Is Pakistani media really free? Is Pakistani media managing its new-found freedom responsibly? Though seldom, the honest journalist also do indulge in introspection on these questions.
In a series of interviews conducted by me for “Focus on Pakistani Media’ a programme of TV SouthAsia, which were also broadcast by Aaj TV here, I posed this questions to some the senior credible journalists. By and large the consensus was that with the opening of electronic media for the private sector has been a metamorphosis of the media in Pakistan. Most senior journalists I interviewed felt that some journalists and media groups are misusing the freedom and there is little realisation among many that responsibility is an integral part of any freedom.
Comparatively speaking the media today is far more free than it used to be ever in the history of Pakistan. But this freedom is limited. Don’t go by the rash and at times libelous news items and views express by the journalists against the government and conclude look how free they are.
Let’s look at the government and media relations first:
1. Still the government is using the old tactics of controlling the media with the ‘advertisement whip.” What does that means to a reader? It is that the newspapers or electronic media the government dislike for criticising it is starved of the government and public sector companies’ ads. Though ads should be given to the media keeping in mind the fact that the message should reach the target audience, they are on the contrary dished out as a favour to the tamer lot. Even today the practice is that the Press Information Department of the federal and provincial governments uses 25% of the total public sector companies advertising budget to either buy loyalties for the government or to grease their own palms.
2. If the big groups survive on the private sector advertisements continue to defy, their tax skeletons are pulled out of the Federal Bureau of Revenue cupboards. Here you cannot blame the government for doing their job of making the big boys pay their taxes. But if the media groups behave their tax files can be examined “sympathetically.”
3. For working journalist the government has many types of bait. A leading TV host Hamid Mir has written in his column in Jang that many journalists are bought over. Since he is well-informed journalist I am impressed that the price of journalist had gone as high as Rs150 million. The middle class journalists who resist these temptations even when one disagrees with them should be respected.
4. Most of media houses may not be in control of the political governments in Pakistan, but trust me they are not out of the establishment reach.
5. There are many “ important journalist’ who are fed stories by the establishment against the political governments. They are also told to raise issue which detracts the debate if the establishment comes under criticism. The usual selling point is that patriotism and Islamic ideology has to be protected. Media is most effectively manipulated by this establishment both at the owners and journalist level. So please take our independence and freedom with a pinch of salt.
6. That’s not all while the government and the establishment only tries to manipulate the journalists, there are many extremist religious and ethnic groups who use the intimidating tactics. These group give threats to the journalists through phone, SMS, emails and sometimes directly. Even powerful owners of the media who are gutsy when their role is judged against the government give in to give out of proportion coverage to such groups for sake of peaceful co-existence with the fascists.
7. Another check on the freedom of media is that of the advertisers. This is universal and not typical to Pakistan. The trend is rising. This restricts the journalists to give programmes which have substance and can help in educating the people on political, economic and social issues only because ratings dictate. And the ratings are achieved by the media by catering to the lowest denominators for instance in news by jingoism, in entertainment by promoting conservatism and reactionary social values. The whole empire of Rupert Murdoch and his miniatures in Pakistan is built on such policies.
8. Lastly, media freedom is just a part of the broader right and that is Freedom of Expression. In Pakistan this right is constricted. You cannot openly preach the scientific views of life, you cannot challenge the orthodox value system, you cannot write without fear of physical threat against the extremists who hate pluralism, which is an essence of freedom. The latest example is that Madiha Ghaur’s play ‘Burqavaganza’ was banned by a person who happens to be the Ministry culture Secretary. Isn’t freedom is about respecting each other views and not about quashing them through bureaucratic edict? In the final analysis the freedom of media in the absence freedom of expression is limited to write against the politicians and politics.
Now let’s take the issue whether media freedom is exercised with responsibility. In the first place much of what readers and viewers call irresponsibility is by design and not by chance. However, it has to be admitted that young electronic media is going through an excited and learning phase. With time it would get mature. Don’t let the establishment or the government use this ploy that media is irresponsible to put the curbs back. Remember mankind and his values have evolved. The status quo forces can delay the process of evolution, but cannot be stopped. The society marches on even its slow.
Note: World Freedom of Media Day was celebrated on 3rd May (firstname.lastname@example.org)