Analysis

Pakistan’s media unraveled

By Sarah Eleazar and Sher Ali Khan

26 December 2016

The current crisis of media in Pakistan reflects a wider historical trajectory.
Hamid Mir in a TV studio Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hamid Mir in a TV studio
Source: Wikimedia Commons

(This is an essay from our print quarterly ‘Growing Media, Shrinking Spaces’. See more from the issue here.)

It was Geo against the world. The lead up to the suspension of the licence of Pakistan’s largest broadcaster and one-time bastion of independent media was anti-climactic, and in many ways symbolic of how politics works in Pakistan.

Once praised for its efforts in bringing an end to the rule of dictator Pervez Musharraf, the channel drove popular perceptions among the urban and peri-urban masses by speaking the language of anti-corruption and rule of law. By 2009, Geo’s attention had turned towards the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, for whom the channel’s coverage, some argued, was comparable to a trial by media. The media environment by then had even been noted by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who referred to the Pakistan media as increasingly, “freewheeling… free, [and] quite influential”.

The recent controversy surrounding Geo, sparked after the channel depicted the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a key suspect in an attack on journalist Hamid Mir, came at a greater cost than the channel had anticipated. Employing a range of conciliatory measures, Geo did all it could to appease the ISI. Despite its flurry of apologies, the question was never one of whether or not Geo would be suspended or banned; it was simply a question of when.

In reality, the channel had managed to do something that is very difficult to achieve in Pakistan. In a short while, it had alienated the defence establishment, the minister for which had labelled them ‘anti-state’, while at the same time, the second largest party in the country, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), led by famed cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, accused the channel of being one of the main culprits in instances of rigging in the 2013 general elections. While Geo was well set on the path to suspension, local competitors, from whom some semblance of solidarity was expected, fanned the glowing embers by accusing the channel of committing blasphemy – the one crime from which there is no absolution.

There is a long history at play here. The world of privately-owned electronic media has grown significantly against the backdrop of increased attempts to control mass media in the country. The elected government’s response in Geo’s case was considered feeble and inadequate, which some insiders have suggested is the playing out of existing civil-military tensions. As Geo was suspended and fined PKR 10.2 million (USD 104,000), it was clear that the channel was another casualty in what can be seen as a power-play between state and political actors. The history of coercion and growing uncertainty among journalists who, in an increasingly intolerant environment, have been targeted by both state and non-state actors, has come to prominence as a result of recent events.

In March, well-known liberal journalist and television show host Raza Rumi was attacked as he returned home from his weekly show on Express TV. His five-minute drive home was intercepted by gunmen who opened fire, leaving his life in the hands of fate. Luckily, he survived. Rumi had been an outspoken advocate against the government’s peace dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and, as a result, had been placed on a hit-list.

By the 90s, journalists working for the Information Bureau (the country’s civil intelligence agency) were installed in almost every newsroom.

There was little condemnation by the political elite in an increasingly stifling environment for journalists. A mere twenty days later, after Rumi had become an afterthought in the public’s imagination, Hamid Mir was attacked in broad daylight by unknown men on motorcycles while driving to the Geo office in Karachi. This time, the bullets did not miss, and he sustained wounds to the abdomen, chest and thigh. Mir, who had been covering state atrocities in Balochistan, had become one of the few vocal journalists in the mainstream media.

 

State control
Pakistan’s media has always had both state-led and private components. In the immediate wake of Partition, debates between the liberal-nationalist and left intelligentsia on the idea of the nation state had a far-reaching impact. In those days, the leftists, led by poet and activist Faiz Ahmed Faiz and author Sajjad Zaheer, openly condemned the narratives espoused by Muslim nationalists. The state’s anti-communist positioning required setting curbs on communist and socialist ideas, and thus paved the way for a takeover of Progressive Papers Ltd in 1959. This set the ground for what became known as ‘establishment journalism’.

Pakistan’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan, and his trusted advisors on culture and media, Altaf Gauhar and Manzur Qadir, had put together a fail-safe plan to control popular media and the press. The National Press Trust, which was financed by 24 industrialists, was created in 1964 with the intention of promoting the government’s viewpoint, touting an anti-progressive discourse and, at the same time, curtailing the independence of media.

Establishment journalists, employed or patronised by the state, parroted its viewpoint, while those who opposed the Trust bore the brunt of state oppression executed through civil intelligence agencies. Gauhar in particular played a pivotal role in this process, foreseeing the possibilities of the electronic media in maintaining the legitimacy of General Ayub Khan’s rule.

