Pak TV in 2008

BY Themrise Khan| IN Media Practice | 28/12/2008
Mis-reporting has been another serious irritant over the past year. It has been virtually impossible to depend on television news for accurate information.
THEMRISE KHAN reviews Pakistani TV channels in a turbulent year. Pix: A Geo TV anchor.

The electronic media has made it big in Pakistan. But we already knew that since Lal Masjid hit our screens in early 2007. And then there was the lawyers’ movement, the emergency and finally, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Pakistanis were without choice, completely engulfed in the madness that suddenly surrounded them.


And then in 2008, a new era dawned on Pakistan’s electronic media. People started to question its authenticity.


There has been much that has been written about Pakistan’s newest discovery, thanks to  its erring ways. The glorification of terrorism, a lack of ethics in reporting mechanisms and biased anchors have been the baggage of the last few years. The controversy has been sharp, critical and even rhetorical. Is our electronic media responsible, impartial and balanced enough to provide information-starved Pakistanis with accurate news? While these and several other questions were raised about its performance in 2007, Pakistan’s media was expected to have some answers prepared come 2008.


But now with 2008 drawing to a turbulent close, these and many other questions still remain unanswered. This is disturbing news, not simply because the electronic media has now had yet another year to mature and learn, but also because the madness itself has reached even higher and unbelievable levels. Everyday there is something new and more sensationalistic to report. But somehow, within a few hours, its not so new anymore. Television news seems to have lost its "oomph" somewhere along the way.


This is despite the fact that 2008 has been a "newsworthy" year, so to speak. Taking up from Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in the last few days of 2007, the media got the opportunity to plunge itself into the ensuing chaos of a shocked state and political party. More specifically, "a will they won’t they", election day battle. Subsequently, fairly lackluster coverage followed of what should have been one of the toughest elections the country has faced.  While the winnings offered no surprise, the analysis and commentary did nothing to fuel the viewer’s interest.


The events that did ignite our TV screens however, were more volatile in nature, which illustrated a natural progression from 2007. Bloody images of suicide bombers and their victims continued into this year. As Pakistan counted down a string of attacks primarily in the capital, the Frontier and the tribal areas, it was the attacks in the capital that took the most airtime. From Luna Caprese restaurant, to the first anniversary of the storming of the Lal Masjid , to the Danish Embassy bombing, to the ill-fated and almost sensationalistic Marriot suicide bombing in September, it seemed that the electronic media had succumbed to its comfort zone.


Interspersed were moments of angst and trepidation, with the General Musharraf impeachment and resignation saga turning heads, as viewers waited with bated breath to hear the famous last words of the fallen General. Throughout the year though, the one consistent item of news, was the militant insurgency in the tribal areas and the ensuing line of action taken in Waziristan, Bajaur and surrounding areas. But these too were merely sound bytes, flitting in and out amongst the more "sansanikhaiz" and short-lived items of global jihad.


Sadly however, the focus of the electronic media has remained on news, rather than entertainment, sports or current affairs, as majority of all channels are based on the former, rather than the latter. Even a simple count while flicking channels, reveals that there are at minimum, approximately 50 Pakistani satellite channels currently on air, out of which at least 20 are purely news channels. This includes regional language channels in Sindhi, Pushto and Seraiki. The PTV network involves an additional 6-7 channels which beam out globally, including PTV News, the alma mater of all news channels. With the entrance of a couple of new high-profile news channels in 2008, it also seems that the electronic media is part of the diversification plan of many "seth" owned companies. The media is where the money is…or vice versa apparently.


Coverage has also been focused only on major political events. Important social issues such as the burying alive of 5 girls in Balochistan, received only limited coverage.  There was no sustained media intervention against these acts, even when implicated politicians took to the Cabinet stage. Similarly, the earthquake in Balochistan in October this year, lost momentum in its coverage by the end of the month. Supposedly, it was not as newsworthy as the earthquake of 2005, i.e. the location was not strategic enough. Unfortunately, it seems we have still not learned to harness the power of the media for positive social change.


Mis-reporting has been another serious irritant over the past year. It has been virtually impossible to depend on television news for accurate information. Knee-jerk reactions on the part of reporters in the field, have led to facts at times being distorted beyond comprehension. The rumors regarding the governments sealing of foreign currency accounts and taking over personal lockers, were only fuelled by the unconfirmed reports being broadcast as news crawlers on various news channels. Likewise, the events leading to the Marriott suicide bombing spawned numerous conspiratorial-like facts which were being relayed across all the major channels for at least the first day or two. These included a bomb placed inside the Marriott and two separate blasts occurring in two separate vehicles among others. And then the CCTV footage from the hotel entrance was discovered, and the whole world saw only one truck pull up to the hotel entrance and burst into flames, as the suicide bomber detonated himself and over 600kg of explosives.


The style, content and selection of discussion panels also still leaves a lot to be desired. Such is the dearth of "experts" in this country it seems, that the same personality is seen present on several of the news channels in various talk shows, over the span of a single day. In most cases, he/she is heard commenting on the same issue. The poaching of talent from each other, also continues. Faces remain the same, only the channel logo differs each time. In a country of 160 million people, do we really only have a few dozen who are worthy of facing the cameras? Yet another unanswered question.


It has not however, been until the tail end of this year that the actions of Pakistan’s electronic media can be commended or even defended by ourselves. The Mumbai carnage in late November, exposed more than just terrorism’s dark underbelly, it also exposed India’s electronic media to be almost as bad, if not worse, than ours. For once, our coverage seemed to be objective, impartial and balanced in comparison, at least for the first day.


But perhaps the most obvious and telling sign for the electronic media in 2008, has been the overwhelmingly limited attention span that events have created among viewers. With a plethora of channels broadcasting the same images simultaneously, viewers don’t even seem to have a choice in the matter. Wherever they flick to, the story is the same. Hence, what should be arousing flames of passion and attempts to reconcile, are simply dousing out even a hint of interest in the subject matter. Terrorism, militancy and jihad, no longer have the hold they did on the general public. They are quite simply now, words to be repeated and forgotten. In a world torn apart by these acts, can we afford to be so nonchalant towards them? More so, can the media afford to desensitize its viewers to such an extent towards such pressing issues?


We must also remember that Pakistani viewership of the electronic media, sans PTV, is actually only a fraction of the total population. While cable TV carries all Pakistani satellite channels, the phenomena is still very urbanized. This deprive’s the rural population who can actually use the media to make a difference, but who have no access to it beyond PTV. While PTV itself can also claim to have progressed (or regressed, depending on how you look at it), over the years to be able to compete with its private sector counterparts, it still harbours the undercurrents of bureaucratic state control. Can we really blame them though? In the age of such extremes, sometimes watching PTV is actually a breath of fresh air!


One wishes that one could claim that "it has not been all that bad". But the positive signs are still limited. While the icons of the electronic media have over the past year admitted to their short-comings, they have still not attempted to address them with certainty and conviction. 


So what are we to expect from the electronic media in 2009? We would like to expect some balance in not only coverage, but in content and genre. News is not the only output of television. Documentaries, dramas, music, even soap operas, all contribute towards making television watchable. Living in a politicized world such as this, there needs to be a genre that can counter the overwhelming affect of news on the public at large. Pakistan still has to achieve that fine balance. But it can only do so with introspection. This is an already well publicized debate. Whether our media moguls choose to embrace this debate  in the coming year, or once again ignore it, remains the biggest unanswered question of all.


Themrise Khan is an Islamabad-based freelance development consultant who contributes occasionally to the press.



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