Written By: Arif Nizami
Media in Pakistan is a success story. It is free, independent and increasingly assertive. It is playing a pivotal role in formulating public opinion and keeping the executive in check. In tandem with a fearlessly independent higher judiciary it has helped in introducing a modicum of accountability in the body politic.
This was not always the case. The present freedom of the proverbial 'Fourth Estate' emanates from two momentous decisions. Before 1988 prior permission was needed from the government to start publishing and printing a newspaper, which was practically next to impossible to come by. Credit goes to the caretaker government formed after the death of General Zia ul Haq in August 1988 for abolishing the draconian 'Press and Publications Ordinance'. Under the new law prior approval from the government was no longer necessary to start a newspaper. This brought about a revolution in the print media. Since then there has been a mushrooming of newspapers and periodicals. Some of them have emerged as quality publications.
However, it must be admitted that a vast majority are fake publications popularly known as dummies. Since no educational qualifications are required for the publisher and editor to start a newspaper, all kinds of elements have entered the fray to further their personal agendas. Perhaps an even more momentous decision with far reaching consequences for freedom of press in the country was the advent of electronic media in the private sector. It all started in 2002 when General Musharraf as President, despite stiff opposition from his media advisors, decided to liberalize the regime for opening private television channels and FM radios.
Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was established in 2002 to regulate private television channels. The monopoly of state television PTV was broken overnight. Today there are about eighty television channels operating in the country – most of them current affairs’ channels.
In the present environment media is coming under a lot of scrutiny. All kinds of opinions are expressed and debated freely. The downsides of this however are complaints that the media, accountable to no one, has become too powerful. When policy to grant permission for satellite channels in the private sector was being formulated, after initial hesitation, the Musharraf government decided not to put any restriction on cross media ownership. Resultantly most big print media houses own current affairs television channels as well. Some media groups even have entertainment and sports channels. Big business houses have also entered the media market in recent years not only to make money but also to increase their clout with powers that be.
Initially a number of journalists working for newspapers moved to the electronic media. Some of the have become big names as current affairs’ anchors. They draw huge salaries that were unimaginable in newspapers. Musharraf to his peril, soon realized that he was on the receiving end of the power of the genie he had unleashed. Live coverage by the electronic media of the long marches led by the deposed Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry in the 2007 movement for restoration of a free judiciary inexorably mobilized public opinion against the government.
When Musharraf by suspending the Constitution and declaring an emergency on November 3 the same year, tried to put the genie of a free media back in the bottle, he miserably failed. The media and the black coats in their struggle to restore an independent judiciary practically paved the way for return of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from exile and holding of fair and free elections in February 2008. Today in a relative sense the media is now completely unshackled. However like in the rest of the world, in Pakistan electronic media is on the ascendency while the print media is struggling for survival.
Theoretically PEMRA was set up as an autonomous body to regulate the electronic media. Practically speaking, however, it is the hand maiden of the government. Media owners with their immense clout hardly follow its regulations. For example the law on foreign content is flouted with impunity. There is a proliferation of Indian content on most channels to the extent that Indian films and songs have become household names. Similarly Turkish dramas have become a source of addiction for the general public. Cable operators contrary to PEMRA rules operate as broadcasters by transmitting substandard software.
The electronic media is heavily critiqued for its rampant commercialism. Unfortunately virtually all its programmes are ratings driven. Higher ratings bring more advertisement revenue and vice versa. Hence business interests of the owners usually transcend social responsibilities. Truth and sobriety is the first casualty in this mad race for ratings. The fact that broadcasting license mandates a certain portion of airtime for social issues is often overlooked or, for that matter, never enforced by PEMRA. So far, as the print media is concerned, it is free albeit relatively less sensational. In the past considerable leverage of government sourced advertisements were used as a tool to coerce dissenting newspapers.
Theoretically governments can punish overly critical media through various means at its command. But in an atmosphere pervaded with fiercely independent courts and penchant of the populace for a free media it is no longer feasible to use third degree methods against the media. Self-regulation for the print media was introduced in 2002 through formation of the 'Press Council of Pakistan' headed by a retired High Court judge. But it practically set shop in 2011 when Justice (Retd) Raja Shafqat Abbasi was appointed as its current chairman and media practitioners including the owners and working journalists as its members.
The Council since its inception has hardly made any impact on improving the print media environment. Its mandate is to address public complaints against the media and to “revise, update, enforce and implement Ethical Code for newspapers and news agencies”. It has miserably failed on both counts. Admittedly a vibrant and free media is Pakistan's strength. But there is big room for improvement to facilitate the media to successfully shoulder its huge social responsibility of moulding the ethical standards of society. Of course, this will happen through an evolutionary process. Any attempt to rollback freedom of the media in the name of making it more responsible will produce disastrous results for the future of democracy.
Nonetheless a better regulatory framework for the electronic media and a workable self-regulation for the print media is the need of the hour. PEMRA rather remaining an appendage of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting should be truly independent of the government and headed by a person of repute. Similarly the Press Council is a good idea. But in order for it to have an impact it needs to be strengthened. It should be headed by, and composed of, members who can make a difference. All of the above, however, can be done solely through dialogue with all the stakeholders.