News television and political upheaval in Pakistan

BY Themrise Khan| IN Media Practice | 17/06/2007
With its no-holds-barred broadcasts, Pakistani mediaøs new revolution may actually be a cause and not effect of the current crisis.

Themrise Khan

Anyone following the trials of the ousted Chief Justice of Pakistan will be familiar with the multiple dilemmas now facing the country. Catapulted into a state of political turmoil, Pakistan stands, yet again, at a crossroads. This time, however, its problems are receiving unprecedented publicity, thanks to emergence of 24-hour television on the country`s media scene.

Depictions of Pakistan`s political events are now being transmitted into virtually every household in the country and beyond. Consequently, the media has come under the government`s wrath for its uninhibited coverage of the Chief Justice crisis. Indeed, the government`s high-handed approach to put curbs on media coverage of the crisis has put its credibility on the spot, this being election year. But Pakistani media`s new revolution may actually be a cause and not effect of the current crisis.

Electronic media in Pakistan has come a long way. From its humble beginnings in 1964, Pakistan`s lone state television channel, PTV, has now been transgressed by at least 30 private satellite channels, all in the last five years. Not to be left behind, PTV has its own offspring of five sister channels. Several other channels are still waiting in the wings, pending either licensing or launch. From the days when gathering around television for the eight o`clock drama or the nine o`clock khabarnama (news) was a family event, the Pakistani audience is now spoilt for choice in local entertainment, news, sports, music and current affairs. The Musharraf government has brought about a media revolution, indeed, but by doing so it has opened a virtual Pandora`s Box.

After years of state imposed restrictions, the electronic media finally seemed to get the `freedom` to air no holds barred broadcasts. With the launch of GEO TV in 2001, the brainchild of one of Pakistan`s leading media barons, Pakistan was suddenly offered the refreshing prospect of young, intelligent faces, groundbreaking local news and the exposé of issues hitherto unheard of on Pakistani television. The experience was raw, fresh and exciting.

Entertainment channels followed suit with mega serials and soap-operas hitting television screens by the dozen. Exotic foreign locations and model-turned-actors sported the latest in Western fashions, oozing painted sex-appeal. The music scene also received a tremendous boost. Twenty-four hour music channels began sponsoring young, new talent. Ordinary boys and girls became stars overnight. Everyone wanted to join a TV channel.

But the biggest coup was for the news channels. With virtually no restrictions placed on content, Pakistani news became bolder than ever. Bound by government ownership, PTV remained pro-establishment. But after years of silence, the Pakistani intelligentsia woke up with a bang. Issues like rape, political corruption, child abuse, and human rights violations dominated talk shows, exposés and headline news. Most refreshing was the ability of the networks to parody those in power and make Pakistan laugh at itself with comic relief. The fragrance of freedom of expression was intoxicating for both audience and presenters alike.

With competition growing stiffer, however, cracks have begun to show in this new media edifice. From modest beginnings, the trajectory has descended into directionless purpose. Entertainment programming is suffering from the Indian "copycat" phenomena. It`s hard to tell the difference between Star Plus and any of Pakistan`s satellite channels, even down to the pronunciation of scantily clad hostesses, "Hinglish" style. There is virtually no educational content on any of the channels. In a country sexually suppressed for so long, the issues are at times, overwhelmingly inappropriate and poorly handled. Channel wars have also emerged with presenters and shows switching allegiances faster than the remote can flick channels. With several new channels still to be launched, one wonders how much more of the same the audience will be able to take.

But the tragic twist in the tale lies at the helm of the depiction of news and current affairs. The proliferation of talk shows is wiping out both journalistic credibility and objective realism. The same issue is done to death again and again until it eventually loses all meaning. It begs the question; "is it really a good thing to have a `free and open` media?"

Not if one is subjected to the near torturous drawing room opinions of the jaded and publicity-hungry all day long, on every available channel. A talk-shop, if ever there was one, Pakistan`s satellite airwaves don`t seem to be interested in issues and robust analyses anymore. Instead, we are faced with a haphazard and soulless mix of panelists yelling their way into our homes, egged on by even more "enlightened" moderators (read: talk show hosts).

What happened to the creative and controversial investigative programming that had initially held the audience captive, or the intellectual discussion on literature and the Hudood Ordinance that opened up debates and minds? Have none of our satellite channels heard of documentaries or biopics? Have they forgotten the meaning of quality family dramas?

Sensationalism was always the name of the game for the media. But in Pakistan, the media isn`t looking for scoops anymore. They have become the scoop themselves.

Following the ouster of Pakistan`s Chief Justice in March of this year, lawyers went wild in protest against the state. Unfortunately, the electronic media also followed suit. Instead of projecting the issue rationally and objectively, Pakistan`s private television channels went for the jugular. Vicious anti-establishment attacks; live coverage of street protests and demonstrations; and worst of all, forming their own opinion of the situation, thus violating the sacrosanct code of responsible journalism - objectivity and impartiality. Suddenly, no one knew whether they could trust the airwaves anymore. And then came the PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) Amendments. The new laws gave the Authority, which is responsible for issuing broadcast licenses, sweeping powers to curb any channel that aired anti-government or anti-army content.

Under democratic circumstances, this would mean outrage. Indeed, the media community in Pakistan took to the streets in protest, ultimately leading to the retraction of the Amendments a few weeks later. But whether this is a victory for the electronic media or not is a separate issue.

In an era where access to information can make or break a state, access to unregulated information can actually do worse. Media in Pakistan is beginning to tread that dangerous path. While one can question whether the government went too far in clamping down on the media with such force, one also needs to question the media itself.

Is incessant live coverage of events (being relayed simultaneously on multiple channels), really necessary? Is the encouragement of foul language against the government and armed forces, however faulty it may be, professional for a satellite television channel to broadcast internationally? Where does one draw the line between covering an event and manipulating it? Balance, after all, needs to come from all directions. Even America`s infamous right-wing broadcasts manage to maintain some semblance of sanity within their pro-establishment sensationalism.

Ultimately, while the electronic media has done a great service to Pakistan by bringing to light social, political and economic issues, it may bedoing a disservice to itself by refusing to monitor its own content. Granted it has been a pioneer in breaking the shackles of censorship in Pakistan, but if we can question the bloody images of Saddam`s hanging on television, we can certainly question the images of Karachi`s ethnic bloodbath on May 12.

Globally, it is quite clear how powerful the media can be to shape events. But it is important to realize that in Pakistan the industry is still a fledgling one. More so, it is dominated by connoisseurs of the print media. Its human resource is primarily made up of print reporters gone live and anchors mostly self-taught or first-timers.

Sadly, no one wants to admit the fine differences between print and electronic journalism. The result is a lop-sided view of events and a quick jump on the ratings bandwagon.

The Chief Justice crisis has raised important issues for Pakistan`s electronic media. Ironically enough, the blanket state controls have brought these issues to light. While media freedom is not the only liberty to be challenged by the state in Pakistan, it is definitely one that needs to be questioned and analysed by the media industry itself. It remains to be seen however, whether the industry would take up this challenge through brain or brawn.

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