FIELD BLOG SUBSCRIBE TO RSS
Beyond a Free Media: Defining Media Challenges in PakistanPosted by: admin on Thu, 2010-12-09 11:13
By Gayatri Murthy, Research Assistant, AudienceScapes
AudienceScapes Research Assistant Gayatri Murthy recently attended a discussion about Pakistan’s current media environment and its future development as predicted by veteran journalists and researchers from the region. While many have been concerned by the lack of objectivity and unconventional nature of media coverage in the Pakistani broadcast media, the panelists seemed to be alerting us to graver problems -- the lack of basic news and information in remote regions where populations are most vulnerable
Pakistan continues to be an important player in the Global War on Terror and simultaneously struggles with homegrown terrorism, devastating effects of the floods and economic adversity. Given its strategic importance and the enormous challenges it faces, it is critical to understand the nature of Pakistan’s media environment.
An event held a few days ago at the U.S. Institute on Peace (USIP) -- “Pakistan’s Media: Dissecting its Coverage of Extremism, Terrorism and Pakistan-US Relations“-- explored the state of Pakistan’s media. With a guest list featuring veteran journalists and research fellows, the event helped to shed light on the current Pakistani media environment and factors present today that may have implications for its future. Four main themes emerged from the discussion and audience queries:
The Rise of Satellite Television
The rise of private television stations has been indisputably the biggest trend in Pakistani broadcast media. Following the 2002 media reforms initiated by then-President Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) effectively bisected the television market between terrestrial TV broadcasting (limited to the state-run Pakistan Television network, or PTV) and new privately-run satellite and cable channels. PTV remains the only free terrestrial TV network in the country, but as mentioned by Wajahat Ali, senior journalist and William P. Fuller Fellow at the Asia Foundation, a wide variety of private television channels are now available to those with access to cable or satellite television. Among these, one can find many news channels broadcasting in Urdu and English. However, he also noted that satellite and cable television still remains accessible mainly to affluent, urban residents.
Today, Pakistan’s media environment is also characterized by large media houses that own a wide variety of media outlets -- television channels, radio stations and newspapers. He cited the example of the Jang group that owns newspapers/magazines as well as the Geo television channels. He also mentioned the Dawn group – one of Pakistan’s oldest media houses which owns newspapers and a 24-hour news channel.
Radio In Remote Locations
Unfortunately, this large-scale boom in the television market has bypassed the majority of Pakistanis. Many Pakistanis live in rural, impoverished or hard-to-access areas and continue to have very limited options for accessing news. Most of them don’t have access to television and primarily rely on radio and word-of-mouth communication.
Especially for those living in majority Pashto-speaking Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (in some areas, another language, Hindko is also spoken) and the FATA regions, radio emerges as the only available source of news and information (see AudienceScapes report, “News Radio: What Choices do Pakistanis Have?”) . There are plenty of radio stations broadcasting in rural and remote areas (more than 100 private FM radio stations have been licensed in Pakistan), but private stations are not allowed to broadcast their own news programs. Thus radio news options are mainly limited to state-run outlets, militant illegal radio or international broadcasters such as BBC and VOA (Urdu and Pashto services are available from both these international broadcasters).
|The biggest threat to free and fair media development in some remote areas are militant radio stations.|
As reported in our Pakistan Communication Profile, Radio Pakistan attracts big audiences in rural areas and among low-income populations. Foreign broadcasters such as BBC and VOA are also more popular in rural areas than in urban areas. In fact, BBC’s (and Radio Pakistan’s) listenership shrinks as income increases. According to Imtiaz Ali, former Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the USIP, there are private Pakistani radio stations such as Radio Khyber that are available to the mainly Pashto-speaking listeners in these regions, but a look at their website http://radio.pashtomusic.ca/ shows little evidence of news programming.
For Imtiaz Ali, the biggest threat to free and fair media development in the remote areas of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the presence and indeed the proliferation of militant radio stations. The Taliban and other militant groups are reportedly running illegal radio stations to spread their messages in this region. Even though these stations are often shut down or blocked, they resurface regularly and are often run using cheap and makeshift devices such as car batteries, electric generators and a mike. The influence of these stations on an audience otherwise starved of news and information is a potential source of worry, according to Imtiaz Ali.
