Jun 022008

The positive impact of a free electronic media is undeniable. But there is a dark and seamy side to this expansion and availability of information

The 2008 election may have brought the same political players back onto the playing field, but it is important to note that the context and circumstances of the game have changed considerably.

One of the most positive developments in the last few years of the Musharraf regime has been the unprecedented expansion of electronic media and the fostering of an independent news media. This has been the result not only of technological advances but also a more permissive and accommodating regulatory environment.

Between 2002 and the state of emergency declared in 2007, fifteen privately-owned satellite channels have emerged in Pakistan. Many of these networks such as GEO and ARY are located outside Pakistan and were therefore insulated from government control, even though they had permission to air material originating in Pakistan.

Electronic media, especially in the native language has a far greater outreach and the potential for greater impact in a country with a low literacy rate. Changes in legislation regulating radio broadcasting and liberal access to FM radio stations has increased the range of programs aired on radios.

It is estimated that 21 percent of the population listens to the radio; approximately 59 percent of the population are TV viewers, with cable connections reaching approximately 38 million households in Pakistan. News channels compared to entertainment and lifestyle channels have a much larger viewership as is evidenced by the popularity of celebrity-hosted political talk shows, late-night roundtable and panel discussions.

The surge in the number of news channels on cable television has led to a continuous dialogue with members of civil society and a critique of actions carried out by both the state and political elite.

In this capacity, the media has started playing a positive role, by being watchful of political leaders and holding them accountable for their actions. The questioning of political actions, motives and designs has started having an impact on the behaviour of politicians who are increasingly forced to become media-savvy. Repeated news cycles that bring every small incident to the constant attention of viewers have made unprincipled politics difficult.

Throughout 2007 Pakistan was in a state of political crisis starting with the sacking of the Chief Justice, the Lal Masjid affair, the declaration of emergency in November and finally culminating with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. News channels played an instrumental role in covering these events and have been increasingly critical of the Musharraf government. The electronic media has also been relentless in its support for the lawyer’s movement and the independence of the judiciary.

The plethora of media voices, independent of the government has been welcomed by the majority of the population for it has made the political system more accessible to the people and increased the reliance on public information to generate public debate. In a society that subsists on conspiracy theories and secrecy, this is a very healthy sign.

Another effect of electronic media is that it has made the people aware of their political right to demand good governance and the ability to vote out badly-performing politicians.

The poor performance of the previous government under Musharraf and the mistakes made during 2007 have not only made the public more opposed to the military’s role in politics, but has also, albeit unrealistically, raised expectations of the newly elected democratic government.

The positive impact of a free electronic media is undeniable. But there is a dark and seamy side to this expansion and availability of information. News channels may be criticised for being overzealous to “break the news” without actually verifying the facts.

Increased competition for profit and advertisement sponsorship amongst the media houses has also led to “sensationalised” coverage of recent events. Most importantly repeated coverage of an event, without any relief in the middle, creates an atmosphere of doom and gloom and encourages a feeling of despair among viewers.

Also, the visual impact of news is a double-edged sword in terms of how much it depicts. For example, news channels were not sensitive to the level of gory detail that was aired in the aftermath of suicide bombings in Lahore. Most of the competent people working for media outlets have a background in print media and therefore lack the training required for television.

At present, coverage of political trends is very superficial and is not accompanied by an investigative analysis of events. Reporters often do not ask the right questions and are many a times, undiplomatic.

The expansion of the news media and the increased access to information has been simultaneously counterbalanced by efforts to control the news cycle. Politicians bribe journalists and reporters as a matter of course to get favourable coverage in the news.

Owners of large media houses are either known to be in cahoots with intelligence agencies or belong to influential families which are interested in gaining clout to satisfy political ambitions or as a way to diversify their business interests.

This corruption is indicative of how vulnerable the political system is to state patronage. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting continues to restrict access to official documents and government information. Since the creation of a freer media environment was a priority of the Musharraf government, the periodic attempts to control and influence the media have been very contradictory.

In June 2007, the government promulgated the PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) Amendment Ordinance 2007 to boost the regulatory body’s power of censorship and control over private television stations and cable operators. Under this Act, on the day Emergency was declared, broadcasts were halted on all cable networks of privately-owned regional and national TV stations, particularly news channels.

Several other incidents of curbs on the electronic media have been reported specifically after the events of May 12, 2007 such as the banning of specific TV programs, and attacks on news offices, the raid on the GEO TV office by the Punjab police being the most notable.

Despite regular incursions on the freedom of expression in Pakistan, the surge in the electronic media in Pakistan represents an important change in the socio-political context of the country and serves as a powerful tool to change social and cultural norms of interaction.

What remains to be seen is whether the new democratically elected government will recognise that the growth and diversification of media represents one of the most significant drivers of cultural and political change. Will it use this medium to further its own agenda or allow the media to help politicians set the political agenda?

Mariam Mufti is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on the party system of Pakistan at the Johns Hopkins University

Courtesy: Daily Times, 2/6/2008

 Posted by at 9:38 am

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