The media in Pakistan has come a long way

IN Media Practice | 01/01/1900
The media today is perhaps  the only institution in Pakistan which enjoys the highest levels of political clout, commercial power and intellectual legitimacy
to journalism that they have the potential of becoming future icons of their profession. One such media practitioner is 27 year-old Ammara Durrani, a Karachi based journalist who edits two sections of The News on Sunday, one of Pakistan`s most respected weekend publications. The sections she edits cover political economy and Kolachi, a metro supplement on Karachi. In her writings Durrani focuses largely on international relations; and as a magazine editor she has been known to err on the side of daring, visible when she recently published an interview with Hafiz Said, the firebrand chief of Lashkare Tayyaba.

Hoping to give younger Pakistani journalists a voice Mohammad Shehzad, an independent journalist based in Islamabad has been conducting a series of interviews with them. Recently Shezad spoke with Durrani for her perspective on the state of the media in Pakistan.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Some columnists believe that General Pervez Musharraf`s regime has given the press unprecedented freedom as compared to past governments. What is your assessment?

A: Certainly the English as well as the vernacular press, especially in Sindh, have been strongly critical not only of the army and the intelligence agencies but other powerful actors of the system, such as the bureaucracy and politicians. Therefore this claim holds water. This has also earned Musharraf accolades from the free world to justify his "illegitimate" rule.

However, within that the press has limited freedom. It cannot undertake factual and investigative reporting which has the potential of endangering the `bigwigs`. It is this gap between fact and opinion which is the ultimate test of true press freedom. The rulers see no harm in allowing critical expression as long as there is little factual evidence to back it up.

The paradigm of press freedom remains limited to government, politicians and the clergy. But in recent years, many more institutions - corporations, civil society organizations, foreign institutions, local community hierarchies and institutions, and even the media itself-are playing a crucial role in the socio-political and economic spheres of the country. They are the new stakeholders in the Pakistan`s power structure, commanding parallel levels of `respect`.

Because of their friendly associations with the press, they are able to publicize their so-called social goodness. But a lot is going on within these circles which needs to be exposed. These players need to be made accountable. But very little is reported on their role and activities. From the looks of it, the government is not the only baddie these days.

The real question to my mind --is the press being faced by a new set of chains which are invisible from the public eye and not as obvious as the restrictions placed by the government?

Q: To what extent is reporting in English papers subject to self-censorship?

A: Because of the privileged position that the English press currently enjoys, I would say the extent of self-censorship remains less (as compared to the language papers). This is because the English press is considered to be a `relatively safe` by the press community since it remains out of the reach of a mass readership.

But although we are relatively free to express our opinion, we have to adopt a very cautious approach when it comes to investigative reports. "Read between the lines" becomes the preferred approach. In my opinion, there is a thin line between "responsibility" and "self-censorship", and most of the time we are left with trying to juggle these two constraints.

Q: How realistic is the Freedom of Information Act recently introduced by General Musharaff and how do you view the Defamation Ordinance?

A: If the Freedom of Information Act is a morsel of bread thrown our way by the government, then the Defamation Ordinance is a way of warning us to think twice before leaping for that morsel. There is a huge hue and cry being made by the press community to voice its concerns about it, and it seems that the battle is very much on. The reality will become clear only when these ordinances are used for various ends.

Q: What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of Pakistani media?

A: Historically, Pakistan has always figured prominently in the international political scene, which means, it receives its fair share of global and regional media attention; these are really barometers for measuring our own potential. Being on this receiving end and due to our constant interaction with external media at various levels, the Pakistani media has come a long way in its evolution as a quick and intelligent-if not very sophisticated-source of news, analysis and opinion. Add to this, some of the best minds of this country are working in the media industry, contributing the best intellectual and human capital that the country can produce.

I believe that it is a combination of these two factors, which has led Pakistan`s media to enjoy a kind of national and international, respect and credibility, something the country`s government does not. The ultimate reality of our media today is that perhaps it is the only institution which enjoys the highest levels of political clout, commercial power and intellectual legitimacy.

Leaving aside these macro observations, there are some pressing problems which need to be immediately redressed if we want to go any further. Journalism is about teamwork, initiative and outreach. You take away these characteristics and it starts losing its ground. I feel that the media in Pakistan today is increasingly becoming individualistic and insular.  The most harmful effects of this trend will be experienced by those who step into the field in the future as well those who presently depend on the media`s help in one way or the other.

Also, meager wages in this age of high expense threaten to either keep or take away the best minds from the industry. The yawning gap between education, vocational training and general knowledge on the one hand and the industry`s requirements on the other means that a often we find people with far less demonstrated ability (working in the profession)  then ought to be the case.

Q: Can you make a comparison between the Indian and Pakistani press?

A: The Indian press is ahead of us in the sophistication race, in terms of grasp over issues and presentation skills. This is evident in their electronic media which we are fortunate to see on our television screens in the case of satellite and our computer monitors in the case of the Internet.

Given India`s impressive literacy rate, multiply our estimates of Pakistani readership several times more and you can imagine for yourself what kind of position it enjoys. Furthermore, when it comes to issues then consider that the Pakistani media is only now waking up to the ideas of development, environment and human rights. Again, our Urdu press has yet to make its mark in the coverage of these issues, compared to our English publications. The Indian press took up these issues in the 60s, 70s and 80s and explored them to the full.

These days, they are focusing on the corporate culture and figuring out ways to tackle it in the most clever ways possible; whereas we are still stuck with the government. We think that our most important discovery in recent times is the jihadi factor. At the same time, many feel that the Indian media`s coverage of the Gujarat riots of last year left much to be desired. Clearly, many things need to be addressed on both sides of the border.

Q: Are you satisfied with the professional standards of journalism in Pakistan?

A: I don`t think any serious journalist would like to be "satisfied". It`s a perpetual state of `dissatisfaction` of our species which keeps us going. There`s far larger ground to be covered, and I seriously think it is time that we get everyone from the industry together and think hard-realistically and practically-as to where we are headed. I feel these are the defining times for our media and how it would shape in the next 50 years or so. It is better to realize this now and take action to influence our own future.
You can contact Mohammad Shehzad  at

Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More