Gauhar’s efforts to control electronic media were initially focused on the growing cinema circuit of the late 1950s. He attempted to use films for the purposes of propaganda, and placed controls on their distribution. He also led the initiative to fund nearly 50 propaganda films, which included Nai Kiran. These films promoted a limited range of themes, common among which was the inherent corruption of politicians, the failure of democracy in Pakistan and the notion that military rule had saved the country.

PTV had barely recovered when truckloads of army soldiers poured into the PTV and Pakistan Radio headquarters and silenced the airwaves.

As filmmakers refused to relinquish autonomy in the lead up to the 1965 war with India, a decision was taken to create a state-owned mass media outlet. The Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) emerged in 1964 as the ‘guardian of the state’s ideological boundaries’, providing successive military and civilian-led governments the tools to quash emerging counter-narratives. From playing the role of cheerleader during times of war to broadcasting overtly sycophantic coverage of political leaders, PTV gained a reputation of being a mouthpiece for whoever was in power. It also became a symbol of modernity, as well as an alternative to Pakistan’s once popular film industry.

In this context, establishing a viable media has been about finding space in an increasingly securitised environment and countering the drive to suppress alternative viewpoints. Throughout the 1970s, a culture of coercion persisted, and any emerging news outlet required the blessing of no less than the prime minister himself.

General Zia ul-Haq’s 1979 handover of the Ministry of Broadcasting and Information to the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, was a calculated move. With Pakistan acting as proxy for the US in Afghanistan, the construction of a detailed ideological narrative that would circumvent all others was required. According to Sohail Warraich, the opinion editor for the Urdu daily Jang, if opposing narratives had been given space during the 1980s, Pakistan might not have played such a disastrous role in the Afghan-Soviet war. “There should never be one dominant narrative,” he says, as “all narratives are tied to patriotism.” Beyond both direct and indirect forms of state control, other factors affected Pakistani journalism: “I became a journalist because I needed the space to debate various narratives that were emerging at that time. To think and get people to think about them too… but there were obvious problems with the field – the biggest being the lack of money.”

 

The economics of vulnerability
Prominent journalist Ayaz Amir, in his weekly column for the News in December 2013, recalled how journalism was generally an impoverished profession. On one occasion, a former Information Minister Mushahid Hussain, who was then a journalist, told him that one needed a side-source of income to survive. Indeed, Amir’s first columns for the weekly independent magazine Viewpoint earned him a mere PKR 75 (USD 0.76) per piece. That was the way it was in the 1980s. But salaries were not the only issue for print journalists struggling to make it in a relatively small market.

Journalists were left vulnerable as powerful interests infiltrated media through various forms of patronage and installation. By the 90s, journalists working for the Information Bureau (the country’s civil intelligence agency) were installed in almost every newsroom, as documented in great detail by academic and former Pakistani Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi. These informers would plant stories in various dailies, ensuring that a “steady stream of pro-government reports and disinformation” was published. As Lodhi documents, these stories would arrive in newsrooms by fax, and though they were unattributed, everyone knew where they were coming from.

Both civil and military agencies played an active role in pushing their own agendas. A retired army general, who wishes to stay anonymous, says it was a matter of national interest, and that the Army, being the frontline of defence, felt that as part of its responsibility to ensure the integrity of the state the media was an important tool. Another top official has speculated that as much as 90 percent of journalists in the country had ties to the security establishment. The very thought that the media was out of the Army’s control was never an issue, he said: “They [journalists] were all on the Army’s payroll.”

The volatile nature of Pakistan’s politics after Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988, and the inability of successive governments to finish a full term in office, had created institutional fissures which were being exploited by the armed forces. But the fear of private media worried the military and political elite alike. The then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, had on many occasions taken coercive steps against journalists who did not toe his line. Exasperated by the media, he reportedly alleged that journalists rarely focused on the development initiatives taken by his government.

Many journalists who had risen to national prominence had been cultivated through Army and political patronage in the form of secret funds, property handouts, increased career prospects and access to power. But acting as the state’s mouthpiece wasn’t all about money. Official policy was often a relatively popular point of view among most Urdu media journalists.

 

Private media regulation
The move towards the opening of private television had come with little emphasis on legislation. Javed Jabbar, a godfather of electronic media legislation, has been a long-time advocate of strengthening media regulations in the country and believes that regulation could help accommodate various perspectives.

