IT’S LOUD, BUT DON’T TURN OFF THE VOL­UME

Ma­nip­u­la­tive tele­vi­sion an­chors, a com­mit­ted but lim­ited print me­dia, and a so­cial me­dia net­work that bris­tles with po­lit­i­cal de­bate. The me­dia in Pak­istan is vo­cal and volatile.

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Sixty- five years af­ter In­de­pen­dence, Pak­istan’s me­dia is un­der­go­ing a rapid and messy tran­si­tion. A demo­cratic frame­work that seeks to fa­cil­i­tate a freer flow of in­for­ma­tion in the me­dia to­day un­easily co­ex­ists with cer­tain dis­turb­ing struc­tural and be­havioural trends which may por­tend ill for the fu­ture of a free press.

One of the prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with an on­go­ing re­vival of demo­cratic norms in 2012 is the loss of a rel­a­tive clar­ity of vi­sion that once char­ac­terised me­dia prac­ti­tion­ers and read­er­ships in the in­de­pen­dent press. It would not be out of place to link this loss of clar­ity in me­dia per­spec­tive with the re­cent de­mo­graphic up­surge, as a con­se­quence of which two- thirds of Pak­istan’s cit­i­zens are expected to be be­low the age of 27 by the end of this decade. Such a change in age struc­ture has coloured, or even ob­scured, per­cep­tions of pub­lic in­ter­est and good gov­er­nance is­sues, with a sig­nif­i­cant sac­ri­fice of an­a­lyt­i­cal depth for breadth in the cre­ation of pub­lic opin­ion in the minds of younger au­di­ences and me­dia prac­ti­tion­ers. This process is in­ti­mately linked with the ex­plo­sion of World Wide Web users in Pak­istan at the on­set of the 21st cen­tury.

In the world of Face­book and Twit­ter, so­cial me­dia en­thu­si­asts from Pak­istan continue to reap ad­van­tage from both wit and satire, while fear­lessly ex­press­ing eth­i­cal reser­va­tion with re­spect to is­sues of gov­er­nance and civic moral­ity. But a more care­ful scru­tiny of this new spirit pre­vail­ing among Pak­istan’s younger me­dia prac­ti­tion­ers might equally sug­gest that the me­chan­ics of liv­ing in a global vil­lage of­ten over­whelms and re­sults in the sac­ri­fice of depth for breadth in the cre­ation of me­dia per­spec­tives— some­thing that ap­pears to have been ap­par­ently trig­gered off by a marked de­cline in for­mal ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards in Pak­istan over the last 30 years.

And the re­sults? A marked de­fi­ciency in bal­anced per­spec­tives within both younger au­di­ences and younger read­er­ships, for whom the so­cial me­dia net­work is the main ve­hi­cle for po­lit­i­cal de­bate. Here one is led to the in­escapable con­clu­sion that a more fe­ro­cious me­dia watch­dog in 2012 has be­come deadly in com­par­i­son with what used to be a bet­ter in­formed one.

This, rather than any­thing else, lies be­hind much of the mis­guided en­ergy and poorly qual­i­fied eth­i­cal judg­ments that char­ac­terise Pak­istan’s three dozen- odd news chan­nels, rather than a pro­fu­sion of sin­is­ter pe­cu­niary mo­tives. Such an is­sue emerged at the fore­front of pub­lic de­bate re­cently when two prom­i­nent tele­vi­sion an­chors, be­long­ing to a re­puted na­tion­wide news net­work, were viewed on YouTube on off- air breaks dur­ing a talk show, while cozy­ing up to a po­lit­i­cally am­bi­tious real es­tate bil­lion­aire and “ed­u­cat­ing him” with re­spect to his re­sponses to their ques­tions in a se­ries of leaked off- air trans­mis­sions. It isn’t just that newer an­chors want to get rich much faster, al­though that may in it­self be true for a few. It is sim­ply that a new Machi­avel­lian­ism in TV pre­sen­ters ap­pears to be gen­uinely un­con­cerned or even func­tion­ally un­aware of the pa­ram­e­ters of pub­lic in­ter­est that should ap­pear to gov­ern the be­hav­iour of a good me­dia watch­dog.

It makes in­creas­ingly lit­tle sense to speak of a sin­gle uni­fied me­dia in Pak­istan in 2012. Developments have been un­even across print, elec­tronic and dot­com sec­tors. The econ­omy of metropoli­tan ar­eas has come to a state of near col­lapse— lead­ing to se­vere cut­backs in news qual­ity in the ver­nac­u­lar me­dia, with news com­pe­ti­tion ar­rest­ing this de­cline some­what for English lan­guage print ti­tles.

