Electronic media freedom: sweet and sour

By Javed Jabbar

In 2004, the observance of Electronic Media Freedom Day on February 14 - as it has been done each year since 1998 by the Citizens' Media Commission of Pakistan - focuses attention on issues arising from an electronic media environment that has been radically transformed during the past two years in particular.

Several satellite TV channels are telecasting freely from outside Pakistan but originating virtually their entire content from within Pakistan without facing major obstructions.

PTV as a national broadcaster has added new channels such as "PTV National" and has also taken over the STN channel. New private FM radio channels in Islamabad, Karachi and some smaller towns are competing vigorously with PBC (Radio Pakistan) and its own FM 101, as well as with the first private FM 100 channel.

Cable TV is now bringing virtually all the new Pakistani satellite TV channels along with dozens of global and regional channels in various languages to about two and a half million households out of the total of about eleven million households that have TV sets in the country. Viewership of cable TV is also growing by the day.

PTV and PBC have unfortunately reverted to excluding projection of opposition leaders through their own voices and faces. As a consequence, they have lost substantial parts of their audiences.

Nevertheless they continue to reach a significant part of the population which either does not yet have the facility of cable TV or, while having cable TV, also occasionally views PTV and also listens to Radio Pakistan.

On a general level and particularly in the urban areas, today there is unprecedented pluralism of opinion in electronic media. Completely candid, outspoken commentaries and analyses on domestic political issues including the role of the armed forces, and the chief of the army staff, on international affairs, on social and cultural aspects, on religious and sectarian beliefs and practices, on economics, trade and business, on health and education, on music, entertainment and sports: a wide variety of opinions, images and perspectives are being projected without hindrance every day simultaneously on several TV channels and, on a more restricted range of subjects, on several FM radio channels as well.

Taken together, the old and the new electronic media channels currently reaching audiences in Pakistan are rendering a valuable service. They offer a wide range of choice in information and entertainment while also meeting educational needs, particularly through PTV and PBC.

They have brought new colour, humour, candour and character to the country's media environment. They are advancing the frontiers of freedom of expression. Combined with the vigorously independent print media of the country, the electronic media are helping raise levels of awareness and sensitivity on important issues.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority formally established on March 1, 2002, has issued licences for the launch of new channels and new telecast systems some of which have already commenced operation, several others will commence soon.

With this relatively speedy and on-going transformation of the electronic media environment, certain excesses and imbalances have emerged.

1. The ideal composition of any country's electronic media should comprise a reasonable share for four types of units, i.e., (1) public sector media which primarily meet public service and non-commercial public interest needs; (2) private and commercial media; (3) educational media and (4) community-based local media.

The present situation shows a pre-dominance by public sector media and private, commercial media. There is virtually not a single community media unit currently operative while there are only a couple of examples of educational media (e.g. at Peshawar University) apart from the Virtual University network which is using the PTV system in daytime but will soon operate its own channels.

2. Advertising and commercial content in both public sector media and in private media have been allowed to become unduly prominent. Even during some current affairs discussion programmes, while an analyst is solemnly dissecting a serious subject, the signs of three different commercial brands, e.g., a cooking oil, a tooth paste and a soap are incongruously juggled in various parts of the screen. The duration of the interruptions of programmes known as "commercial breaks" in order to show advertising spots has also become disproportionate, specially in prime time programmes.

3. The frequency of such commercial breaks during programmes has also become disruptively high e.g., every few minutes, instead of every 10 or 15 minutes.

4. Commercial breaks interrupt and distort the flow of dramatic narratives in plays as well as of subjects being discussed in current affairs programmes. This practice has the effect of preventing sustained development of a situation in a drama as it also prevents continuous, in-depth discourse. This results in trivializing issues and making substance subject to arbitrary timing.

5. The number of private commercial channels is now far more than the number of public service channels.

6. The percentage of time - specially during prime time hours - devoted to commercially driven programmes is far higher than the percentage of time devoted to public interest issues covered during prime time. Thus, matters that are of serious public interest are given less important time-slots than they deserve.

7. The sanctity of creative and editorial content reflecting only an artistic, independent viewpoint or perspective unaffected by commercial considerations has been badly breached by the increasing tendency to allow advertisers to place their names and symbols within programming content.

For example, the video versions of some songs now feature shots of the name and logo of a particular tea brand or supari brand. This detracts from artistic purity. Names of programmes also feature the names of advertisers.

When such encroachment by commercialism into programming content is accompanied with the spectacle of national cricket teams wearing shirts that give equal space to national symbols as they do to brands of soft drinks, we have created pollution of media content that is unprecedented.

8. Due to sundry reasons, cable TV distributors place one, or two, or three, particular private channels "up-front" while others are placed numerically much further away, instead of clustering all Pakistani channels conveniently and consecutively together from, say, no. 1 to no. 12.

9. Led by the desire to be "first with the news" or by the drive to be the first to offer an analysis that time may eventually prove to be the correct analysis, the news and current affairs approach of most TV channels around the world, and not just Pakistani channels, is to try to outpace the actual speed of political or diplomatic change, or the speed and scope of exchanges between leaders and governments.

