Measuring the media
By: Ghazi Salahuddin
When Bushra Gohar, one of the bright stars of the National Assembly, entered politics as a member of the Awami National Party, she did not know that “I am an entertainment”. This is how this plucky woman from a region that is afflicted with violent extremism, described the quality of talk shows on our news channels. Her observations were part of an in-depth and structured discussion on the state of the media in Pakistan in Islamabad on Thursday.
The occasion was the launch of the Pakistan 2012 report in the series ‘Asian Media Barometer’ sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), a German foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party. However, the report is designed as a local self-assessment exercise based on international criteria for press freedom. A panel of twelve experts, consisting of six media professionals and six representatives of the civil society, had assessed the media environment in May this year in the presence of a FES-trained consultant.
It was in the year 2009 when the first Asian Media Barometers were compiled in Pakistan and India. Similar exercises were conducted in Thailand in 2010 and in the Philippines in 2011. The idea is to conduct this exercise every two or three years and Pakistan is the first Asian country in which a follow-up exercise was conducted this year.
I was the moderator for both reports and had to conduct the discussion held on Thursday at the FES office. Divided into four sectors – freedom of expression, the media landscape, broadcast regulations and professionalism – the report is spread to 45 indicators. A quantitative assessment consists of anonymous vote on each indicator on a scale from one to five.
Without going into more details on the methodology of the project, I can only affirm that the discussion that formed the basis of the report, extended for two days, was spirited and comprehensive. The report is aimed to lobby for an improvement in the media situation and suggest reforms. The final, qualitative report presents the gist of the discussion, with the average score for each indicator.
Now, I have the option of quoting from the 2012 and the 2009 reports and cover the launch in some detail. Qualitative analyses and scores in the four sectors were reviewed by selected panellists. But I have quoted Bushra Gohar at the outset to focus on what I sense is a pronounced displeasure, even rage, across the civil society over the state of the media, particularly the news channels. The talk shows are beginning to lose their lustre.
One may be amused to see that the comedy shows, mainly spoofs of talk show guests, are becoming more popular. At times, the caricatures seem more real or credible than the real commodity. The element of entertainment is increasingly being injected into prime time news bulletins. Not so amusing is the inquisitorial attitude of the news readers or hosts of talk shows. Some not so consequential mishaps are amplified as ‘breaking news’ and the news readers readily lose their cool.
These, perhaps, are only superficial observations and the commentators invited to share their thoughts on the 2012 report on Pakistan in the Asian Media Barometer series made more thoughtful remarks on the media and how it has been analysed in the report. In addition to Bushra Gohar, the other commentators were Fahad Hussain, an accomplished journalist and talk show host, Tahira Abadullah, a prominent rights activist, and Humaira Awais Shahid, MPA Punjab Assembly from the PML-Q who has been editor of a newspaper.
While Fahad Hussain surveyed the entire scene, highlighting the power and the influence of the media as well as its challenges and shortcomings, Tahira Abdullah was quite severe in her criticism. Many serious questions about the media’s biases, its accountability and the application of a code of ethics were raised. There was a lot of comment on the tyranny of the ‘ratings’. Raja Shafqat Abbasi, chairman of the Press Council of Pakistan made concluding remarks.
Though the print media in Pakistan has a very limited reach; the electronic media has an overpowering presence. We have 47 news channels, including the ones in regional languages. The forthcoming elections are likely to breed a few more news channels. But the emergence of the social media has its own implications. In fact, social media and new media made the most decisive difference in the context of how the scene had changed since 2009, when the first Asian Media Barometer on Pakistan was compiled.
So far as the quantitative assessment is concerned, I should mention that the country score this year was 2.4 (out of 5) and it is just a fraction lower than the 2009 score of 2.5. In addition to remarkable advancements in technology and the spread of social media, the security environment has worsened and attacks on journalists by non-state actors have increased. Pakistan is surely one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.
When we sat down to assess the media environment in 2009, we were more upbeat about the power and the purpose of the media. Those were more exciting times in the wake of the media’s role in the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of higher judiciary in 2007-2008. Quite a few things have changed since then, though media’s obsession with politics has continued. There is no doubt that the media is a major player in the national arena together with constitutionally established institutions.
Personally, I feel that our educational and cultural environment has had an adverse impact on the media and it has prompted a decline in standards. The electronic media has the tendency to appeal to the lowest common denominator and there is little scope for public service broadcasting. During the past three years, the quality of journalism has apparently declined.
One should also be worried about the dominance of conservative views in the Pakistani society and how this trend has affected the coverage of national events. One glaring example of this was the inability of the media to objectively report the aftermath of the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. The power of the religious orthodoxy was also manifest in how the Malala Yousafzai incident was subjected to a spin and confusion was created about the implications of the attack on a young girl by the Taliban. The continued ban on YouTube shows how the present rulers are unable or unwilling to take on the militants.
Finally, concerted efforts are surely necessary to make the media more responsible and more accountable to the society at large. Its immense power should be invested in a campaign for a progressive social change. But first, we have to understand what the Pakistani media is all about.