An over- sat­u­rated mar­ket for news chan­nels has led to cut­backs on re­search and scriptwrit­ing— par­tic­u­larly with re­spect to poorly crafted po­lit­i­cal talk shows and news doc­u­men­taries— the lat­ter aim­ing to so­licit opin­ion from the man on the street in en­coun­ters that seek to dis­play histri­onic tac­tics in crowd- pleas­ing and crowd- con­trol, rather than of­fer­ing a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive. For po­lit­i­cal talk shows, chi­canery and swift repar­tee— and rather more im­por­tant than both— the speak­ing vol­ume of guest- politi­cians, col­lec­tively ex­plore the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tors of pub­lic in­ter­est dis­course. And if all this sounds fa­mil­iar in terms of what is hap­pen­ing across the bor­der in In­dia, one should be for­given for re­mark­ing that it wasn’t so very long ago that we parted ways in 1947. Tele­vi­sion as an in­for­ma­tion medium is one of the dis­ap­point­ments of the last decade, but as we are fre­quently told by the new pun­dits of the elec­tronic me­dia— its time has yet to come.

In the print me­dia a war of at­tri­tion on news­room bud­gets and a deficit in mar­ket­ing rev­enues have slowed down the de­vel­op­ment of print jour­nal­ism. How­ever, I think I would be fair in stat­ing that the English lan­guage daily press in Pak­istan is sharper in its con­cerns with re­spect to pub­lic wel­fare and more swift and in­de­pen­dent in its in­dict­ment of de­vi­ous large cor­po­ra­tion mis­deeds and ex­pos­ing the fal­la­cies im­plicit in se­cu­rity con­cerns in gov­ern­ment, than most of its coun­ter­parts in In­dia.

In 2012, the gov­ern­ment in Pak­istan has played a more be­nign role with the me­dia as com­pared with the mas­sive, un­even, large- scale lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the pri­vate satel­lite chan­nels un­der the quasimil­i­tary regime of Pres­i­dent Mushar­raf. The sharp con­fronta­tions with me­dia groups, that char­ac­terised the ear­lier years of Pres­i­dent Zar­dari’s rule, have given way to a mod­i­fied sense of re­straint, with lower level con­flicts suitably rel­e­gated to a be­hind-the- scene sta­tus. While the last sur­viv­ing gov­ern­ment- owned medium of PTV has made a mod­est come­back with ur­ban au­di­ences, the state broad­caster con­tin­ues to be more re­spon­sive to criticism by par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees and the ex­ec­u­tive’s iron- clad con­trol, than it does to pub­lic opin­ion.

Two ma­jor threats to freer flow of in­for­ma­tion face the Pak­istani me­dia in 2012. The first is a fa­mil­iar one— the ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets of large cor­po­ra­tions, which seek to influence me­dia con­tent. The sec­ond ma­jor threat to an in­de­pen­dent me­dia is the one posed by po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ism from the Tal­iban groups in the tribal ar­eas and closer to home from such or­gan­i­sa­tions spread­ing their ten­ta­cles across Pun­jab and Sindh. In a re­cent in­ci­dent, an in­de­pen­dent tele­vi­sion chan­nel was fired upon by mil­i­tants in Karachi for not pro­vid­ing their ‘ ver­sion’ of events. The de­gree of self- censorship that it im­plies helps make Pak­istan one of the most dan­ger­ous coun­tries in the world for jour­nal­ists. So much for the fu­ture of a freer press.

So what does this all mean for In­dia? First, a freer press in Pak­istan is an im­ped­i­ment to the spread of ex­trem­ism from Pak­istan to more demo­cratic poli­ties in its neigh­bour­hood. Sec­ond, the Pak­istani me­dia needs to continue to fear­lessly scru­ti­nise some of the more dan­ger­ous as­pects in Pak­istan’s for­eign and do­mes­tic poli­cies such as the threats posed by the spread of reli­gious ex­trem­ism. Also, to boldly crit­i­cise poor gov­er­nance in Pak­istan that of­ten vi­ti­ates the at­mos­phere of a grow­ing trade and po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with neigh­bours, es­pe­cially In­dia. All this can and will lead to bet­ter gov­er­nance in Pak­istan, and one hopes, bet­ter re­la­tions with In­dia.

Hameed Ha­roon The au­thor is the CEO of Dawn Me­dia Group, Pak­istan’s lead­ing me­dia con­glom­er­ate

AFP PHOTO / ARIF ALI

AWOMAN SCANS THE DAY’S NEWS, IN LAHORE

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