DURING the hearing of a petition against obscenity on television channels in the country, a three-member Supreme Court bench recently articulated a very valid concern about Pemra. The judges pointed out that while the electronic media regulatory authority concerned itself with issues of obscenity and vulgarity, it made no effort to rein in the attempts to undermine the democratic set-up, provoke fascism and incite sectarian tensions that on its watch continued unchecked on television. Certainly, the tone and tenor of talk shows frequently crosses the boundaries of what can be considered civilised — even animated — discussion. Even more importantly, the programming content is deeply problematic. Reporters Without Borders in a recent report described the Pakistani media as being “among the freest in Asia when it comes to covering the squabbling among politicians”. That characteristic would not by itself, however, serve to increase public cynicism towards the civilian political establishment and by extension, the democratic system — were it not for the silence that the media adopts where other centres of power in Pakistan are concerned.
The debate on the direction of Pakistan’s electronic media must, therefore, be expanded to consider the repercussions not only of what is said, but what is left unsaid. Far from being the watchdog of democracy and guardian of the public interest, the media has become complicit in undermining the system because it allows the actions of the establishment — its political meddling as well as its business interests — to go almost entirely unexamined. Human rights abuses in Balochistan, or activists highlighting them, also get no airtime. Few independent assessments of the situation on the ground are emerging from Fata even with the winding up of military operations in the area. Sometimes, the blinkered coverage is the outcome of self-censorship — characteristic of a media psyche subjected to years of ‘press advice’ from military authorities in the past as well as outright violence from various quarters, including state and non-state actors. On other occasions though, in an increasingly frequent trend, news blackouts in specific instances are the result of direct instructions conveyed by the establishment to the media to desist from covering issues deemed ‘sensitive’.
The media has partly itself to blame for this. Instead of presenting a unified front against forces inimical to democratic ideals, the ugly, internecine rivalry among various media houses — a dimension of the sector’s corporatisation — has allowed space for these elements to erode the fourth estate’s essential oversight role. A fragmented media landscape is unable to either protect its own or fulfil its responsibilities towards society. When issues that must be aired and subjected to rigorous discussion are sanitised or mothballed altogether, news coverage and political debate lacks depth, nuance and context. That serves only the cause of illiberal forces who would rather the public remain uninformed, and hence all the more easy to manipulate.
Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2016