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Media Watch

Ejaz Haider

Pakistani media scene

The media in Pakistan has expanded exponentially over the last decade. Newspapers, television channels, FM radio stations, have mushroomed. This constitutes the formal, mainstream media. We now also have what is called the social media, but since it is not regulated and its contours are unclear yet, we shall focus only on the mainstream.

What has changed? Or to put it differently, has anything changed from the times when the state owned and controlled the media? A quick response would be, much has changed. The government and, by extension, the state, does not have the monopoly over news and its dissemination. There are ‘independent’ sources of news, and governments and bureaucracies have to concede space to them and by doing so be sensitive to what the people want or are saying.

In a broad sense this is not entirely untrue. The direct monopoly of government is definitely gone, never to return. That is a settled issue. However, and this is where the rub is, has the diffusion of that monopoly led to a more equitable order – or has it created other centres of power that are now partners with the government is sustaining the old structures? This, evidently, is an important question and is being asked by students of the media and its practices, as well as the practitioners, the working journalists.

Take the example of this newspaper, a venture put together with little money by a team of working journalists. Why did they feel the need for this? All of them have been journalists for long years, working at mainstream newspapers. And while it is commendable at any stage for a journalist to try and become an entrepreneur, it is equally important to see whether there are any compulsions other than simply the desire to take the leap from working for a newspaper to producing one that might have got them into this venture.

The government and interest groups have devised new ways to control the media and the very content of the news itself. Interests are now aligned and while frictions arise, the broader policy of covering the flanks works well for all concerned at different levels of influence and intrigue.

Eminent journalists, Dr Moeed Pirzada and Fahd Husain wrote a policy brief on the media, especially news channels, for Jinnah Institute last year. At one place, they ask the question, “So what went wrong?” Their answer:

“The list is long: the inability of TV channels to develop mature editorial scrutiny; the failure of Musharraf’s bureaucracy to define clear rules and framework for cross-media ownership; the near strangulating control on new TV channels by powerful private investors euphemistically referred to as ‘Seths’ who own and use these public platforms in pursuance of their personal, economic and political interests; the inability of the governments and the media to develop any consensus on a code of conduct for journalists or for limiting the power of “neo-capitalists” on editorial decision-making; the mushroom growth of small cable operators who generate revenues in excess of Rs. 40 billion without sharing a dime with the content producers i.e., the TV channels, thus forcing the channels to rely exclusively on commercial advertisements; the total dependence of marketing and buying houses on western-style rating meters that are mostly located in poor and uneducated households and have produced a ‘race towards the bottom’ in terms of the quality and taste of the content that is being produced.”

This is not an exhaustive list. Add to this the miasma of Pakistan’s power structures and the partnership between media houses and the governments and bureaucracies and we have, for the most part, the continuation of old client-patron relations in a different and more complex form.

This is an environment where working journalists don’t have much space to be independent. There are newspapers that have altogether got rid of the institution of the editor and where the placement of the news and its value are determined by the owners and their interests rather than professional ethics. In other publications, the editors, for the most part, play a dummy role. In other instances, working journalists and editors have developed their own interests and operate on the periphery of this giant system of IOUs.

H L Mencken, the pipe-smoking American journalist, essayist and satirist, is an iconic figure in the history of American journalism. In his essay, “Journalism in America”, this is what he wrote:

“Most of the evils that continue to beset American journalism today [are owed] simply and solely to the stupidity, cowardice and Philistinism of working newspaper men. The majority of them, in almost every American city, are still ignoramuses, and proud of it... All the knowledge that they pack into their brains is... a mass of trivialities and puerilities; to recite it would be to make even a barber beg for mercy. What is missing from it, in brief, is everything worth knowing — everything that enters into the common knowledge of educated men...A man with so little intellectual enterprise that, dealing with news daily, he can go through life without taking in any news that is worth knowing — such a man, you may be sure, is lacking in professional dignity quite as much as he is lacking in curiosity. The delicate thing called honour can never be a function of stupidity.”

Shear Mencken’s great essay of references to America and it depicts, amazingly accurately, the state of journalism in Pakistan.

 It is from this perspective that I would like to commend the group of journalists who have jumped into the unknown with this newspaper. More power to them!




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