By Rifaat Hamid Ghani
The media derives value and purpose from its audience: If no one is listening it does not matter what is being said; and if no one reads or sees it, well, for one thing, we wouldn’t need censorship! So what sort of audience do the media in Pakistan have? And then what does the media seek to do and proffer – consciously or unconsciously; voluntarily and perforce?
The Pakistani audience presents some startling and challenging juxtapositions. Pakistan’s illiterates outnumber its literates and so the audiovisual medium predominates over print. However, these literally illiterates are no captive unthinking audience. Across a spectrum of rural-urban, provincial-federal, ethnic and sectarian divides with variously vested conflicting interests, these assumedly uneducated ingenuous groupings possess an acute social awareness and political consciousness; and have a keen pragmatic grasp of the way local and national politics are practiced and propaganda targets and functions. Inevitably, ‘victims’ gain knowledge of the ‘victimizer’. More edifying, the mass political awakening and sense of self Bhutto conferred on the peasant, the labourer, the neglected unrecognized citizen in his personal journey to political realization is an ineradicable mindset that permeates and enlivens Pakistanis irrespective of political affiliations. Pakistan’s media has a critical, skeptical audience as opposed to a credulous gullible one.
The outreach is vast, but unfortunately the fourth estate is currently generally deemed a watchdog of its own interests first. It has lost the earlier either/or prism of public watchdog or unabashed and identifiable official government propagandist. The multiplicity of channels has meant a diversity of views and information, but at the expense of neutrality. credibility and persistent investigative reporting. There is more declamatory persuasion and audiovisual gimmickry and less substantial content. Commentary serves as analysis. Viewers are prone to ‘scan’ rather than watch as they flick from one channel to another seeking to relish and compare news presentations or ‘verify’ and sort out apparent inconsistencies in reporting ‘facts’ and ‘truths’. Turgidity and confusion could be attributed to the varying direction and bias of separate in-house policy interests/choices in different houses: It is also the outcome of professional sloppiness and shoddy supervisory standards. Commercial profit is the criterion, as long as media operators are raking it in, production quality can go hang. TV is watched as much as ever if not more, but the message is taken with oodles of salt rather than the proverbial pinch. In a sense, media houses are catering to and for themselves.
Nonetheless, the ‘mainstream’ media has an awesome power virtually to establish household names and national personalities in any sphere (sportsmen; showbiz; academics; designers; medics; entrepreneurs) through the simple expedient of selective focus and exposure. In talkshows and panel discussions this works positively where the individual has something solid to say and an open mind and is ready to listen as well as be heard. But that is rare; and programme star favourites rapidly become tired and tiring faces. In the political context particularly, the propagandist or preferential intent is too obvious. It is a daily experience simultaneously to see the same media-celeb airing as anchor in one programme and expert in another; to say nothing of political luminaries appearing simultaneously in two or three programmes all of them curiously or misleadingly labelled ‘Live’. Most discussion consists of retraction or clarification and it is hard for viewers (many alight mid-programme) to guess precisely what triggered an ongoing verbal spat or determine where it is leading. Essentially that renders a programme unsuccessful. The media is diverting but not taken as reliably definitive. It no longer convinces. It is loud, overwhelming and incoherent.
How does the print media acquit itself? Unlike Radio Pakistan and PTV which were ever government or semi-autonomous monopolies, the print medium was bred out of a finer journalistic dedication and had already gained a diversity of publication and platform: The freedom struggle had demanded a tradition of meaningful and fearless dissent and expression. ‘Rogue’ print publication was feasible and comparatively affordable. Pakistan’s Press can claim, thanks to an Iconic leadership and a handful of outstanding working journalists, that the oppressive as well as exploitative constraints of officialdom have been constantly challenged. The cost extracted was met in terms of courage, verbal skills and commitment from journalists and editors and the preparedness and endurance to suffer for communicating their convictions. They rendered the heavy hand of censorship and propaganda self-defeating even in brilliant bureaucrats like Altaf Gohar and expert generals in ‘psychological warfare’ like Mujeeb-ur-Rehman. That tradition may soon be a mere memory. The expanding Press Baron-management syndrome and the commercial-power interests of the media house can voluntarily supply curbs as deleterious to freedom of information and social or political critiques as any imposed by state power in preceding times and updated today. The censored and re-assigned know that. Surrogate oppositional output is state of the art.
It remains to be seen whether the Press worker will seek or find a way through. For its professionals too are open to the seductively enhanced temptations of soft power in globalized times. And Pakistan’s literate audience has become less discerning and serious. Gloss and glitz and glibness superficially; and political connivance more gravely, characterize the print aspect for that is the rated demand it is most profitable to supply.
Could one surprised-ly and sadly conclude that the Social Media is the most candid and recognizable aberrant occupant in Pakistan’s emptying kennel of public watchdogs? At present Pakistan’s media barks but does not bite.