan?”

Finding the Attorney General in a state of confusion, Justice Isa offered that a referendum should be held with the media persons present in the court room.

Justice Isa then said, “The media in the courtroom should raise their hands if they think the media is free.”

When no journalist raised their hand, the judge asked the journalists to raise their hand if they think there was freedom of press in the country.

Yet again, no journalist raised their hand.

The apex court judge’s remarks were widely reported by the Pakistan media, which had been considered highly vibrant, but with no insight. Let’s discuss here the Pakistani media landscape, which until the dawn of the 21st century comprised almost entirely of print media publications. The only exceptions were two state-owned electronic media entities – Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan.

The government’s monopoly over radio and television ended in 2002 when the electronic media liberalization led to scores of private electronic media platforms to begin operations. Since then, private TV news channels and, to a lesser extent, the FM radios appear to have become key sources of news and information for a considerable proportion of the population in Pakistan.

A number of print media organizations operating prior to 2002 expanded to include TV and radio platforms, but many new entrants also benefited from the ending of the state monopoly on the airwaves.

Many of Pakistan’s established newspapers were founded by journalists with an agenda of political and financial mileage. However, after the liberalization of broadcasting in 2002, there has been common criticism towards commercial interests gaining prominence in the media and professional journalism giving way to sensationalism. A large proportion of those working in the news media do not generally get formal training or education to work as journalists. Media schools curricula also do not sufficiently focus on the requisite training needs. Lack of basic training for media practitioners, including those in the field, has been linked not only to biased, unethical or unprofessional journalism but also to safety issues and vulnerabilities for journalists.

The circulation of print media has been small in Pakistan, which started shrinking further amid the growth of the electronic media.

Political reporting forms the bulk of the coverage of many print and TV news outlets. This has been most pronounced around elections and important judicial decisions with implications for political entities. Live and prolonged TV coverage of rallies benefits political parties.

Pakistan had also some traditions of political parallelism. Some political parties have published their own newspapers. Even in absence of direct ownership of or connections to political entities, an inclination in the news media content to support one political party or another can sometimes be discerned, be it for ideological reasons, economic interests or other considerations.

At times, some TV talk show hosts have been well-known leaders of political parties and have used their programs to defend and promote the policies of their parties and censure those of other parties while others are said to be on the payroll of country’s secret agencies or are receiving huge funds from the political parties and capitalists.

Proliferation of Internet connectivity has facilitated users’ access to conventional media and the social media. However, growing Internet penetration has not necessarily led to Internet freedom. In 2016, Washington DC-based research firm Freedom House ranked Pakistan among the worst 10 countries for Internet freedom. Fundamental freedoms for citizens and the media in Pakistan have generally been far from assured. In the country’s uneven history in terms of media freedoms, General Zia’s martial law (1977-1988) is generally considered to be the period of the most stringent curbs and excesses against the media and media practitioners at the hands of the state.

The state’s role as an owner of media platforms is today limited to the Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan channels, but the government has a considerable role as a regulator and its advertisements are an important source of revenue for many news outlets.

The print and electronic media require official permission or licenses in order to start operating. State regulators can fine and otherwise penalize media organizations for printing or airing ‘objectionable’ content. The regulator can also suspend or block access to social media websites.

Government advertisements represent an important revenue source for many media outlets. News media organizations have often decried the use of government advertisement as leverage and the withdrawal of ads as a tool to punish unfavorable coverage.

Pakistan’s media landscape will be incomplete without a mention of the work-related violence and threats of violence for the media practitioners. It has been argued that attacks on media organization offices and violence against and intimidation of journalists and the attending impunity have contributed to an environment of self-censorship. The news media appears to have grown increasingly cautious of covering news of sensitive issues such as blasphemy and violation of rights of religious minorities.

There is no doubt, Media is providing important information, but today’s media, especially the social media, is rapidly spreading false news and rumors. Today the person gives more time to social media and surprisingly the majority of journalists depend on the news, statements and press releases, official handouts of politicians, governments, trade and industrial bodies, NGOS etc. posted on social media.

Media can improve society by taking some simple steps as if they can change the views of masses by their positive campaigns. They need to focus on social issues and provide accurate information about the socio-economic landscape. They should authenticate their content before running a story or any kind of news item.

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