The whole country is in the grip of an agonising uncertainty. People are groping for credible answers to questions that affect their lives and the lives of their children. Will the elections be held on time? Will the country progress towards a genuinely democratic dispensation or will it move further towards a theocracy? Will the environment become more tolerant of dissent and the rights of the underprivileged?
What is adding to citizens’ despair is lack of information about the identity of the various state and non-state actors, and the direction they want the state to take. Since television is today the most effective medium for dissemination of information, people by and large are looking up to television news channels to help them find the right path. Unfortunately, these channels are being called upon to do this while they themselves are trying to cope with handicaps of adolescence.
The state-owned Pakistan Television, that claims to command the largest area in the country, is yet to be cured of its congenital affliction. It was launched 53 years ago by Ayub Khan’s image-makers primarily to facilitate his victory in the presidential election that was soon due. While the talent PTV was able to attract for the entertainment part of its assignment performed marvelously, its news department became the government’s publicity tool.
Today, the PTV is mercifully not as shameless a beater of the government’s drum as it was in 1968 while projecting the Ayub regime’s so-called decade of development. But it is still not accepted as an honest presenter of reality.
All attempts to transform the PTV into an autonomous public service organisation under parliamentary control failed and now the issue has dropped out of public debate altogether. The hopes that the ‘independent’ non-state channels could force PTV to mend its ways or make the state channel irrelevant have not materialised. PTV remains a significant source of information for a large number of people and it casts a strong influence on non-state channels, too. The campaign to free the PTV of state control needs to be revived with due fervour.
The non-state tv news channels are much younger than the state monopoly and that includes Radio Pakistan, and while their role in increasing ordinary people’s access to facts of life is highly commendable their capacity to function as impartial disseminators of facts is debatable.
A number of factors inhibit the progress of these non-state tv news channels’ progress towards becoming independent providers of information and fulfilling their social responsibility. The state of governance does not satisfy anyone except those who get paid for singing administration’s praises. All conscious citizens are getting more and more worried about the decline in the Authority’s capacity to perform its benevolent functions and its increased efforts to acquire more coercive powers.
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This is evident from frequent calls on Pemra to control the electronic media more stringently, adoption of a highly controversial cyber crime law and the aborted design to make a Pemra-like law to further curtail the print media’s freedom. In such situations, the administration always becomes extra-sensitive to any criticism and the media extremely timid. Telling the truth can amount to putting the survival at stake.
Some people say Pakistan has become a multi-authority state and it is not easy to completely refute this view. At least an increase in the number of holy cows is evident. The perils of upholding justice have multiplied. In the olden times, media persons knew what risks they ran for voicing dissent. One could be asked to deposit some money as security and the security already deposited could be confiscated or one could be tried on charges ranging from disturbing the peace and disclosing official secrets to sedition.
These methods of chastising nonconformist journalists have apparently been replaced with less complicated means — from loss of job to disappearance for as long as it takes you to discover the way to security, or worse. For details one may see the reports of international monitors who have been declaring Pakistan a dangerous place for media persons. All this makes honest reporting of events, especially of trends, far more hazardous than it should be.
The news channels have increased their problems by their failure to end disunities at various levels. The owners are divided and quite often one party or another seeks the establishment’s cover in its fight against a business rival. The owners also don’t care to win the hearts of professionals working for them. And both owners and professionals retain their prejudices against the civil society with whom they must form a united front for defending freedom of expression. All these disunities need to be replaced with the unity of purpose.
Since the media functions in a climate of fear it sometimes makes compromises that amount to suppression of truth, wholly or partially. Worse, it communicates the malady of fear to the people and they remain silent when both duty and interest make speaking out necessary. In order to overcome all forms of fear, the media must help the citizens to regain their confidence in being able to chart their destiny, to become agents of a change for the better.
This could perhaps be done by reducing the duration of preaching sessions — the farcical talk shows — the comic programmers that are devoid of wit and humour, and replacing the unduly stretched out crime stories with greater projection of what honest teachers, artisans, artists, creators and promoters of music and the incorruptible in authority are doing across the country.
Apparently, some of the non-state news channels have become partisans of political formations that are fighting to retain or gain state power. Any given set of facts is presented so differently by different channels that it becomes difficult to separate fact from speculation or pure invention. The channels are, of course, free to choose the horses they wish to put their money on but they are expected to make their political affiliations public.
But are tv news channels completely free to choose their political favourites? The kind of news management that is being done in Balochistan is an eye-opener and so are the political games being played in Karachi. These are not the only areas where the flow of information is controlled by diverse forces that agree on one point namely, their prerogative to buy out the media or coerce it into accepting slavishness as the supreme virtue.
These are testing times. But stout-hearted, truthful and disciplined news providers will survive because the courage of the defenceless has no limits while the power of all enemies of truth is invariably limited.