He was twice the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, first under Benazir Bhutto (1988-1989) and later under Musharraf (1999-2000). He was also responsible for several citizen-led initiatives. In 1995, Jabbar challenged the arbitrary misuse of power by the Bhutto government, which had awarded the first sole private television channel and FM radio network to business interests closely linked to the government. While the project to free-up media began in 1988 under Benazir Bhutto, it was the Army that influeced the final decision.

The Kargil War in 1999 placed the armed forces in a position of embarrassment that was only reinforced by the media, which, at the time, supported Nawaz Sharif’s government. The armed forces felt its hegemony threatened as both Indian and Pakistani media questioned its role in the war and its unchecked authority in the country.

PTV had barely recovered when truckloads of army soldiers poured into the PTV and Pakistan Radio headquarters and silenced the airwaves.

Following Benazir Bhutto’s arbitrary dismissal, Jabbar drafted the first law for media regulations called the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance (EMRA) while part of a caretaker government in 1997. Nawaz Sharif’s government failed to promulgate the Ordinance the following year, leading to its eventual lapse. The law was later passed under Musharraf, for whom Jabbar would serve as Advisor on National Affairs and Information.

Jabbar recalls: “There were defined parameters for eligibility, and we had included a cautionary clause to discourage cross-media ownership so that undue concentration of media power was not created by issuing licences to those who were running newspapers or running radio stations. Unfortunately, the implementation of the law did not take place as was originally visualised.”

Ironically, the law was passed by the man whose first act was to choke television’s jugular the day he rose to power on 12 October 1999. As the 111 Brigade of the ISI swooped in to secure key buildings – essential in wresting executive control from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – the PTV headquarters in Islamabad was overrun. A convoy of 15 soldiers brandishing weapons barged into the news control room just before 6 pm, and ordered PTV officials not to broadcast news that General Musharraf had been dismissed by the prime minister. In a scene that had cinematic potential, the soldiers were met by officials of the Punjab Elite Force and the prime minister’s weapon-wielding military secretary and chief security officer. As a result, news of the chief of army staff’s dismissal was broadcast instead at the end of the 6 pm bulletin.

PTV had barely recovered when truckloads of army soldiers poured into the PTV and Pakistan Radio headquarters and silenced the airwaves. When PTV resumed its broadcast at around 10 pm, it was to announce Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal.

When General Musharraf later allowed the deregulation of media, he ably demonstrated what he meant by ‘enlightened moderation’. Given his glib oratory skills, he had no qualms in freeing up space. If anything, it brought his rule a certain credence, and depicted how far removed he was from Zia ul-Haq’s legacy.

Coupled with greater economic liberalisation and massive injections of foreign aid for the War on Terror, reforms carried out during Musharraf’s rule shifted the traditional sources of media revenue from the public to the private sector. A decade of economic growth also allowed for an increase in general purchasing power leading to the birth of media consumerism. With the establishment of private media channels, as well as Pakistan’s first McDonalds restaurant, there was a feeling that the country had transformed.

 

Market forces
By September 2001, ARY, launched by Dubai-based industrialist Haji Abdul Razzak Yaqoob, was being aired via satellite. In May 2002, Geo TV was launched by Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s Jang Group. The channel, initially denied ‘landing rights’ in Pakistan, broadcast its 2002 election coverage from Dubai. They were reported to have been issued several notices by authorities for their transmissions. But Geo had made space and the establishment had to accept it.

Others moved in to occupy the space commercial media offered, including major industrial groups. The way in which broadcasting permission was given ensured that the monopoly over access to audiences would still lie with PTV and the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. The government would not allow the entry of private terrestrial broadcasters, and new channels would have to be aired via satellite. In other words, media consumers would have to go through cable distributors to access channels as there was no direct access to homes.

According to Adnan Rehmat, a media analyst and author of Reporting Under Threat, “This meant that content producers – the channels – would not be paid by media consumers for their content. It in fact meant that consumers would pay media distributors – the cable operators – for the content.”

Advertisers would now be the main source of revenue for new television channels and the driving force of what channels would produce in terms of content, not necessarily what people wanted. This directed the culture by which the media would evolve. On one level, it meant that government had a certain amount of control over what was permissable and what was not in terms of morality, religion and ethics. More importantly, it was the establishment that would have a final say on how their roles could be analysed or portrayed.

