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Test of commitment

August 25, 2018

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STATE-run media can appear to be an anomaly in the age of the internet and in an era of social media, but there are legitimate public-interest reasons for state-run media to exist. The challenge is to promote the public interest while shielding state-run media from political interference that erodes credibility and quality. The newly installed PTI government and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry have made a familiar pledge to depoliticise PTV and Radio Pakistan. It is a wholly welcome pledge and it is possible to implement — if Prime Minister Imran Khan and Information Minister Chaudhry demonstrate clarity and an iron will. Virtually all newly installed governments have made some version of the pledge to depoliticise state-run media and all have failed to do so. In previous eras, controlling PTV and Radio Pakistan gave political governments and military dictatorships a substantial political advantage; PTV and Radio Pakistan were the primary sources of news and information for a majority of Pakistan. Today, in a seemingly cacophonous but in reality controlled media landscape, the temptation to keep PTV and Radio Pakistan under political control will also be great. At all times, there is a cadre in state media willing to serve political masters in return for avoiding professional scrutiny and evaluation.

If the PTI is to succeed where no other government has before, it will need to put in a place governing structures in state-run media that are either bipartisan or apolitical. Information Minister Chaudhry has suggested that it will take three months for changes to become apparent and that foreign examples, such as the BBC, will be studied. A possible path to both depoliticising PTV and strengthening the institution of parliament would be to create a powerful bipartisan parliamentary oversight committee to monitor state-run media. The primary victims of politically biased news coverage and programming are often the opposition in parliament, so giving the opposition an equal role in oversight of state-run media could substantially mitigate the problem. Information Minister Chaudhry’s announcement yesterday that PTV’s editorial board will include a representative of the PPP and the PML-N is a step in the right direction. The quality of news coverage and programming in state-run media needs vast improvement. Whatever the path chosen, a professional management dedicated to the needs of the viewer and listener rather than the demands of political bosses ought to be the outcome.

The quest to depoliticise PTV and Radio Pakistan could have two additional benefits at this juncture. First, with the mainstream private media facing pervasive interference and coercion, a reinvigorated state-run media could help right the balance in the overall media landscape by creating a professional, depoliticised product. Second, the PTI has not championed the cause of a free and independent media as much as it could have as a major political force. Fixing PTV could help demonstrate the PTI’s commitment.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2018