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Compromised Credibility

The last 25 years have seen a radical transformation of Pakistan’s media. Nasir Jamal traces the evolution.
Published 18 Jan, 2024 09:39am

Pakistan’s burgeoning news media has undergone tremendous transformation over the past 25 years. The advent of cable TV’s 24-hour news cycle in the early 2000s massively changed the media environment. But it was the internet that by far proved to be the biggest ‘disruptor’ of the media landscape, ever since the launch of high-speed mobile broadband in 2014 and it was only natural that the factors that revolutionised the media landscape would also change journalism and its practitioners. In spite of the vast expansion in Pakistan’s media industry and diversification of content, it is hard to argue that all of these changes have been for the best.

It is commonly believed that it was General Pervez Musharraf who set off the media revolution in Pakistan. That is only partially true. Media liberalisation started in the late eighties when the first Benazir Bhutto government lifted the draconian restrictions imposed on the press by General Zia-ul-Haq, initiating the process of ending the state’s monopoly over the airwaves. Several local and foreign news channels, including those from India, could broadcast their content into Pakistan through traditional and satellite dish antennas and a number of FM radio stations began operations. In February 1997, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Meraj Khalid promulgated the EMRA Ordinance but it was allowed to lapse when Nawaz Sharif returned to power for a second term.

A few months after ousting the political government, the Musharraf regime drafted a new law known as the Rambo Ordinance, short for the Regulatory Authority for Media Broadcast Organisations. It was twice approved by the Musharraf cabinet in 2000, but never actually promulgated and was followed in March 2002 by its revised version – the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which radically transformed Pakistan’s electronic media scene. Soon the state monopoly of PTV was dismantled and replaced by scores of private 24-hour news channels.

What compelled General Musharraf to liberalise the news media and allow private television channels to proliferate – something his democratically elected predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, was too afraid to permit? It certainly was not his love for the free flow of news or freedom of expression. The change in the media environment was dictated by a confluence of multiple factors. The first and foremost were the rapid changes taking place in media and broadcasting technologies across the world and which made it near-impossible, even for a military dictator, to control or stop the inflow of unfiltered information from the ‘outside’.

At the same time, the transformation of the state-controlled economy into one driven by market forces and mass consumption, a process that began in the early nineties and quickened under Musharraf following the privatisation of public businesses and massive private (local and foreign) investments in the consumer goods, automobile manufacturing, telecom and financial sectors, had led to the expansion of the middle class. The influx of large amounts of foreign multilateral and bilateral assistance (mainly from the US and Europe) in exchange for Pakistan’s support in the War on Terror, as well as growth in home remittances, further bolstered consumer spending. While the expanding middle classes linked with the outside world either through foreign television channels or friends and family, or the consumption of imported goods, and helped create a demand for the free flow of information, the private sector needed new mass advertising channels to reach out to potential consumers in order to sell their mobile phones, automobiles, beauty products, home appliances, personal loans, credit cards and other assorted products.

Nevertheless, Musharraf could have conveniently ignored technological and economic factors had it not been for his personal experience of the role of India’s media in propagating India’s official stance during the Kargil War in 1999, and which led him to realise the importance of a free electronic media to project Pakistan’s perspective on domestic issues. Musharraf’s need for support at home for his political ambitions also helped to catalyse the process of opening up private media. To please media owners, he allowed them cross-media ownership.

This concession saw a proliferation of newspapers and broadcast media outlets, as newspaper owners could also own multiple TV channels and radio stations. In the initial years, both newspapers and TV channels proliferated and thrived side by side as the economy boomed. Nonetheless, the newspapers started to gradually lose private ad revenue to television because of its reach and ability to cater to the needs for news and entertainment of both the urban and rural population.

The liberalisation of the media increased news choices and options, although the exponential growth in the number of media outlets brought new challenges. Journalism gradually shifted towards more opinion-based content that relied less and less on objective news coverage as the editorial controls and filters diluted. Increasing competition also meant that television newsrooms did not have enough time to produce content and double-check facts before broadcasting it to their audiences. The competition for breaking news resulted in rushed – and sometimes inaccurate – reporting, as news was trivialised in the rat race audiences. Trust in the media began to decline and political journalism became polarised, with journalists on either side of the divide holding on to their exclusive ideas of the truth.

The advent of investors into the news business, with the intent of using their media ownerships to either gain access to political influence or advance their commercial interests, greatly impacted the credibility of the media. Everyone was seen by the public as working for one political party or the other, and advancing the establishment’s agenda. The quality of journalism suffered immensely and commercial interests replaced independent and investigative journalism.

The expansion of the news media notwithstanding, state control and censorship also increased. The news media today faces punitive action in the form of the withholding of government advertising (a major source of revenue) and journalists have to suffer serious consequences if they refuse to toe the line as defined by powerful circles.

That is not all. The consumption and production of news in the age of Information Technology (IT) has undergone a much more radical and rapid change in recent years, threatening the survival of print media and cable television. Social media has taken over mainstream journalism. Smartphones and video streaming have freed news consumers from the need to be either educated in order to read a newspaper or stationary to watch television. In short, news consumers are no longer dependent on traditional media for making informed political and economic choices.

The print media has suffered the most because of the rise of digital platforms and scores of print publications have shut down. The economic downturn could not have come at a worse time for newspapers as government ads are not sufficient to keep them alive. The emerging situation has exposed journalists and other media workers to an uncertain future and exploitative employment conditions.

These changes are in line with global trends. Digital media is replacing traditional news media everywhere and taking away their ad revenues. What makes Pakistan peculiar is the widely-held notion that the demise of the print media will see the end of newspapers – although this is an incorrect assessment. The hunger for news is increasing and as long as this hunger sustains itself, newspapers will always have a future, but they will be available in the digital space, with technological adaptations and modifications to suit the new medium and the changing demands of news consumers.

Nasir Jamal is Bureau Chief, Dawn Lahore.