The recent drought in Thar — now a dated story — brought into focus the role of the media. While the media was appreciated for raising a serious, non-glamorous issue to the point that an inactive state was forced to swing into action, it was also castigated for staying silent earlier even though a drought situation officially existed since late last year.
At other points, tv channels and major newspapers find themselves receiving accolades or brickbats for their coverage of what is deemed as important news events: an act of terrorism or violence, a police excess, a minister’s folly, a juicy bite from a member opposition, or a member public becoming a victim of state’s apathy. Media’s performance is judged not only on the basis of who reported first, and how exclusively, but also to what extent a “worthy” news story was highlighted or underplayed. The mark of success of a given news story and its presenter is defined when a relevant minister/authority or the judiciary takes note of an act and “demands report”!
Such excitement and anxiety is natural in an environment where media dominates, at times, as the ONLY forum of discourse available. The media in Pakistan, particularly the broadcast media, is overburdened with responsibilities. It is expected to inform, analyse, play up/down issues, hold accountability of relevant actors, and most importantly move the state into action. All this while it continues to pursue its commercial interests of maximum viewership that must be won through the power of the content.
In response to the expectations from them, the news media of Pakistan’s media spectrum (100 plus channels and around 1,500 newspapers) rush to cover every possible social, political, economic and militant development. Depending on the news value of the happening (gruesome, stark, shocking), they put their journalism into use accordingly: replay, analyse, re-analyse, follow up tracing relevant actors/departments, ask tough questions, and demand action. So if a bomb blast kills two people, it may last on the news radar for a couple of hours only, but if a blast kills 100 people, the coverage may run for more than a day, with the actors in the highest echelons of power called before the camera to explain and reiterate commitment for an action.
That is the nature of the beast. The country’s fast mushrooming broadcast media channels are engaged in fierce competition for eyeballs and they have to follow the rules of the competition. Cashing in on the hunger of an audience, living in uncertain environment, craving sensational updates on the latest developments is what it entails. News and analysis are the only products that a news media house has to offer. There are budgets to the tune of millions of dollars involved; salaries have to be paid and high-tech production facilities have to be made efficient use of.
Revenue comes from advertisers who only shell out the bucks if their market research suggests that the channel is being watched widely. One of the golden rules of running a successful media business is: It is not about selling content to the audience. It is about selling audience to the advertisers. And sensational content helps the cause!
For all its flaws and biases in reporting and analysing, the news media in Pakistan, by donning an activist hat, has more than played its positive role. Many major issues would have gone unresolved if the media had not taken it upon itself to pursue them. In recent times, the Taliban excesses, Balochistan forced disappearances, Naseerabad killing (2008), Sarfaraz Shah case (2011), Sialkot lynching case (2010) Karachi violence, police corruption, honour-based-violence, violation of non-Muslims’ rights, and the Thar drought; the media has achieved important milestones in highlighting and prompting state action on issues that might have remained unattended if not reported, and followed up. Even if half-baked and sound-bite riddled, the coverage of these developments have forced the power corridors to answer questions that it may have wanted to avoid.
And this is what the problem is. Out of all forums that may activate the state, media discourse is the most effective one. Public’s access to the state has been re-routed through the media with all forms of public engagement with the state now depending on the media’s coverage for them to be recognized as worth an action. Press clubs in major cities witnesses hundreds of rallies in a month, along with a bunch of protesters camped outside for months, protesting for their causes. No state response comes their way till the media makes it their business to profile and highlight them. Members public write hundreds of letters to public offices for basic services of water provision or trash clean up. Little response, till media, especially the broadcast sector, takes note.
As reports suggest, summary for wheat procurement for Thar was first moved in early September 2013 but it was approved, after flitting between various departments, only in February 2014. Which, coincidentally, is also the time when the media started making an issue out of the Thar crisis.
Admittedly, public engagement with the state, as a citizenship exercise, itself has declined. Karachi has seen the worst ethnic and sectarian violence in recent times. How many people came out on the streets to protest and demand state action? Barring very big incidents of terrorism, general public seldom makes an effort to mobilise for solidarity over any cause. Civic problems like potholes, running gutters and dug streets, traffic jams or even street crimes are left to resolve on their own. Over the years, the public has learnt that self-protection is better than state engagement, which is costly in terms of time, resources, energies and in extreme cases, even takes lives.
Media’s significance as a medium of discourse necessary to activate the state also means absolute dependency on its interest and capacity. Things only work if the media chooses to report and report hard! Its coverage should shake the power corridors, get public representatives and state officials in queue to offer their two bits, a minister to demand report, a proactive judiciary to take note, and a parliament to submit an adjournment motion! Therefore, everything from the placement/timing of the news item, imagery, sound bites and aggressive arguments matter. The state may not have an incentive to move otherwise.
Incentive, however, is different from “willingness”. The public sector has a force of over three million employees working in various sectors right to the deh level. They are the first to become aware of any development or deficit in their concerned area. They hardly need media’s assistance to help them identify issues and address them. However, when there are high stakes in public distress, media hounding is the only weapon that the public, in a struggling democracy, have to extract some relief from a dysfunctional state.