Pakistani media is trashy because people – that would be consumers of media, or simply put, you – demand and happily receive trash. That was the only explanation offered at an event that measured atmospheric pressure of the media environment and found it low enough to predict that stormy weather is only getting worse.
The Asian Media Barometer first conducted home-grown analysis of the media landscape in Pakistan and India in 2009, in which India scored 2.4 and Pakistan a slightly better 2.5 out of a maximum score of 5. The 2012 Barometer found Pakistan sliding down to 2.4. Beating India by one decimal point was the source of pride then, and being where India was three years ago, is the saving grace now. But is it?
Three of the four sectors analysed in the report, show a marked decline in both practice and theory of basic media principles and ethics. This does not, however, reflect in the overall score because the ‘freedom of expression’ sector received a more than generous acknowledgment by panelists who number 11 (or 12, depending on what page of the report you are on) and are drawn from within national media and civil society.
A majority of them are so enamoured of the Zardari brand of democracy that they find it impossible to consider that unreasonable and restrictive provisions in law and Constitution, remain so during the ‘return of democracy’ period. In response to the statement: ‘There are no laws or parts of laws restricting freedom of expression such as excessive official secrets or libel acts, or laws that unreasonably interfere with the responsibilities of media,’ only four panelists voted 1 (country does not meet indicator) while two voted 5 (country meets all aspects of the indicator) and the rest fell in between. This, in the face of a list of 11 pieces of legislation – the oldest from 1885 and the latest from 2009 – the panelists were provided to debate over. I’d give anything to watch a recording of that debate just to see how a dozen experts discuss tainted laws, agree that they are unfair and against the spirit of free expression, and yet reach an above average score of 2.6 in aggregate.
The statements put to vote are, in some cases, quite vague or outlandish, like: ‘Websites and blogs are not required to register with or obtain permission from state authorities’ (it received a unanimous maximum score of 5), and: ‘The advertisement market is large enough to support a diversity of media outlets’. The only purpose they seem to serve is giving some easy points to a country in need of easy points.
And the tradition of anonymous voting let loose the ghost panelists who voted in a manner none of them would own up publicly. For instance:
‘Government makes every effort to honour regional and international instruments on freedom of expression and freedom of the media,’ received only one vote for ‘country does not meet indicator’ while all the rest answered between ‘only a few’ and ‘most’ aspects met. This, in a country where a democratically elected military president bans all electronic media by simply passing an order; a country where a democratically elected civilian government uses public service broadcasting for propaganda, and threatens public servants with disciplinary action if they are found to provide information to media; and a country which (together with India and Brazil) has recently opposed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, despite being one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.
‘The state does not seek to block or filter internet content unless laws provide for restrictions that serve a legitimate interest and are necessary in a democratic society’ – 10 panelists found the statement true to some or the other extent but one found it perfectly applicable to Pakistan. The current and previous governments have routinely filtered internet access and explicitly blocked social network web sites such as Facebook and Youtube.
‘Journalists and editors do not practice self-censorship’ – The journalists of Fata and Balochistan fear militants, in Karachi they fear MQM, and in Azad Kashmir and elsewhere, it is the sweeping powers of military and the street power of religious groups. For one reason or another, every Pakistani journalist and editor practices some degree of self-censorship, and that’s only in terms of fear of violence. Pressure from advertisers and political allies is another story. And yet, six of 11 panelists agreed with the statement somewhat. ‘Community broadcasting enjoys special promotion given its potential to broaden access by communities to the airwaves’ – six voted 1 while the rest five were split between 2 and 3, whereas the factual position is, community broadcasting does not exist in Pakistan.
‘Government does not use its power over the placement of advertisements as a means to interfere with editorial content’ – again 10 panelists found that the country does not meet the indicator, while two differed. And my favourite: ‘Owners of established mainstream private media do not interfere with editorial independence,’ One special (as in handicapped) panelist voted a lone 5 while the remaining 10 voted 1. This is not a difference of opinion; this is a difference of 180 degrees. The special panelist obviously knows nothing about media owners, or he is one.
Fahad Hussain made the brave attempt to rescue the media by means of the ‘mirror of society’ analogy – if every other section of the society is rotten how do you expect media to be any different? People get the media they deserve. And the moderator, Ghazi Salahuddin, concurred: ‘Pakistani media has also been subject to declining standards because of the educational and cultural shortcomings of society. Low literacy and high cost of newspapers have restricted circulation of print media. As for the broadcast media, the tendency to appeal to the lowest common denominator has increased exponentially,’ he writes in the summary of the report commissioned and published by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), a German non-profit organisation.
So there: It’s all your fault. And mine. The media in this country is the way it is because we are like that. But that’s not the only knowledge produced by putting German tax payer’s money to work in Pakistan. More importantly, we have learnt that there aren’t 11 people in a population of nearly 200 million who can agree on what is a fact and what isn’t.
Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.