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.
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.
AWOMAN SCANS THE DAY’S NEWS, IN LAHORE