What is the position of the media within Pakistan’s governance system? What is the media’s potential as an agent of reform? This study examines the main news media outlets, finding them to be characterised by over-accelerated growth and corrupt and sensationalist journalism. While there has been a (temporary?) halt to restrictive government measures against the press, patronage is an ongoing challenge. Improved education is key to the development of a professional Pakistani media and of well-informed public opinion. More attention also needs to be paid to the wide-reaching but particularly sensationalist Urdu-language media.
Historically, Pakistan’s military regimes have heavily restricted media freedom. However, General Musharraf – perhaps seeking to use the media to his regime’s advantage – introduced legislation that brought substantial liberalisation to the electronic media. This (particularly TV talk shows) then proliferated, but entrenched power relations resisted the emergence of dissenting voices, and a uniformly uncritical media position towards the military was established. In addition, the regime used means such as the infiltration of media conglomerates by intelligence agents and the informal buying of journalists’ services to help suppress media independence.
Pakistan’s media laws, introduced under military rule, have not been debated in parliament. This lack of democratic debate limits the media’s potential as an agent of reform. In addition, while journalists have been struggling to win media liberties, they have not sufficiently focused on improving journalistic quality. The number of journalists in Pakistan shot up from an estimated 2,000 in 2002 to over 10,000 in 2010, but the country’s education system is inadequate and little effort has been made to improve new journalists’ professional capacities. Other challenges to the development of professional, independent media practices include:
- The commercial interests of media owners and their connections with the state and the political machinery.
- The pervasive power and influence of the military, and the weight of state propaganda in relation to India.
- The influence of religious extremism, which penetrates all levels of media houses. In addition, conservative positions are energetically promoted in the Urdu-language media.
- Threats to journalists’ personal safety – though intimidation or lack of training on reporting from insecure areas.
- Financial constraints, job insecurity and the prevalence of freelance employment among journalists.
Any attempt to fundamentally reform Pakistan’s media must be accompanied by intervention in the education system. Literacy must be made universal so that access to information is not limited to the elite, and learning standards should be assessed and improved. Further:
- The international community needs to recognise the significant differences between the Urdu- and English-language media. Greater understanding of the Urdu media, and engagement with it, could be helpful in reaching out to the majority of the population.
- Community, local-language radio seems to be increasing in Pakistan. The results of recent support from international development agencies for local FM radio stations broadcasting educational and counter-insurgency programmes should be monitored.
- To strengthen journalists’ sense of security and ability to resist coercion, the monitoring and documentation of violations, capacity-building in risk awareness and safety preparedness, and advocacy and lobbying activities could be considered.