Pakistan riding television revolution
LAHORE: Television underwent a revolution in Pakistan in 2003, as new independent cable channels many broadcasting from offshore hit the airwaves and broke all the old rules.
The phenomenal induction of private television stations broke the state’s monopoly on broadcasting to thrill Pakistanis, starved of entertainment and incisive, impartial debates on domestic and international issues.
Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali’s nascent government awarded broadcasting licenses to more than 66 private radio and television companies in 2003, striking tough competition for the official networks.
Cable TV has been the winner, setting news agendas,engaging audiences with interactive TV debates and maximising cross-media fertilization, with many of them borne of longÂestablished print news organizations.
GEO-TV, broadcasting out of Dubai, grew out of the Jhang news group which publishes top-selling English daily The News. Its high profile guarantees bigÂtime guests and big audiences, and it hasetched a place for itself as one of the key newsmakers and breakers.
Also broadcasting out of Dubai, as well as London and Karachi, is the ARY cable channel. Indus TV broadcasts from Karachi, Prime broadcasts out ‘of London, while Mashriq, Uni Plus and Virtual University beam out of eastern city Lahore, the scat of Pakistan’s Lollywood film industry.
“It is a sea-change,” GEO TV president Imran Aslam told AFP. “For Pakistan access to information is still a dubious preposition, but within the constraints what these private channels have done is to open up a discourse in society, which for many years was monopolistic and one-sided.”
Up until 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf seized power, state-run television and radio monopolised news ‘ and current affairs. Musharraf began liberalising the media by giving print media a free hand but private broadcasting did not kick off until his three-year military rule was officially replaced by an elected government late 2002.
Now state-run television hosts talk- back programmes criticising government policies.
In a more visible sign of the times, women can appear on screen without wearing headscarf.”Truth is still gradual,” said Mr. Aslam “But we think eventually there will be more and more freedom of expression and access to documentation of information.”
Mr. Aslam is optimistic that the advent channels will usher in a social change. The head of the ARY channel said that the privatization of Pakistani broadcasting was nothing short of the revolution.
“TV coming out in the open with news and current affairs programmes is an unprecedented development in our 56-year history.” ARY’s chief executive Salman Iqbal said.
Cable TV operators, bringing foreign channels to the remotest Pakistani hamlets, have flourished despite bitter opposition from radical and newly powerful islamists.
Liberal and secular opposition parties believe the growth of the media outlets in the private sector will serve as a check on power holders. “ The greater the number of channels and greater their freedom means better access to information,” opposition Pakistan Peoples’ party senator Farhatullah Babar told AFP.
More access to information will bring “increased transparancy and therefore improved accountability of the holders of public offices and other segments of the society.” The new media liberalism, however, meets its match in decades-old rivalries with nuclear neighbor India.
Since last year, when the two sides were on the brink of their fourth war, Pakistan has banned private cable networks from broadcasting Indian television channels. Mr. Babar said the band was depriving Pakistanis of regional awareness.
“It is equally important that Pakistani people are also allowed access to the media channels of South Asian region,” he said The purpose is defeated by restricting our access to the media channels of South Asia.”