By Bina Shah
SEPT. 28, 2015
KARACHI — In this summer’s feel-good Indian movie “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” a Pakistani TV reporter telephones his boss to tell him he has an explosive story about an Indian spy on Pakistani territory who’s not actually a spy, but a man trying to help a lost Pakistani child find her parents. The boss tells him the story isn’t sensational enough, then hangs up, leaving the reporter grumbling that the channel’s executives care only about making money, rather than telling a good story.
To anyone familiar with Pakistan’s broadcast media today, the scene will ring true.
While Pakistan is already known as the most dangerous country in the world for working journalists — one journalist in Pakistan dies every 38 days according to the Sri Lankan media expert Ranga Kalansooriya — Pakistan’s journalists also come under another insidious type of pressure. Corporate interests, political influence, and government attempts to regulate and censor information all put great strain on an institution still emerging from decades of suppression under military dictators. And while recent chaos and conflict have enabled Pakistani print and broadcast media to flourish, the industry now faces a crossroads: It is struggling to maintain journalistic ethics that run contrary to the commercial ethos in which it operates.
Sherry Rehman, a Pakistani senator and prominent journalist, said recently that the newsroom was no longer a “hermetically sealed environment.” Rather, it has become the “domain of a corporate invasion.” That pattern matches a larger trend throughout South Asia, where a nexus among media proprietors, investors and advertisers limits the media’s ability to report without bias.
Ms. Rehman was speaking at the recent introduction of a program in which International Media Support, a Danish-government-supported organization, will provide technical, logistical and institutional training and support for the Pakistani media to address some of these issues over the next two years. Mr. Kalansooriya advises the organization.
Until 2002, Pakistan’s broadcast media was a narrow field; it had one radio station, Radio Pakistan, started in 1947 and one state-owned television channel, Pakistan Television, started in 1964; both were mouthpieces for officially slanted information, alongside privately held print media dominated by three major consortiums: the liberal Jang Group, owned by the media magnate Shakeel ur-Rahman (this group now owns the broadcast and web outlet GEO); the Nawai Waqt Group, which treads a right-wing line, and the English-language Dawn Group, the most moderate of the three (the newspaper Dawn was founded in 1941 in Delhi, India, by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of Pakistan’s independence movement, to promote the moderate ideals of his Muslim League).
In 1962, the military dictator Ayub Khan curbed the press with an ordinance that gave the government powers to arrest journalists, confiscate newspapers and partly nationalize the press. Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq followed in the 1980s by allowing the state to prosecute publishers for printing stories his administration didn’t like.
Nevertheless, Pakistani print media gained strength and credibility in that era by fighting the censorship and by reporting, critically and openly, on Pakistan’s myriad ethnic and political conflicts.
Then, in 2002, Gen. Pervez Musharraf decided to open Pakistan to the global flow of information in order to reverse decades of isolation. He allowed private television channels and FM radio stations to obtain licenses, setting off a media boom. Their reporting during the conflicts that followed 9/11 and spilled over into Pakistan allowed these television channels to flourish, taking viewers away from state media in favor of more independent reporting.
Ironically, General Musharraf himself forced GEO off the air temporarily in 2007 when the channel criticized his suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. But today, out of office, the general once again flirts with the media as he tries to return to politics.
The media have grown to 40 news channels, 143 radio stations, and hundreds of national and regional newspapers. For that they are often called “vibrant.”
Another descriptor is “vulgar.” On prime-time television, news is sensationalized, with ratings the first consideration; alongside hysterical reporting are thrilling or tragic music and crude, insensitive graphics; virtually everything is “breaking news” in no hierarchy of importance. Meanwhile, large corporations like ARY and the Lakson Group have acquired media companies after discovering that controlling media can protect their corporate interests.
Advertisers get huge influence over what’s published or aired. Advertising breaks are frequent, and banners for commercial products run incessantly. Advertising also dominates front pages: one major newspaper group recently gave front-page ads prominence over headlines on all of its papers.
Meanwhile, the government still seeks to control the media; Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority wants an existing law amended to permit “de-linking” of television channels from their satellites if they broadcast “objectionable” or “unwanted” material.
While many in the media retain editorial integrity in the face of these pressures, Pakistani media houses have yet to come up with an industrywide code of conduct or self-regulatory body. Nor have they been able to stay unbiased. Often they blatantly take sides in political conflicts, even while describing themselves as protectors only of the public good.
So, what is the way forward? Ensuring the safety and security of Pakistani journalists is the best starting point; the industry’s foot soldiers need more training, as well as job tenure and pensions. Forming unions is another necessity, as well as creating a framework of regulation that offers protection against state and corporate pressure.
But what Pakistan’s media needs most is a unified sense of its own professional conscience, so that it can continue to thrive as it fulfills its ultimate duty to Pakistanis: to report the news free from bias and influence, while telling a good story that will catch citizens’ attention.
Bina Shah is the author of several books of fiction, including, most recently, “A Season for Martyrs.