“Who were to be given these licences was to be decided by a bidding war. The highest bidder would be awarded a licence, which meant that any previous experience of running media corporations was secondary… very quickly you saw industrialists and capitalists who had other business interests setting up media groups,” says Rehmat. He went on to say that:

PEMRA’s (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) central job was to ensure that there were good and strong media houses with the capacity to run television channels, but also that there was a market to financially sustain these channels because they were an expensive proposition. But there was no criteria given by PEMRA concerning how many channels was enough, because if these are private channels they should not be taking government money as the sole source to finance their operations like PTV.

What had seemed a relatively regulated start to the development of private media had quickly become driven by the business model through which the industry operated. Slowly, the initial regulations would change to accommodate the various lobbies that began to have a stake in this form of media. By 2007, even the original ownership laws had changed, allowing for a mushrooming of channels in the country to over 89.

When General Musharraf later allowed the deregulation of media, he ably demonstrated what he meant by ‘enlightened moderation’. Given his glib oratory skills, he had no qualms in freeing up space.

At stake was a total advertising budget, which in 2010-11 was around PKR 32 billion (USD 325 million) in a market that had increased at an average rate of 23 percent over the last decade. The Government accounts for up to PKR 5 billion (USD 50.85 million) in advertising a year. According to a media professional, current affairs shows generated the most income for major channels, and salaries for leading anchors ranged in millions of rupees per month.

One insider specified that Geo, the largest television channel in the country, earned around PKR 6 billion (USD 61 million) a year through advertising, and its highest rated show, hosted by journalist Hamid Mir, earned around PKR 1 billion (USD 10.1 million), was followed by a show with Kamran Khan that earned around PKR 700 million (USD 7.1 million) per year.

 

Into the maelstrom
Political talk shows are among the highest rated and most profitable shows for Pakistan’s television channels. Importantly, these shows developed a sense of autonomy and space for discussion on political issues that has helped shape perceptions within the country. The talking heads in the increasingly sensationalised space these shows provide became a source of constant conflict and spectacle.

For the longest time, consensus was never really needed when pursuing security and national policies, but now the barrage of critique has thrust a growing challenge to the dominance of the armed forces’ narrative. According to Imtiaz Alam, President of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), the question of India and Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan and terrorism in Pakistan are issues that the Army believes it has a monopoly over. Alam first faced the wrath of a coordinated media campaign in 2008, at which time he and several SAFMA members were called traitors on mainstream media due to SAFMA’s peace-building initiatives between journalists in India and Pakistan.

In 2009, Alam was attacked by unidentified gunmen because, according to him, he spoke vociferously against terrorism. He came under fire again following the Mumbai attack in 2011, when he went on national television and urged a pro-peace stance vis-a-vis India and questioned the state’s assertion that convicted terrorist Ajmal Kasab was not from Pakistan. “I made inquiries and found out that he was indeed Pakistani. I said so on television and havoc ensued. Five men came into my office and smashed my car… sending a clear message,” says Alam.

Controversial political analysts like Zaid Hamid have shot to popularity on religious exclusionist rhetoric that has been encouraged by government agencies to buttress the nationalist paradigm. When Hamid filed a suit in the Supreme Court against the most prominent TV hosts in the country accusing them of treason by “undermining the Two-Nation Theory and the glory of Islam”, the plea was duly admitted. He also asked for strong regulations against ‘anti-Pakistan’ content.

Whenever electronic media has stepped in to engender ties and links across the border, the security establishment feels its interests are threatened. This is a narrative, Imtiaz Alam says, created by journalists under General Zia ul-Haq’s umbrella. “That narrative has prevailed and those who oppose it get attacked.” In Alam’s estimation, the security establishment still has tremendous sway in the media, influencing “even maybe 90 percent” of those working in the sector.

With a confluence of state and anti-state actors in the fray, there is never a ‘right’ opinion. Sohail Warraich, who also has his own show on Geo, said that initially up to 80 percent of talk show hosts and journalists associated with print and electronic media supported the Taliban. They actually believed that opposing the Taliban was fundamentally wrong. “But there is now a major shift in the dominant opinion even among the most rightwing of journalists… The dominant narrative is always state sponsored, that is where all narratives eventually converge,” Warraich said.

According to Warraich, when journalists like Hamid Mir raised issues of missing persons, Baloch separatists and peace talks with the Taliban, it made the establishment and the security apparatus “uncomfortable”. The ‘red lines’ have long been clear in Pakistan society, and from the very beginning, precedence has been given to powerful state institutions to define the national interest. Threats have now emerged on either side of the red line. Non-state actors and proscribed organisations have co-opted the use of fear to keep reporting on security issues in check. Veteran journalist and Amnesty International researcher Mustafa Qadri has made specific note of how journalists in Balochistan cannot freely report on pro-state or separatist organisations out of fear of being attacked.

