February Issue 2019

By | Media | Published 9 months ago

“The media in Pakistan should be strictly supervised [by a regulatory authority]. It has no right to work independently since it has no impartiality — we know only too well what different media groups broadcast and how they disseminate one-sided information in Pakistan,” Qazi Amaar, 30, an electrical engineer in a multi-national company, was overheard telling  his friends in a private conversation in a park in one of Islamabad’s upscale areas.

 Amaar’s friends agreed with him, and went further by damning certain anchorpersons for, apart from pushing their own political biases, sometimes even broadcasting downright inaccurate information. One of the men present cited as an example of this disinformation the case involving a well-known anchorman who was recent sentenced to a term in jail  by a local court.

The men agreed the media was corrupt and they concurred on the urgent need for good and professional journalism.

These are opinions now heard at different forums, public and private, in different communities across Pakistan, within all major cities and towns. Numerous videos on social media on this subject sometimes go viral, criticising, condemning and on occasion, even abusing the media and journalists. All of this is clear evidence  of the public’s sentiments regarding the Pakistani news media.

The questionable integrity and the often visible lack of professionalism in the local media aside, the fact is that today the media is under tremendous pressure from ‘hidden hands’  to ‘toe the line’ — one that only vaguely demarcates what is allowed and acceptable from what is not, making the journalists’ task even harder. Additionally, according to various media organisations, media houses are facing an acute financial crunch, courtesy current media policies. This, in turn, has led to widespread displacement and joblessness in the industry. And the biggest victim in this situation: freedom of expression.

 “I am seeing ever-increasing intervention [in the media] by the establishment now, unprecedented, and without any major resistance,” said Tahir Khan, a private television channel’s anchorperson and the editor at a private news agency, with 30 years of experience in the field.

Observers say that the attack on Geo TV’s anchorperson, Hamid Mir, and the ensuing propaganda war, as well as the Dawnleaks episode, intensified division in the news industry. Thereafter, a partial ban was silently imposed on the media, with ever-increasing involvement of PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority) and other institutions.

Media persons are increasingly aware as to how difficult it is now to criticise the establishment and its policies. Media outfits are even sometimes pressurised to follow certain official agendas, such as being told to desist from reportage about some events, like the protests by the  Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, which erupted after the brutal mowing down of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a fake police encounter. While those protests demanding justice for Naqeebullah, which as a subsequent enquiry into the incident was to affirm, were entirely justifiable, the media’s silence on the protests over the 2016 state execution of Mumtaz Qadri for the  2011 murder of the then Punjab  Governor Salman Taseer, due to the Pakistan Media Regulation Authority’s instructions, was in retrospect actually a wise decision. It averted what had the potential of becoming a major conflagration.

That notwithstanding, several known columnists have recently complained about the removal of their articles from various newspapers. Furthermore, they contend, no one is willing to identify the hidden hands responsible for the media gag.

While some squarely lay the blame for this situation on the government and other establishment members, analysts observe that it is the weakness inside the media that enables other players to intervene. 

 “In a free media, news is reported without thinking of its consequences. That is what the news is – or should be – reportage on what is happening,” said Sami Yousafzai, Newsweek’s correspondent for the region. “Abstaining from reporting on important incidents shakes public confidence in the media; timidity and journalism cannot go together,” he added.

Analysts question why the Pakistani media, considered one of the most vibrant in Asia, is in this state of unprecedented state control in an ostensibly ‘democratic’ Pakistan.

“The level of intervention that exists today was not observed even in earlier military regimes,” said M Ziauddin, who began his career as a journalist in the early 1960s. 

According to him, the recruitment policies in media houses, the waning role of gate-keepers (the exertion of power by owners instead of editors), and the business interests of the proprietors have all contributed to non-professionalism. This, contends Ziauddin, has had a very adverse affect on the quality of the media and journalism in Pakistan. Resultantly, there is diminishing public confidence in the media.

Given the facts, this is a valid point of view, endorsed by senior media personnel. In the majority of cases, for example, media personnel are not recruited on the basis of their professional capacities, but on account of personal favours or due to the job-seekers personal contacts,” said some senior media professionals. This has resulted in a loss of faith in journalists per se among the public, who in the past always supported the media against dictators.

The increasing involvement of the corporate owners of media houses has also contributed to non-professionalism. This, according to some analysts, breaks the spirit of independence committed journalists strive to attain, and often erodes the unity of the journalistic fraternity. 

“This division on the personal, professional, organisational and journalists’ union level  is affecting freedom of expression, the profession and the industry – all aspects of journalism which once shone in Pakistan,” said Arifa Noor, who has experience in both the print and electronic media. And the fights among various media groups and assorted factions of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists are evidence of the divisions that now exist in this industry.

All the schisms that exist cause the media irreparable damage, in the process, shrinking the space for a free media and journalism in Pakistan.

The federal cabinet approved in January the formation of a Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) to ‘regulate’ the print and electronic media. In contrast to this, in 2017, the then PML-N government had rejected a proposed draft of a Pakistani Print Media Regulatory Authority (PPMRA) and the Information Ministry suspended the three officials who were responsible for preparing the draft.

“This bill is aimed at controlling the media, not regulating it, as one can easily judge by just reading the bill,” said one analyst, referring to the newly formulated draft of PMRA.