How much is enough? Media access in Pakistan

Published July 12, 2013
Picture shows a cross-section analysis of media freedom over the world.  — Reuters Photo
Picture shows a cross-section analysis of media freedom over the world. — Reuters Photo

Public debate around media policy in Pakistan centres on isolated issues that lend themselves to news headlines: the YouTube ban; IT Minister Anusha Rehman’s threatening words to Google; the Supreme Court Chief Justice’s directive that PEMRA define the word ‘obscenity’.

Such issues are of course deeply concerning to those who defend free speech and freedom of expression. But they are also symptoms of broader problems across the media landscape in Pakistan that stem from a poor understanding within government circles, regulatory bodies, civil society organisations and the public at large about the media’s democratic role.

A free media is of utmost importance in a functional democratic set-up, particularly in its roles as agenda-setter, gate-keeper and watchdog. Media access, meanwhile, is key to the democratisation process since a wide spectrum of information must be available to citizens for them to make prudent decisions about policies and electoral choices.

Media reforms in 2002 that led to the liberalisation of Pakistan’s broadcast media sector, and the media proliferation that followed, cause many to conclude that Pakistani media is playing a democratic role. As media scholar Marcus Michaelsen has written, “the media has certainly contributed to a re-initiation of Pakistan’s democratic transition.” No doubt, the greater availability of news media via privately owned satellite and cable television channels, FM radio stations and growing internet access have enabled more information to reach wider segments of the population and fostered an urban culture of news media consumption. But a decade hence, has Pakistan made sufficient gains in terms of even and diverse media access?

Mapping Digital Media: Pakistan, a new report from the Open Society Foundations, analyses Pakistan’s media landscape and asks how the digitisation of Pakistani media has impacted its ability to play a democratic role. A key aspect of this research is gauging whether media access -- of news media in particular -- is even, widespread and sufficiently diverse across the country. Unfortunately, the report finds that Pakistan still has a long way to go in this regard.

While Pakistan’s private television news media -- comprising digital satellite channels that are distributed by cable operators - is widely feted as free and vibrant, access to it remains limited. According to Gallup Pakistan, there are 86 million television viewers in Pakistan, but only half of them can access cable television. The remainder are only able to access the state-run, analog terrestrial broadcasts of the Pakistan Television Network (PTV). Moreover, according to official statistics, there are only 12 million television sets in the country. While this figure is likely an under-estimate, it accurately indicates that most television viewing in Pakistan is sporadic and communal. According to one national survey, satellite and cable television access also varies considerably by region; while 93 percent of television viewers in Karachi have access to satellite channels via cable, viewers in remote, northern regions such as Hazara and Malakand in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province can only access terrestrial broadcasts. A BBC survey further revealed that 69 percent of the urban population had access to satellite and cable television compared with 11 percent of rural respondents. The ongoing energy crisis, which leads to hours-long blackouts each day, further compromises this limited media access.

Those who can access private television channels, meanwhile, have to contend with homogenised content. The fact is, the high number of private news channels has not directly translated into a greater diversity of news content, owing to the highly competitive environment, rampant cross-media ownership and state interference in news programming.

Owing to intense competition, television channels are engaged in a race for ratings and news producers at most television channels admit to replicating the news broadcasts of rival channels (by opting for identical news agendas, repeating what rivals report without independent verification, re-broadcasting another channel’s footage, etc.), thereby homogenising the news. As the news director of a channel that ranks at the lower end of the top 10 put it: “I spend most of my time monitoring the news ticker on other channels to make sure I don’t miss anything. Since the only thing the channel owners care about is ratings, we need to break the same news as everyone else, and I feel the pressure to compete.”

Moreover, the relaxation of cross-media ownership rules in 2007 turbo-charged media expansion but also facilitated an extreme concentration of Pakistan’s independent media. A few entities that were already well established have come to dominate the market by diversifying their offerings within and across media and enjoying the bulk of advertising revenue. The Jang Group, for example, owns the largest-selling Urdu-language daily newspaper Daily Jang (launched in 1939) and Geo News. The group also owns music, entertainment, and sports television channels, the English-language daily, The News, an Urdu evening title, Awam, three other newspapers, and two magazines. Similarly, Pakistan Herald Publications Limited (the Dawn Media Group), the Express Group, and the Waqt Group own some combination of newspapers, television channels and FM radio stations. This media concentration means that a plurality of news outlets is not necessarily converting into a diversity of news, as many outlets are privy to the same information that they repackage across mediums.

The homogenisation of the television news media is also problematic because its growth has had a negative impact on the circulation of print publications, which have historically varied in size (from national dailies to regional- or village-level weekly publications) and provided local news coverage in regional languages. Owing to the rise in television news consumption, newspaper circulation figures have dropped significantly in recent years: while there are no reliable figures on print circulation, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) found that the average daily sale of all Pakistani daily newspapers fell from 9.9 million in 2007 to 6.1 million in 2008, reaching less than 4 percent of the population.

On the radio front, meanwhile, access is growing, but that does not mean that access to news or other information is spreading. Pakistan currently has 115 on-air FM radio stations, up from only 18 stations in 2005. Despite the growth of cable television, FM radio has proved popular in both urban and rural areas, as indicated by a 22 percent increase in radio ad spend in a single year (2010–2011), and another 9 percent increase in 2011–2012. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s media regulatory authority, PEMRA, strictly controls news content on radio. Local FM stations are not allowed to broadcast news bulletins on topics of national interest under PEMRA law (Radio Broadcast Station Operations Regulation 2012), and are only permitted to re-broadcast bulletins produced by the state-owned Radio Pakistan and BBC Urdu Service. FM stations are also permitted to broadcast highly local news bulletins focussing on topics like traffic and weather updates. This limitation has prevented radio listeners from consuming diverse news sources.

In the face of this uneven and limited access to news media, many activists and researchers have championed the internet as the truly democratic medium in the country. But Pakistan is not a very wired country. Even in the urban centres of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, Pakistan lags behind. There are still fewer than three million broadband subscribers. Aside from broadband, some 29 million people—only 16 percent of the population—have access to the internet. Considering that Facebook is the most visited website in the country, it still attracts no more than 4.3 percent of the country’s total population and 27.6 percent of those online. Only a third of internet users in the country’s urban centers say they use the internet for news. While the potential for internet access to grow is immense, it is likely to face some of the same hurdles as television news channels and FM radio stations--poor infrastructure and top-down state control of content.

As such, if access is the basic requirement for media to play an effective democratic role, then Pakistan’s media landscape cannot be said to be fulfilling its democratising role. Thankfully, the access story is not all bad. Pakistan still does not have a 3G network, even though the government approved a 3G policy for Pakistan in November 2011. As a result, mobile internet access remains very limited. However, the new Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government has announced that it will license a 3G network in the near future, likely by 2014. Given the country’s 69.8 percent teledensity, 3G could revolutionise the media landscape by making internet access widely available.

Additionally, Pakistan stands on the cusp of widespread mobile television access, which will have many takers in a country where only half the population is literate and loadshedding is endemic. Although Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL), the largely state-owned telecoms corporation, is the only company currently holding an operational IPTV license, three private companies— Brands Promotion Centre, Cellevision, and Dialogue—have obtained mobile television licenses, and are providing this service through the cellular companies Telenor and Mobilink. As these new technologies and platforms expand media access, making it more uniform throughout the country, the media is likely to emerge as a powerful democratising force.

For more information on news consumption, media regulation, digital journalism, spectrum allocation, and the media industry’s financial model in Pakistan, see Mapping Digital Media: Pakistan.

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