Aurora Magazine

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State and Media

Published in Mar-Apr 2017

Existing at several levels, the relationship between the State and the Media is of fundamental importance to both.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Even though the State is monolithic in concept and singular as a word, in actuality the State shares diversity with the media. The three principal pillars of the State comprising the Legislatures, the Executive and the Judiciary are, in turn, constituted by a large number of segments. Two Houses of the Federal Parliament, four Provincial Assemblies, two Regional Assemblies, over 100 District Councils, hundreds of Taluka Councils and Union Councils. The Executive has myriad ministries, departments and corporations at the Federal and Provincial levels. The Military component of the Executive represents the three Services of the Army, Air Force and Navy. With the Supreme Court at the apex, the Judiciary comprises high courts in each province and region, as well as hundreds of district courts.

Though the media regrettably tend to be incorrectly referred to in the singular, in reality, they represent a wide range of diversity; from newspapers to electronic news channels, from printed current affairs magazines to non-news entertainment channels, from conventional mass media to digital media. And within each of these media, there is variation of content, quality and interpretation between the political sections and, say, the sports section of the same single medium. Just as variety is the spice of life, media are the forever-shifting, always-changing kaleidoscope of our times.

The different components of the State at multiple levels interact with different media in different contexts, sometimes on a minute-by-minute, hour-to-hour basis or sometimes at a frequency of longer periods. Despite the exponential expansion of society, the private sector, civil society and the non-partisan, non-political aspects of life, the official State is in almost continuous, perpetual interaction with the media.

Perhaps we can enumerate the number of spheres in which the State and the media relate with each other as being seven. The first of these is the State as sponsor, owner and employer in the media sector. Whereas newspapers have traditionally been associated with private ownership as distinct from state ownership (which also exists in some countries), the introduction of radio as a mass broadcaster made the State a media proprietor.

In South Asia, during the colonial British occupation of the region, All-India Radio was established as a State monopoly. This set a pattern that was to be retained even after the independence of Pakistan and India in August, 1947. Radio Pakistan in our country and Akashvani in India inherited the concept of state ownership and played a pivotal and formative role in articulating the national identities of the two new nation-states. This linkage shows a notable quality of durability. New, privately-owned FM radio channels in both countries have not ended the continued existence of Radio Pakistan – also known as the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) onward of 1973 – or of Akashvani. Both also continue to be the recipients of substantial financial subsidies from the public exchequer. This is partly justified by the fact that these state radio networks conduct public service broadcasting on a far larger scale than do privately-owned radio stations.

For the print media, for cinema, and now also for digital media, through measures such as the law to curb cyber crimes, the State’s role as regulator of the media remains indispensable.

The second sphere of the State’s relationship with media is in the regulatory field. The Legislatures, most often at the federal level, enact the laws by which both public and private media are owned and operated. The autonomous status ostensibly given to a regulatory body such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) may not be actually so in view of the influence and control of the Executive on PEMRA’s appointments and policies, which only reinforces the proximity of the State with one important segment of the media. For the print media, for cinema, and now also for digital media, through measures such as the law to curb cyber crimes, the State’s role as regulator of the media remains indispensable.

The need to project public notices, from legal notices or tender notices, public service announcements or adulatory, self-congratulatory campaigns on new development programmes of a government, on successes achieved in sectors of State activity creates the third relationship with the State as a big, multi-billion advertiser. Governed by the structure and regulations by which State-related advertising, both at the federal and the provincial levels, is subject to control by ministries and departments, gives the State a powerful financial influence on the media. Often, this power is used by governments to penalise sections of the media that have either been harshly critical of the government of the day or have failed to follow written or unwritten guidelines. But there are also happier exchanges! In the third week of February 2017, member publications of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) prominently published colour advertisements titled “Thank you. Prime Minister” to express thanks for the Head of Government having approved a price increase for the rates paid for government advertisements in print. There are also curious anomalies. Rates for government advertising in print media are notably lower than rates charged to private, commercial entities. However, on TV and radio, for unexplained reasons, the reverse is true. There is comfort all around when ambiguity is prolonged by profound silence.

If State/Government advertisements can be seen as butter for the media, the State and the Government are, inexhaustible loaves of bread; i.e. the sources for news and analytic content of media, thereby defining the fourth sphere. Commencing with ceremonial functions of the State rendered by the president, governors, chief justices, chiefs of the three Armed Forces, specially the chief of army staff, and spanning the enormous number of elected representatives, the PM, ministers and officials, the State generates huge volumes of information that are still inadequate to feed the media’s ravenous appetite – particularly for negative information and bad news which, like most states and societies elsewhere, we are quite good at producing.

From mundane, daily tidbits to landmark events, from predictable speeches and statements to unexpected twists and turns, the State is like a boundless ocean of actual and suspected wealth of words, images and statistics. Elements of the State sometimes use sections of the media to plant disinformation, or to test possible new policies by floating trial balloons and monitoring reactions. For their part, sections of the media also often fail to practice the essential codes of professional ethics before reporting unverified news, as also in slanting coverage that demonises aspects of the State.

A fifth level of relationship is that of the State being the subscriber to, and the audience of, media. Be it the availability of newspapers and magazines on state-owned PIA flights or the spectacle of a TV set being present and switched on in the offices of the highest officials, the State is hyper-conscious of what media have to say. Here the State’s role overlaps with a sixth dimension: that because of being the subject of coverage by media, being obliged to be a monitor and commentator about media content. Currently, at one extreme, is the view of President Trump about how fake news and fake media are to be challenged. In Pakistan itself, on a fairly regular basis, the State’s diverse components have to clarify, contradict or confirm, as the case may be, speculative, incorrect or factual errors in media content.

As proprietor of PTV and PBC in particular, and as the structure which facilitates the growth of private media, the State becomes, in its seventh level of engagement with the media, a catalyst and a mechanism for the development of specialised human resources. Thousands of Pakistanis have acquired invaluable education, training and on-the-job experience in all the skills required in the electronic media. They became the guiding and inspirational factors that shaped the formative phases of media in Pakistan. In print media as well, despite the negative aspect of State ownership of newspapers through the National Press Trust between the 60s and the 90s, the State made a useful contribution in developing professionalism in both print and electronic media. In 2017, the State-owned Institute of Business Administration hosts the Centre for Excellence in Journalism established with the support of USAID in 2014.

Existing at several levels, seven of which have been referred to in this reflection, the relationship between the State and the media is of fundamental importance to both and will continue to evolve as digital media and new technologies introduce new challenges.

The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister for Information.