Imtiaz Ali believes the most crucial issue for the future of Pakistani media is the battle in the remote regions between credible, yet powerless, local actors and militant radio outlets. People in these regions of Pakistan are most information-deprived and perhaps most prone to radicalization and extremism. Providing them with information, that is locally and culturally relevant to them and in a language they can understand (in this case, Pashto).
Wajahat Ali also chimed in on this issue. He advised the many international organizations, NGOs and government agencies who are trying to improve media environments in Pakistan to focus on and empower local media institutions against the Taliban and militant media sources.
Imtiaz Ali also alluded to the ineffectiveness of PEMRA in controlling these militant organizations. Ironically, although they were successful in disallowing private stations from broadcasting on the terrestrial network and AM (for radio) network, they have been largely unsuccessful in being able to control the presence of illegal radio in remote areas.
Journalist Training and Media Ethics
Wajahat Ali noted the lack of training in media ethics and reporting standards of many journalists working in urban, broadcast media. According to him, private television channels grew rapidly in the last decade, creating a large demand for journalists. A lack of media training programs in Pakistan meant that many journalists were hired straight after undergraduate programs, often untrained to be serious and credible professionals presenting unbiased and vital coverage of issues.
He also referred to the unconventional nature of reportage of news and analysis on many news talk shows on Pakistani channels -- according to him, many news anchors are “looking for fireworks” through unfiltered and subjective reporting. Some shows are unnecessarily controversial and some compromise free and fair reporting.
Imtiaz Ali also thought many news personalities on television were “playing to the gallery.” But the real problem, according to him, is in the remote regions. Along with the scarcity of credible outlets available for news and information in the remote areas, he discussed the lack of professional training for journalists in these areas. Many of the initiatives and training programs by local and international organizations are conducted either in English and Urdu, and thus inaccessible to Pashto speaking journalists. In addition, many of these journalists work on a freelance basis and are not an organized group to reach out to, as full-time journalists are who work in more urban areas.
Wajahat Ali believes that if the media environment has to mature, both urban and rural based journalists would need to undergo formal and professional training from credible media institutions set up in Pakistan.
Media Freedom and Availability of Information
Many American observers of Pakistani media questioned the panelists on their opinion of media freedom in Pakistan, especially with regards to the reportage of extremism, terrorism and Pakistan-U.S. relations.
Wajahat Ali said that journalists -- especially television journalists -- enjoy media freedom and in his own career, he had reported critically on the Army, intelligence agencies and the government.
Another panelist, Zahid Hussain, a senior editor from Newsline, explained how the growth period of militancy (especially home grown, home-targeted terrorism) and the media in Pakistan coincided. As a result, many media professionals are still grappling with reporting on terrorism and extremism in a country where the private media itself is relatively new.
Media coverage of U.S.-Pakistan relations, terrorist strikes and extremist elements has often been criticized in the West as being biased, but Hussain believes that the media is improving and will mature with time. He cited the example of improved coverage of the violence in the Baluchistan provinces, which would have been impossible a decade ago given the dominance of state-run media.
Moeed Yusuf, the South Asia Adviser at the USIP and organizer of this event, concluded the discussion by distinguishing between media freedom and the framework that a media organization inhabits. For example, the fact that Pakistani media is critical of the U.S. presence is not an indicator of how free it is, but in fact, related to the framework in which it operates.
|The fact that Pakistani media is critical of the U.S. presence is not an indicator of how free it is.|
If one was to discuss media freedom in Pakistan, according to him, the important issue would be whether critical, wide-ranging information was available to those who needed it. Given this criteria, one could discuss restrictive PEMRA rules, the unavailability of content in remote areas and the lack of information sources for those who needed it the most.
In conclusion, while many have been concerned by the lack of objectivity and unconventional nature of media coverage in the Pakistani broadcast media, the panelists seemed to be alerting us to graver problems -- the lack of basic news and information in remote regions where populations are most vulnerable. Urban and affluent audiences have a variety of choices, and indeed could switch to other channels broadcasting from outside their country if they so desired (BBC, CNN or indeed Al Jazeera) or to news from other media such as the very prolific newspaper industry and the internet. The real populations at risk are those who live in remote locations, lack literacy and only have a radio set to rely on for news; it is their freedom and indeed their right to credible information that we should be most worried about.
Gayatri Murthy is a Research Assistant for the AudienceScapes Project and helps in analyzing the AudienceScapes data, writing the Country Profiles and overall maintenance of the website. You can reach her at email@example.com
Picture Courtesy: Internews and Muhammad Adnan Asim via Flickr