August Issue 2018

By | Bookmark | Published 2 months ago

At a time when the media’s freedom – or lack thereof – was a burning issue and a hotly contested debate in the lead up to last month’s election, Farooq Sulehria’s Media Imperialism in India and Pakistan offers a staunch Marxist critique of the industry.

The idea that media globalisation has eradicated media is challenged head-on in the book, as it takes the two South Asian countries as case studies to dissect the liberalisation and privatisation in the industry, which has bolstered the interests of the privileged at the expense of public interests and marginalisation of the working class.

The author is a Senior Teaching Fellow at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the book is a “condensed and updated version” of his PhD dissertation. Throughout the book, Sulehria draws upon his decades-long experience as a journalist in Pakistan to substantiate his arguments, along with a wide gamut of scholarly references.

The book kicks off with a juxtaposition of the Indian and Pakistani media and entertainment (M&E) industries, with their contrasting magnitudes.

“What, however, concerns this research is not the size of the Indian M&E market. This research endeavours to examine, through the case of Indian and Pakistani television systems, whether globalisation has delivered the end of media imperialism by levelling the global media markets to the point whereby western domination and one-way flow in the global media sphere have become a thing of the past.”

But in a book dedicated to, and indeed titled ‘media imperialism,’ it was always going to be pivotal how the author defines it, before it is deconstructed in detail.

“I define media imperialism, on the one hand, as capitalist exploitation of dependent media markets by the metropolitan West, and on the other hand, as the periphery’s explicit dependency on the imperial metropolitan countries whereby western domination is implicit in the exploitative and dependent status of the peripheral countries.”

While the book focuses on both the Indian and Pakistani M&E industries, it is tilted towards the latter owing to the author’s own experiences and origin. However, an entire chapter focuses on the Indian TV system, the media policies in the country and its political economy. 

The element of dependency and the influence of the West is common to both the countries. But the book delves into more details vis-à-vis Pakistan. It traces the history of the television system in Pakistan, and how Indian domination of the TV market actually bolstered the M&E in the country, which has also come under the influence of Turkish soap operas. 

“…the growing popularity of Indian channels in Pakistan was worrying conservatives since the early 1990s, the military was particularly alarmed when PTV proved a futile propaganda tool during the Kargil war.”

“The general elections held in Pakistan in 2002, which were covered and broadcast by newly born TV channels, further provided people an opportunity to get an ‘impartial view’ of the electoral process since the election coverage in the past was solely a PTV prerogative. The mushrooming of TV channels for the next few years was phenomenal. From four channels in 2003, the television medium had expanded to 89 by 2010.”

The book underscores the correlation between the television system’s liberation and its dependence on the West and, in turn, the financial suffering of a state-run TV and press. It then goes on to find the relation between media imperialism and media education, by presenting research findings from six different universities in India and Pakistan.

“‘Professionalism’ teaches professionals to treat news ‘objectively’ and run it as ideologically neutral. However, as a number of studies have established, the notion of ‘objectivity’ is employed not merely to conceal corporate media’s class character, but also to lend the class bias an aura of ‘professionalism.’”

An entire chapter is dedicated to how, despite identifying themselves as warriors against corruption, the practice has become deeply entrenched in the industry owing to globalisation and materially driven structural changes.

The book is most scathing in its criticism of the Pakistani media elite, who have sold out to their business interests and have continued to neglect the interests of the masses. The media owners’ treatment of their employees is especially under the scanner.

“It will be an exception if a correspondent is a permanent employee of any channel. In the absence of any labour law for the TV channels, most of the workers fired from jobs face problems in taking legal recourse.”

The book also uses the example of a Channel 5 employee, Azam, who killed himself in December 2008 after his sisters were insulted by the bosses when they demanded his wages, which hadn’t been paid for five months. 

Sulehria questions the ethics of journalism in Pakistan – or lack thereof – arguing that the media isn’t focusing on issues that impact the common man.

“For instance, every major news channel in India and Pakistan has a Sports Reporter. However, poverty is not a beat in any of these channels.

“Not merely is Balochistan province small [population-wise]… it is also underdeveloped and economically poor. Hence, hardly attractive for advertisers. Consequently, [it is] simply excluded from TV coverage.”

The book, in a nutshell, argues that globalisation has exacerbated the West’s dominance over the media industry in the global south, and uses the Indian and Pakistani examples of dependency to drive home the point. It also argues that this dominance and dependency takes various forms, which have evolved over the years.

In providing the empirical evidence for media imperialism, and arguing that challenging it in the two countries remains a daunting task, Media Imperialism in India and Pakistan also passes on the gauntlet to new researchers to come up with more original work to play their part in reducing the dependency on what the book maintains are imperial powers.