Freedom without responsibility

Shahed Sadullah

The liberalisation of Pakistan’s media in 2002 may have opened up the sector to a much wider range of broadcasters, but this hasn’t always been accompanied by a rise in journalistic standards and professionalism.

Over the past decade, the Pakistani media has gone from being a toothless, obedient, slumbering pussycat to a strident, roaring lion. The lion has not always fought the good cause, but that is partly because there is so little agreement as to what exactly constitutes the good cause in Pakistan. 

It was in 2002 that the then president, Pervez Musharraf, decided to open up television broadcasting in Pakistan to the private sector. Musharraf was popular at the time, and he thought that by doing this, he would only increase his popularity further. As miscalculations go, this one was from the very top drawer. The newly liberalised media were now free to lead the movement that finally forced Musharaff out of office in 2008. 

In a country where education and literacy standards are poor, broadcast media was always likely to overtake printed press in terms of influence, and that was exactly what has happened in Pakistan since 2002. The over 90 TV channels and 129 FM radio stations carry a loyal following that far outweighs anything that the print media can command. A survey conducted a couple of years ago found that while 79 percent of men and 76 percent of women had watched television in the preceding week, only 42 percent of men and 13 percent of women had read a newspaper – many who know Pakistan would say that even these figures seem surprisingly high. 

This massive growth took place almost overnight, with practically no preparation for journalists to adapt to the demands of television and radio. Understandably, the new broadcast medium has been almost entirely in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language. Most of the anchors, newsmen and news editors learned their trade in the Urdu newspaper industry. Unfortunately, a large part of the Urdu press was laden with religious right-wing jingoism, a rampant anti-Americanism and regular doses of conspiracy theories. It was not known to practise the most professional form of journalism. Much of this mix found its way into the new TV stations, and it is telling that, as a result, the most popular programmes, in terms of pure entertainment value, are not soaps but political chat shows. 

The strongly anti-American agenda of the Pakistan media has been driven by myriad factors, but the trend is now highly visible even in the comparatively more sober English-language press. The total circulation of the English-language dailies is said to be barely 200,000 – a drop in the ocean of Pakistan’s population of more than 180 million – but the impact of this sector is far in excess of these numbers, because it is consumed by Pakistan’s foreign observers and has rather more credibility than the sensation-led Urdu press. 

Whether English or Urdu, the media is inevitably a reflection of Pakistani society, and the growth in anti-American sentiment – the USA now outpaces India as the country’s main source of contempt – was bound to seep through into the media. Over the past year, the Raymond Davis affair, the bin Laden raid and, more recently, the International Security Assistance Force raid on the Pakistani border checkpost resulting in the deaths of 24 Pakistani security personnel have led to a further rise in these sentiments. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre in June 2011, found that only 12 percent of Pakistanis had a favourable opinion of America, with 69 percent of respondents viewing the USA as more of an enemy than a friend. No media – however objective – can compete against such overwhelming public opinion. 

But although the Pakistani media has not always been able to exercise its newfound power and influence with responsibility, there are signs that things are improving. The sort of excesses that were seen in the media’s coverage of the Red Mosque incident in 2007, when the militants leading the siege of the mosque were painted as heroes, are a little less obvious today – though, following the US raid in Abbottabad, at least one anchor described Osama bin Laden as a shaheed (martyr). Perhaps this change has been in part due to the experiences following the restoration of democracy in Pakistan and the reinstatement of the sacked Supreme Court judges. Whatever the cause, there is a growing realisation that the ‘truth’ is seldom black and white, and that more often than not, intermediate shades of grey reflect the more accurate and balanced picture. 

What is important to note here is that if an independent media is indeed one of the cornerstones of democracy, then this cornerstone is firmly in place in Pakistan – although it is equally clear that democracy cannot be built on this foundation alone. Pakistan’s vibrant media has played an important role in making the people aware of the issues that affect them, but only a mature population can enforce maturity in the media. In that regard Pakistan is not alone in still having some way to go. 

About the author:

Shahed Sadullah was the editor of the London edition of the Pakistani daily, The News. He now works as a freelance specialist on Pakistani affairs


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