By Zubeida Mustafa
Truthdig is proud to present this article as part of its Global Voices: Truthdig Women Reporting, a series from a network of female correspondents around the world who have been hailed for their courage in pursuit of truth within their countries and elsewhere. Click here and here for Nisma Chauhan’s coverage of other aspects of Pakistan’s media, produced in conjunction with this story.
Starting in late March, Pakistan’s biggest television channel, Geo (an Urdu word for Live), was forced off the air for several weeks.
Cable operators, who reportedly shut off Geo, would not disclose on whose orders this had been done. Geo has now been restored, but only after what a Reuters report described as a deal reached with the military that required the channel to alter its political coverage.
This episode created an international furor, which testifies to the growing power of the media in a globalized world. It also suggests that in some countries where the military still calls the shots, the notion of media freedom is only eyewash. Repeated calls by PEMRA (the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) had failed to get Geo back on the air.In addition to having to skew news under pressure as in the Geo case, the media in Pakistan is not free of flaws itself. On several occasions, Pakistani media outlets have failed to follow simple codes of ethics.
Take the case of the 2011 murder of Salman Taseer, who was the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. He was shot by his own bodyguard. The reason? A progressive, Taseer had expressed sympathy for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy. Taseer met with Bibi in the jail where she was detained. He also spoke of the need to amend the blasphemy laws.
Some conservative TV channel anchors stirred up a brouhaha over Taseer’s actions. This proved to be a spark that lit the tinder of prejudice and intolerance encouraged by the right-wing media since the late 1970s when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a military coup in Islamabad. He launched an Islamization policy to sustain himself in power, with new blasphemy laws as an important element of that policy.
In 2011, the person who had easy access to Taseer—the man deputized to protect him—pulled the trigger. The assassination was a hate crime promoted by a section of the national media.
That was seven years ago. Today, the situation has further deteriorated. In the free-for-all atmosphere promoted mainly by television in a frenzy to get higher ratings, the major casualty is truth. Anchors, many of whom are not trained journalists, sensationalize news to the extent of presenting baseless reports as verified facts.
Take the recent case of Dr. Shahid Masood, a television commentator and a medical professional by training, who broadcast reports concerning the rape and murder of a 7-year-old child. Masood made outlandish charges against the defendant, Imran Ali, who has now been sentenced to death by the court. Masood’s list of charges against Ali was long—18 in all—and included allegations of the killer being linked to an international child pornography mafia, holding numerous bank accounts in the country and having connections with a federal minister. Mian Saqib Nisar, the chief justice of Pakistan, took notice and ordered investigations into the charges. Every charge was found to be wrong, causing the judge to impose a three-month ban on Masood’s program.
In a sense, these examples of rampant sensationalism reflect what a long way the media in Pakistan has come in the last several decades. The nation has experienced considerable loosening of the government’s grip on the press and the subsequent proliferation of numerous privately owned radio outlets and television channels.
Today the government has one television station, Pakistan Television, and one radio station, Radio Pakistan, but no affiliated newspaper. On the other hand, there are 45 campus radio stations, 140 licensed commercial private FM radio stations and 89 private satellite TV channels. The website of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society lists nearly 458 newspapers and magazines licensed in the country. Not all are being published; in some cases the owners keep their licenses valid to enable them to publish if they so choose.
This unregulated expansion of the media—especially of the electronic media—has had a profound impact on the political and social scene in Pakistan. Technology, particularly the introduction of 24/7 radio and TV, has brought the media within easy reach of the people. Even the remotest areas are connected by radio, and in the countryside you will see TV antennas on many small, dilapidated houses.
The plus side of this change is that the government’s traditionally rigorous control over the media has lessened (although the military still wields power, as evident from the Geo closure). In the past, military governments dominated the press, and the government held a monopoly on the electronic media. Gone are the days when a phone call from the Information Ministry to the newsroom could blank out even the most important news from the newspapers. It was termed “press advice.”
But today’s media freedom has a flip side as well. Any journalist who ventures to disclose the ugly secrets of the powerful must be prepared to face the music. This can take the form of “forced disappearance” by secret agencies or a mysterious death. The more fortunate are simply hounded out of the country. It’s a small wonder Pakistan has earned the dubious reputation of being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media workers.
Equally harmful is the insidious damage that some of Pakistan’s media is inflicting on society and the state itself. This reflects the emergence of neoliberal economics, the push toward commercialization and the prioritization of profits. Codes of conduct and sacred principles of journalism, such as truth and fairness, have been thrown to the winds, and commercialism is rife.
Adding to the media failures, some anchors and media owners are politically aligned and use their positions to promote one party or the other. This has muddied the political waters and stoked hatred and mass confusion.
Although the major newspapers still enjoy a degree of credibility and provide in-depth analysis, they cannot compete with the electronic media in the magnitude of their reach. The literacy rate in Pakistan is dismally low at 60 percent, which gives radio and TV pre-eminence over print.
In this bleak scenario, valiant efforts are being made to address the problems. A number of media studies schools have blossomed, and their programs are benefitting many journalists. Among these institutions are CEJ (Centre for Excellence in Journalism) and IoBM (Institute of Business Management), which has a strong media department.
Another endeavor is Uks, a monitoring nongovernmental organization that recently celebrated its 20th birthday. Uks is basically concerned with the coverage of women in the press and television, as well as the number and status of females working in the media. Tasneem Ahmar launched Uks because she was shocked at the poor reporting on women’s issues and at the glaring absence of women in decision-making positions in the media. Through her efforts to support the cause of the quality of journalism.