The unmediated media

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In the coming years Pakistan’s media, both print and electronic, is likely to grow in number, influence and power, and contribute greatly to the quality of dialogue on issues that confront our state and society. The governments that have controlled information and debate in the past will not be able to do the same in the future
Freedom of expression is one of the most refreshing and robust aspects of Pakistani society; it stands out spectacularly in the otherwise depressing elitist political scenario. No fair person can remain unimpressed by the degree of self-critique, sometimes bordering on cynicism, that we have, and the frank and open manner in which commentators in the press and participants in popular television talk shows express themselves.
Many foreign readers and observers are quite surprised when they read scathing criticism of the government in the Pakistani press. They often wonder how individuals so critical of figures in authority can survive in Pakistan. This is partly due to an image problem.
There is greater tolerance of dissent in the media than one could expect even under a civilian regime a quarter of a century back. But this freedom has not been presented to us on a silver platter. This is one of our hard-earned rights, resting on the sacrifices of journalists who suffered humiliation, prisons, tortures and even murders. Braver men and women than many of us have risked everything to speak truth to power. When we celebrate our freedom to express our thoughts today, we must acknowledge and honour them all, though they are too many to be numbered individually.
How and why has the media progressed so fast during the past seven years? The media found a bigger space for the first time when the late Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo asserted his autonomy against General Zia ul-Haq. He encouraged debates and controversies in the press that quite often reflected on the role of the military in politics and society. Women speaking on gender issues and fledging civil society organisations added a great deal to the tradition of dissent in the media.
The entry of two new newspapers, The Muslim and The Nation, broke the monopoly of the Pakistan Times and Dawn. Younger men and women pursued journalism as a career and new people began to contribute columns to the editorial pages. The News, Frontier Post and Daily Times further added to the diversity and space for comment in the print media.
With these publications and many more in the vernacular languages, Pakistani media entered a new phase. The development of the print media had its own momentum that couldn’t be controlled or restrained by traditional methods of intimidation, threats or denial of printing paper and advertisement. They were tried but began to lose the impact they once had on publishers and editors.
Another important factor in the growth of the media and its increasing power today is the globalisation of information and ability of the foreign media to reach our homes and work places. With the foreign media leapfrogging the territoriality and sovereignty of all states, governments began to lose control of what citizens could hear, read and watch. Today virtually thousands of newspapers in hundreds of different languages around the world are just a few clicks away.
Our governments and others have had to adjust to this global change that the technology of communication has brought about. Rulers who have tried to control the global flow of information have ended up looking pretty silly, with very little success in denying access.
Pakistan can rightly claim merit in recognising the limits of state and sovereignty in exercising raw power over the electronic media. They are now too many, have greater resources and can reach wider audiences than they could do ten years back. All private networks have flourished and achieved remarkable sophistication and incredible capacity in acting as fora of debate on current national and international issues. One is amazed by the stridency of the questions of the anchorpersons and the frankness of the participants’ views and comments in various programmes on television channels.
The media in the process of maturing has accommodated all kinds of views. It is no longer confined, as it was in the past, to tirades and one-sided information provided by government spokespersons. Viewers now have the opportunity to watch and listen to the other side of the story and make up their own minds. This is precisely the role that progressive and independent media can and should play in a society like ours, which is undergoing many changes and transformations, visible and not so visible.
In the coming years Pakistan’s media, both print and electronic, is likely to grow in number, influence and power, and contribute greatly to the quality of dialogue on issues that confront our state and society. The governments that have controlled information and debate in the past will not be able to do the same in the future with the same degree of success or by using the same rough and tough methods.
Governments may legitimately want to influence public opinion on any issue of political concern. However, this may be done in both acceptable and objectionable ways. One of the most acceptable is to employ spokespersons who can fashion arguments and present official viewpoints in a logical and convincing fashion. How you say things in the modern media is as important as what you say.
The presentations we have seen from the government’s side are, so far, sadly lacking in these qualities. When they try to put a spin on the facts and to twist arguments without any respect for the intelligence of their audience, they lose credibility. I am sure they are coming from people not trained in media management; only personal circumstances and being available catapulted them into their present positions. The people who convey them don’t know that acknowledging failures and errors quite often reduces the adverse political consequences of a government’s actions. A strategy of denial in the face of glaring facts damaged the government’s position on the ongoing judicial crisis as well as on the police assault on a private television channel in Islamabad.
Doling out public resources in an effort to buy off the loyalties of media persons is one objectionable way in which successive Pakistani governments, both civilian and military, have tried to influence media persons affiliated with press clubs and unions. Whether they have succeeded or not, the practice of allotting plots in expensive urban areas, developing residential colonies for journalists and offering invisible benefits to those who would like to make hay while the sun shines is another way of reducing the autonomy and freedom of the media. Many journalists have braved temptation and refused to fall into this trap.
The media in our time is an extremely powerful tool and resource, which must be located in and belong to the society and its interests. It cannot be allowed to become the handyman of special interests or powerful cliques. In the end, only individual values of integrity, professionalism, independence and a sense of balance and fairness would make us credible and competitive in a globalised world of information.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.