The normal, natural appetite of media for fresh news has been converted into a rapacious greed for the "sensational statement" or the "scoop" or the simple desire to trip up a leader, catch him off guard or cajole him into saying something that makes the programme more interesting and provocative. Thus, the theatrical dimension of electronic media has overtaken the primary duty to report reality.

10. Certain subjects or perspectives receive disproportionate attention and projection. This may occur through the facility of the "phone in show" whereby viewers or listeners are able to telephone the host of a programme while it is being broadcast or taped.

For example, in religious programmes a very prim and proper, puritanical or orthodox viewpoint that does not actually represent practices or customs on a mass level is allowed the facility of being aired on a mass level.

11. Allopathic medical practitioners such as doctors are not allowed to advertise their names and services. But homeopathic doctors are allowed unrestricted access to FM radio channels. The FM airwaves are currently infested by the fervent messages of several homeopathic practitioners who hold out all kinds of promises of cures and therapies.

12. With the increase in the number of channels there has occurred an unmistakable lowering of quality in certain types of programming, especially in TV drama.

Whether it is because TV channels reportedly pay only meagre and inadequate amounts for productions or whether it is the absence of minimal training and qualification standards for persons wishing to become writers, directors, producers, technicians and actors, there is a distinct "dumbing down" of quality.

The twelve manifestations of imbalances and excesses listed above indicate the need for reflection and for action to be taken by four stakeholders. Firstly, by the proprietors and managers of electronic media units who should address concerns by taking the required self-corrective and self-regulatory measures.

Secondly, by the corporate sector that comprises the advertisers and agencies, which demand time and space in electronic media at the expense of programming content.

Thirdly, by PEMRA, which should enforce its existing rules and codes far more strictly and effectively than is now being done. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, viewers as citizens should create and strengthen new public interest organizations focused on electronic media to help evolve a form of non-coercive and yet strongly persuasive form of social regulation of media.

Collectively, all four sectors need to draft a new code of ethics for Pakistani electronic media that covers channels operating both from within Pakistan, and from outside the country.

The roundtable being held on February 14, 2004 by the Citizens Media Commission can make a useful contribution towards initiating this process. The theme chosen for this year's discussion is: "Fruits of freedom - sweet and sour?"

The writer is the founding convener of the Citizens' Media Commission of Pakistan and a former Information Minister.

The art of the ballet

By Saira Dar

The world famous Bolshoi Ballet Theatre's second and final performance for Lahorites was held on Friday evening. The event was organized and managed by Samina Pirzada for the Volunteer Women's Organization.

The Russian company, here for the first time ever, will stage two performances in Karachi on Feb 18 and 19. Evidently, the history of ballet goes back to the 16th century, when it was introduced to the French court from Italy by Catherine de Medici.

At that time, the ballet consisted of a number of entrees by masked dancers in elaborate costumes and this type of performance was concluded by a 'grand ballet' in which even the king and queen often participated.

The entrees for the ballets of Louis XIII (1601-43) were usually based on a theme which was explained to the audience via a speech or a song. Many of the ballets also had political significance and attempted to convey some message of importance.

During the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), ballet performances assumed a spectacular dimension with ever more elaborate sets and themes. Some of the ballets even took place outdoors, using the natural surroundings as part of the setting.

The ballets at the turn of the century still continued to combine dancing, music and singing, but dancing continued to be subservient to singing. It was in 1717 with The Loves of Mars and Venus at Theatre Royale in London that dancers conveyed meaning through movement and a clear distinction was made between the steps performed by male and female dancers.

The 18th century saw the rise of many famous dancers and also the combination of dance with a story. The first comedy ballet in 1789 was also a step forward and in 1796, the dancing 'on point' (on block dancing shoes) was put into practice. The development of dancing on point paved the way for the romantic ballets of the early 19th century.

In the 19th century, the Romantic Movements in literature and art, also spread to the ballet. The marks worn by the ballet dancers were now abandoned and dancers began to act out the emotions required in the ballets, expanding the technique to express various moods.

By the mid-19th century, Romantic ballet fell into decline in Europe. Dancers, choreographers and musicians now turned to Russia, where the state ballet school had been founded in 1735.

The artistic tradition of the ballet was kept alive by men such as Marius Petipa (1819-1910), a Frenchman who went to St Petersburg to become a principal dancer. The Sleeping Beauty is generally considered to be his masterpiece, with an inspired score by Tchaikovsky.

Petipa, together with his assistant Lev Ivanov, also created Swan Lake, one of the greatest of all ballets. Another significant ballet master, Michel Fokine (1880-1942), rebelled against many of the traditions of Petipa ballets, abolished the antiquated mime and replaced the classical ballet skirts with other costumes. The young Michel Fokine with his innovative ideas was soon to be picked up by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

Diaghilev's own ideas were based on the philosophy that ballet was part of a complex performance which combined poetry, literature, painting, music and choreography. He eventually broke away from the Russian Imperial theatre and formed the Ballet Russes, which became one of the world's greatest ballet companies.

When Diaghilev died in 1929, his company dispersed, spreading his ideas throughout the western world, where subsequently other ballet companies were opened.

However, companies which already had a strong tradition of their own were not so affected by Diaghilev. Thus the Royal Danish Ballet continued to train dancers in the style of August Bournville and in Russia, the two major companies, The Kirov in Leningrad and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, still present their post-revolutionary works and spectacular dancing as the principal ingredient of their performances.

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