PAKISTAN’S institutions seem to be in free fall. Politicisation and polarisation are plaguing our political class, judiciary and security establishment, and few will survive the mudslinging unsullied. One institution, however, could emerge stronger from the ensuing chaos, if it chose to do so. Pakistan’s mainstream media faces an opportunity to reconsolidate.
A decade and some ago, mainstream media itself was part of the institutional tussles underway at the time — exploiting unprecedented freedoms and sky-high ratings to emerge as a political player and kingmaker in its own right. Overreach led to the sector being cut down to size, either through censorship, overregulation, and economic strangulation, or intimidation and co-option.
Numerous campaigns led by the security, political and judicial establishment pitted the press as anti-state, and discredited even the most credible reportage as fake news, or worse, an act of treason. The public now places little stock in mainstream news offerings, with assumptions that all journalism is lifafa journalism.
But Pakistan’s elite institutions are now turning the tactics they once deployed against the press against each other. Never has the bell tolled for Pakistani democracy as loudly as it does right now. There are clear signs that in this mess, the media is needed more than ever.
The media is needed more than ever.
The recent — unacceptable — crackdown on the PTI’s social media wing is a reminder that the information ecosystem has shifted from the airwaves to the digital realm. Pakistan, like the West before it, is facing the problem of social media echo chambers, in which algorithms drive political polarisation, and misinformation circulates without check. Narratives that begin as TikTok videos or deep fakes online quickly substitute for reality.
If social media is allowed to thrive in the absence of the sense check that traditional journalism provides, we will be awash in propaganda and conspiracy theories. The result: further fragmentation, more polarisation, complete democratic erosion.
Separately, recent revelations about the ‘*Dawn* leaks’ episode demonstrate the enduring value of sound journalism. Although an accurate, verified news story was wielded as a way to unduly empower a military officer and undermine a civilian government, it has stood the test of the time, and circled back to reveal the failings of our elite institutions. It is an unprecedented case study that reminds us that one-time taboos will one day be acknowledged as truths. As inter- and intra-institutional power plays intensify, it will be critical for Pakistan’s limping democratic set-up to have recourse to facts.
Therein lies the opportunity for our mainstream media. Emerging as a sane actor that can explain and document the actions of other institutions will help the media rebuild public trust. Old-fashioned journalism may yet be the only way to navigate through the institutional impasse and polarisation, and give democracy a shot at survival.
But this will only work if the media meaningfully sees an opportunity for rehabilitation. The first step will be for the sector to act as a unified front, refusing to fall victim to the partisanship that has robbed its credibility so far. Impartiality will be a key outcome of this unity, requiring all outlets to push back against content bans or other attempts to silence one party or another, and, where necessary, finding creative ways to provide balanced coverage.
Several other ingredients are necessary for the media to rebuild trust. Transparency is essential: news outlets will have to be clear about how they obtained news and any shortcomings in their process. Clear labelling of content as either news, opinion or sponsored content is essential. And unrelenting fact-checking, including clear processes for identifying and discounting disinformation, will also be necessary, ideally with harmonised standards agreed across the industry.
Diversity is also key, both in the sense of diverse newsmakers and diversity of content. These should be measured across all aspects — political, ethnolinguistic, religious, and socioeconomic. It is only by having newsrooms and news content that reflect the concerns of all constituents and communities that the media emerges as a trusted player.
This approach will minimise the focus on elite power tussles, putting the petty shenanigans currently underway in the broader perspective of a country in crisis, that urgently requires leadership, better economic management, and a vision for a sustainable future.
Democracy supporters wondering how to tackle the present crisis should consider establishing well-governed grant programmes to support journalism. And the media should change tack to better charter these tumultuous political waters, showing itself deserving of such public trust.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2023