Media and expression -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Media and expression

Farooq Sulehria

Pakistan’s airwaves used to be a complete state-monopoly. There was only the state-owned PTV and Radio Pakistan. In the late 1990s, quasi-government or privately-owned entertainment channels like STN and NTM entered the arena. It was in 2001 that the state surrendered its sole right over the airwaves.

This led to a mushrooming of privately-owned TV channels and radio stations.

We now have ninety TV channels, besides the 28 foreign channels vying for Pakistani audience. There are at least 106 licensed FM radio stations. This media explosion engendered one hundred and fifty advertising agencies and 74 production companies. According to Pemra, the electronic media has generated economic opportunities for 150,000 people directly and seven million people indirectly (though the figures sound a bit incredible). Investment in the electronic media has exceeded $2.5 billion and seventeen per cent of the population relies on the electronic media for first-hand information.

Meanwhile, TV viewership has reached 115 million, compared to 63 million as recently as in 2004.
However, during the last decade the print media has gone through a sort of decline. It has been losing audience to television even if increased literacy and population growth has contributed to a steady increase in readership during the last six years. The cinema however, is dead.

Gen Musharraf, trying to stage a political comeback, is reminding us of his contributions to this process having been set in motion. However, he never mentions the clampdown he ordered when faced with a mass movement for the restoration of civilian rule towards the end of 2007. This is understandable. It is alarming, however, when even some good commentators take at face value the argument that a military dictator liberalised the strict media-regime in Pakistan. An even more absurd claim we hear, but almost never contest, is that Gen Musharraf allowed a free media to operate.

That government monopoly over the airwaves came to an end in Pakistan was only a reflection of the global trend. Even in the Middle East, Qatar’s Al-Jazeera began to subvert traditional state controls. In fact, India, Brazil and Egypt began to appear as big a challenge from the South to the media monopolies of the West. This global trend was, in turn, a product of the neo-liberal era. In a period when the public sector was surrendering to private capital, the media industry could not be an exception.

In the case of Pakistan, like elsewhere, an added factor was the emerging media businesses. Of course, technology also played a role in triggering the electronic revolution in Pakistan. What motivated the Musharraf regime to liberally grant licences for new TV channels was the growing popularity of Indian channels in Pakistan.

The popularity of Zee TV was such that Benazir Bhutto, Imran Khan, Altaf Hussain, even Qazi Hussain Ahmed, proudly figured on talk shows like “Aap ki Adalat”. Nawaz Sharif, busy undermining Benazir Bhutto’s second government, was urging people at public meetings to watch Zee TV instead of PTV to find out what he called “the truth”.

When he came to power, his invitation to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was followed by the Kargil war. It was during this war that khaki strategists realised the mistake of Pakistan’s airwaves not being liberalised. A pro-establishment columnist mourned at the time: “One needs to explain to our television management that computer graphics alone do not suffice to compete with the Indian television networks. No one paid any heed to our wooden-faced newscasters and even Pakistan’s own public tuned to Indian channels to get the latest about Kargil.” Gen Musharraf’s information minister was saying: “I am concerned about the influence of Indian satellite television on our people.’’

As soon as the military took over, an Indian media analyst pointed out: “In Pakistan, a paranoid military government is in a rush to create a ‘media deterrent’ against Indian television channels, which are widely seen by the elite of the country. Zee TV and Sony have penetrated upper-middle-class Pakistani homes as never before.’’

Hence, in an age of deregulation, propaganda was simply privatised. However, it was ensured that privatised media outlets sound the same when it comes to foreign policies, the economic outlook, the army, the Taliban, or Kashmir. The US model was followed. Different hymns but the same psalm: “My country, right or wrong.” In many cases, dissident voices are keenly avoided. What is on offer is a bid to “manufacture consent.” Conspiracy theories and superstition at the cost of scientific, rational and professional approach is the method to manufacture this consent.

Meanwhile, an important medium, the cinema, has been allowed to die. Important social and political themes remain a taboo when it comes to film-making. Silent Water is a case in point. It could not be screened in Pakistan. A helping hand was lent by bomb-planting puritans to stifle cinema houses as well as theatre. Peshawar’s Nishtar Hall is still locked for fear of the Taliban.

What bewilders many observers is the fact that the new TV channels have involved audiences in many novel ways. True. But let us not forget the relationship a state-owned broadcasting system has with the public. From state-owned media, seats of power address the subjects. In case of commercial, privately-owned system, media outlets have to win an audience for themselves. Also, in most cases the ability of live TV news and talk shows to involve people has not made politics any more democratic. This involvement has not improved the knowledge base. In a country like Pakistan where half the population is unlettered, thus structurally denied the right to express freely, any talk of free expression is a cruel joke on the disempowered millions.

The writer is a freelance contributor.Email:
Source: The News