June Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

There is a strong feeling of déjà vu and an admittedly perverse sense of satisfaction in writing this. It’s been almost two years since Newsline first asked me to analyse the media circus, then surrounding the controversy over property tycoon Malik Riaz’s alleged dealings with Arsalan Iftikhar, the son of the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. In the article, titled ‘Pakistani Media in the Dock,’ I had argued that the Pakistani news media had gradually lost touch with its raison detre, which is to deliver information in the public interest. But the pusillanimous arguments being debated, such as the role of television anchors or journalists, are based on a dangerous misunderstanding of what is happening in the media.

Two years down the line, similar bogus arguments dominate the raging media debate. While TV channels, newspapers, columnists, anchors, cable wallas, maulanas and social-media aficionados of all forms, shapes and ideologies have declared war on each other; while an elected government stands aligned with a private TV channel against its own military; while the media regulator appears totally dysfunctional and inept and the courts continue to lose their moral authority; while GHQ appears to be shaping up an alliance with all sorts of religious groups and right-wing political parties around a loose idea of midterm elections, our liberal friends in the media and civil society are still debating this political transformation as an issue of freedom of expression, or what we in Pakistan call Azadi-Sihafat. Is this simple-mindedness  a failure to grasp reality or a conspiracy to mislead the public and fudge political discourse?

Twenty-three months ago, I had argued that the real issues are: the economic structure of the Pakistani media and its relations with politics; the absence of an editorial layer between the seth and the screen; and the inability of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to act as an autonomous body. The Supreme Court was then possessed by the role the media played in its own scandal and had appointed a two-member committee consisting of Justice Jawad Khawaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain to look into the scandal. I had argued that the court should broaden its focus and appoint a media commission with a combination of judges and eminent media experts such as Javed Jabbar to examine the fundamental issues surrounding the Pakistani media and to develop a framework of recommendations to help the government, media and civil society.

I wanted the Supreme Court to investigate who in Pakistan is exercising the freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the seth or the journalists working for him? The fundamental question which I thought the Supreme Court should ask is: Is the Pakistani media a ‘private space’ to be governed by seths and corporations for their own economic and political interest, or is this a ‘public space’ that belongs to the citizens of Pakistan as a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ as once argued by John Stuart Mill?

In another article appearing in the Islamabad-based Pique magazine, in August 2012, I drew the Supreme Court’s attention to the contemporary German philosopher, Habermas, who had distinguished between the private space of business and the ‘public sphere’ of intellectuals. The political argument, around which the media exercises their freedoms in the West, is that the ‘public sphere’ is a space independent of both the government and business, and the independence and integrity of the public sphere is a must for democracy to flourish.

It is this ‘public sphere,’ that the Constitution of Pakistan, the international community, the UN and organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Sans Frontiers are committed to protect. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, in the absence of regulation, media tycoons have co-opted this space and converted it into a ‘private space’ that caters to their particular business interests. The conflict between Geo TV and the Pakistani military establishment is taking place in this context. It is not about freedom of expression; it is about political power and control by media tycoons who believe that they can overthrow governments. This is why the Nawaz government decided to side with Geo against its own military, why other media groups turned against Geo and the government and why PEMRA was turned into a dysfunctional, impotent body deserving of the contempt with which it is viewed. This is why courts look so partisan, why the military has mobilised all its political support and thrown all its assets into this conflict and why it is so important for genuine journalists, intellectuals and citizens to stand up for what is right, for without this nuanced understanding, we won’t find any solutions for the preservation of our hard-won media freedoms which are necessary for instilling   democracy in Pakistan.

The issue of media concentration thus assumes huge importance, especially in terms of cross-media ownerships. When any group owns newspapers, magazines and television channels, there has to be a ceiling on the size of the market share, viewership and readership that it can own. The internal structures of media groups and the presence of financial and legal firewalls that prevent undue concentration of authority in one or few hands, are relevant areas of concern for any sensible state. The initial framers of the Pakistani regulatory regime developed during (retd.) General Pervez Musharraf’s era, either did not understand these aspects, or were captured by the parties they were supposed to regulate. The cardinal principle of British media discourse is: If one voice becomes too strong, then democracy is at risk. But isn’t this what happened in Pakistan after the 2008 elections?

Why do liberal journalists, or most in civil society, fail to grasp these dynamics? Why have they always helped theseths by rejecting the idea of regulation? Why have they not allowed the market to develop along the trends of modernity? The answer lies in the peculiar history of the Pakistani media. Most of those who initially joined the newly burgeoning television industry spent their formative years in print journalism. Newspapers and magazines were mostly started by working journalists (some of whom got rich, but most of whom started their careers with a mission in mind and repeatedly struggled against both civil and military authoritarianism), and they brought with them their initial impressions, values and slogans.

But because of the nature of television as a mass medium, its wide-ranging access, expensive technology and large capital investments, its dynamics of control and its relationship with political power are different altogether. Most Pakistani journalists have nevertheless been slow or resistant to grasp these aspects, which has resulted in the total absence of domestic academic discourse on television, which has perhaps played a constricting role. That is why a prominent journalist, a leading voice, was recently heard — after the Geo crisis with the military — speaking vociferously about the days when journalists were sentenced to lashes by the military courts — an issue which is totally irrelevant in today’s Pakistan.

By the ’90s, Pakistani newspapers had, like print elsewhere, evolved through their struggle to self-regulate, but there has never been any such tradition or practice in the case of the electronic media. Ofcom in the United Kingdom, Television Without Frontiers (TWF) across Europe and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States are powerful,  autonomous media regulators. Those who don’t understand these aspects of the television industry often argue against the very concept of media regulation — though the insincerity and malafide intentions of Pakistani governments certainly add to their concerns.

In January 2013, the Supreme Court finally appointed a media commission after subsequent petitions by Geo TV and two prominent journalists — Hamid Mir and Absar Alam — who mainly wanted the court to investigate charges of corruption against journalists and issues related to the use of secret funds by the governments. Though its focus was narrower than what it should have been, the Supreme Court nevertheless established an overarching framework of questions for the commission which consisted of Javed Jabbar and Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid. Its terms of reference included several issues raised in the original Newsline article. The media commission worked intelligently and produced a comprehensive document with detailed and meaningful recommendations by mid-2013. This was later published by a German think tank, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), in the form of a book and was widely disseminated. However, to this day, the media commission’s report has not been approved or forwarded by the Supreme Court to the government for implementation.

Much water has passed under the bridge. But even today, the only way forward for the Pakistani television industry is to join hands, work alongside journalists, legal minds and the government to develop a consensus around a powerful and independent regulator. International blue prints are available and our mistakes and failures are there to guide us. If there was a lesson to be learned from the current crisis of seth versus state, this would be it.

This story was published in Newsline’s June 2014 issue.