IN A recent televised interview, a former brigadier of the Pakistan Military Intelligence claimed that Kamran Khan, one of the prominent new anchors in the country, has been on the agency’s payroll since 1991. A few months earlier, journalists Absar Alam and Hamid Mir approached the Supreme Court and complained about alleged corruption in the media. Such stories do raise questions about the efficacy of modern media in empowering their respective societies. It is worth asking if the new media, with its enhanced tools and technology, ensures freer access to information and hence qualitative enhancement of political space in a society?
While India has its own examples to ascertain the quality of media freedom, I will use this space to look at Pakistan’s media, which is considered to be fiercely independent and free of State intervention. Such reputation began to be treated as part of some gospel truth, especially in the wake of the lawyers’ movement in 2007-08, which resulted in the ouster of military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf. An extension of the same gospel truth is the myth that the media is one of the institutions that will bring about change in Pakistan as far as strengthening democracy is concerned. However, is the media as vibrant and independent as it claims to be?
Historically, Pakistan’s media has been more vibrant than anywhere else in South Asia. The media in Pakistan has indeed been one of the stations for fighting military dictatorships and, hence, been targeted by dictators as witnessed during the dark period of Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s rule (1977-88). The Zia years were known for its draconian laws to curb media freedom. Press censorship ensured through martial law terrorised journalists who seemed to challenge the military regime. Many were picked up, jailed and even flogged. Yet, the press — as private media was mainly print during the 1980s — stood up against the brutality of the Zia years.
Interestingly, what Zia could not achieve through gagging the media, Musharraf did through the industry’s expansion and seeming empowerment. In the wake of the 1999 Kargil operation and the ensuing crisis, the military dictator learnt a lesson from how the Indian media helped sustain New Delhi’s position nationally and internationally, which proved critical in building diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. Therefore, Musharraf expanded the media and gave several licences for private television and radio channels.
THIS POST-2000 period saw the expansion of both print and electronic media in Pakistan. But now, the media market suffers from over-saturation. There are more newspapers than readers and more television channels than viewers. A popular myth is that the media brought an end to Musharraf’s reign. This may certainly be the case, but does it make the media inherently independent of the military or the establishment’s control? The answer may be in the negative, as the new media has structural flaws that hamper its independence and vibrancy. At this point, the media has serious issues of corruption, inefficiency and lack of professionalism.
Perhaps, Musharraf realised that he could seek partnership with the media on viable terms by partnering with the owners and allowing for concentration of power in a few hands. Today, the media in Pakistan mainly comprises of not more than 7-8 major groups that run most of the newspapers as well as radio and television channels. However, the business interests of the owners are not limited to the media. They, in fact, use the media to negotiate deals with the government or even international governments.
Another inherent flaw is the lack of professionalism, which is natural for an industry that rapidly expanded within months. Currently, the bulk of the people dominating the electronic media are presenters and not journalists. Unfortunately, the print media also followed the same route and injected desktop editors and journalists who had little experience of the field.
The bulk of the resources in the industry are concentrated in the top echelons as huge sums of money are paid to glamourous anchors/presenters at the cost of depriving the bulk of the low-end team of personnel and operational resources. Those who suffer in the field sustain on relatively meagre salaries and with little in terms of operational expenses. However, this segment of the media is expected to compete with the top presenters who are generally better connected in the society. Success in such competition comes at a high cost in the form of sacrificing independence.
The media behaves no differently from any other mafia that actively negotiates its interests at all levels of the State and society, often, sacrificing principles for pragmatism. Not to forget the role of the middlemen who tend to negotiate between various stakeholders. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see stories getting twisted or given a spin to serve someone’s interest. On many occasions, stories are either planted or information withheld, giving a peculiar twist to a story.
One of the most recent examples was the coverage of the Taliban attack on 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai. Within hours of reporting the incident, questions were being raised in the media that doubted Malala’s intent in writing her blog. There were even suggestions to the effect that perhaps this was done to facilitate an attack on North Waziristan. Consequently, within days, the window for any proactive thinking on fighting the menace of terrorism was shut.
Yet another recent case pertains to the cover-up of a major land scam estimated at Rs 200-300 billion linked with real estate tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain and senior members of the Pakistan Army. Hundreds of acres and billions of rupees were allegedly transferred to the tycoon by senior members of the army under the pretext of a partnership between Hussain’s Bahria Housing and the army-controlled Defence Housing Authority. Initially, exposed by a retired army colonel, the news received limited attention in the media and soon disappeared entirely from the headlines. Reportedly, hundreds and thousands of rupees were given to various media persons to buy their silence. The tycoon even ensured that some of the middlemen, who closely work with him and run news services, negotiate with media people to ensure that the issue didn’t surface again.
Neither the owners nor the top anchors/presenters want to rock this or any other boat due to their financial and other interests. Some in the media even have stakes in the energy sector, such as the group running Newsweek Pakistan.
The above-described situation means that transparency and reporting and analysis of news is at best selective and influenced by those who wield power or have resources to kill news. Such conditions are not anomalous to Pakistan. This is the malaise of unplanned growth in the media industry in an age of aggressive competition. India itself has experienced similar conditions in the form of the Radia tapes scandal or journalists who report and write selectively. How events are reported and news is created to influence public opinion is worth looking at. Competition itself cannot justify such distortion because ultimately how news is made and how views are formed are also about the shape a society takes. Let’s have a look at the media before it takes us too far from reality.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc.