THE worst-kept secret is finally out: successive governments have used advertisements to reward and punish media organisations in Pakistan. When Maryam Nawaz Sharif acknowledged in a press conference that it was indeed her voice in a leaked recording in which she is telling someone to cut off advertisements to some channels — a regrettable order — there was a deluge of criticism from the PTI government, media bodies and journalists.

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This faux outrage was amusing. Everyone in the present and past governments, and in the media, advertisement and public relations sector not only is in on this little secret, but also a participant, although the ones on the receiving end are clearly the unwilling party.

The PTI government has little reason to occupy the high moral position here because it has used all levers, including the advertisement one, to browbeat media organisations perceived as being critical of it. The armed forces have also pursued a similar policy of using the advertisement revenue from organisations controlled by them to twist the media’s arm often enough. This policy is almost a standard procedure which makes the public outrage even more comical. Yet this is no laughing matter.

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Now that the cat is officially out of the bag, it is an opportune time for the PTI government to end this policy with a public announcement. If it really wants the nation to believe that it will never do what Ms Nawaz has acknowledged as doing, the PTI government should formalise in written form that advertisements to media groups will be given according to a formula followed by the private sector in which the audience reach of the organisation determines the scale of the advertisement budget it is allocated.

This is not difficult to do since the laid-down procedures are already in place through rating agencies and media buying houses. If the present government can muster the will to achieve this task it would set a solid precedent that no future government would find easy to undo. This would go a long way in strengthening the media against external pressures meant to weaken it financially.

At the same time, however, media organisations should also make all efforts to find other revenue streams so that their dependence on government ads can be lessened. There is already some discussion underway in this respect in electronic media leadership circles and it is hoped the government will facilitate them wherever possible.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2021

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