In recent months, Express News has been attacked and openly threatened by the TTP, while three of the channel’s employees have been killed. Disappointed with the government’s apathetic attitude toward the matter, the organisation chose self-censorship as a form of security. It should also be remembered that police had told Raza Rumi, Hamid Mir and Imtiaz Alam, who had all been threatened by non-state actors, that they should arrange for their own security. But what was more visible were the deepening fault lines in the media. These divisions meant there was little unity and consensus on how to deal with prevailing threats to journalists.

 

Multiple constraints
Alongside low salaries, poor working conditions and a lack of ethical standards that journalists in Pakistan have to deal with, they also have to work around strict state regulations and ‘press advice’ from PEMRA. The government subsidises the industry, and in turn expects media to act as a platform for them to reach the masses. “The state of media and security in Pakistan is in constant flux and whatever you write will eventually upset someone,” says Qadri, who also argues that the most successful broadcast journalists are those who bank on sensationalism, and that the safest rhetoric to mouth is of a pro-military nature.

Brigadier Muzammil Hussain Shah’s paper in The Pakistan Army Green Book 2012, a research journal for the Army, discusses how the media could be used “responsibly” for agenda setting and as a tool for propaganda. He recommends “round the clock monitoring and, if required, [the] blocking of websites that serve anti-state factions”. He also advocates accessibility to information be mitigated by the establishment of deputed press representatives; a code of conduct for media that could safeguard national interests and prevent chaos by taking all stakeholders on board; and maintaining a pool of think tanks, lobbyists and policymakers to project relevant themes in foreign media. He talks about improving relations between the media and the Army and removing the misconceptions each has of the other.

The ‘misconceptions’ are many. There is no law, for example, that deals with the issue of people detained by intelligence agencies. There have been several incidents in which journalists have reported being abducted and tortured by the ISI. Asia Times correspondent Saleem Shehzad, who was found tortured and dead in a ditch a three-hour drive away from his home town in 2011, had sent Human Rights Watch a message telling them he had been threatened by the ISI.

Security agencies, political parties, proscribed organisations and other various non-state actors all employ similar patterns of intimidation. Without a proper mechanism for investigating incidents of coercion, intimidation and deaths of journalists, there can only be conjecture as to who is behind them.

 

The apogee
Within hours of Hamid Mir being attacked, his brother, journalist Amir Mir, went on TV and said his brother had been threatened by the ISI. Though the allegation was unsubstantiated, Geo went to town on the ISI, airing the ISI director general’s picture alongside Amir Mir’s claims. This was met with severe criticism from all quarters.

Geo’s faux pas provided rival media houses the chance to settle old scores. The three major media houses have longstanding feuds which are based on business interests and personal vendettas. Geo had in the past tried to stifle competition by leading media campaigns against the Express group, ARY and others. What had begun as commercial battles between channels turned into a clash of egos between several media owners, who will settle for no less than ousting each other from the market.

Geo’s coverage of the attempted assassination of Hamid Mir gave the establishment the chance to cut the biggest media conglomerate in Pakistan down to size. At this point, the only media house that has shown some solidarity with the establishment has been Waqt News, which has been known for its pro-government leanings. The discussions around Hamid Mir soon snowballed into a broader campaign in which various TV anchors across the board were declared as persona non-grata. This trend had in fact begun long ago, with the Jang Group, which owns Geo, in 2011 questioning which foreign interests Ali Dayan of Human Rights Watch was working for, and in 2012 declaring New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh an agent of the CIA. Founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Asma Jehangir, meanwhile, was alleged to be a spy for India.

The decline in the media’s credibility is reflected in its increasingly active political engagement. A downturn in the economy has pushed producers and anchors alike to take a hawkish approach and align themselves with more radical political alternatives. The 2013 election had, for the first time, illustrated the power the media had in driving public perceptions, while the election’s outcomes created whispers from various political camps about the media’s supposed bias.

The government has been impotent in regulating electronic media or finding an adequate framework through which it can be regulated. Even now, PEMRA is divided among members from the government and those from the (non-media) private sector who people close to the body accuse of representing the viewpoint of the Army. Moreover, the body does not even regulate the entire broadcast sector, but only private broadcasters, and is not comprised of any private media stakeholders.

“Too much time was allowed to pass before an initiative was taken, and PEMRA’s ineptitude stands out in particular. The body set up to regulate media first needs regulation of itself. The way it has been functioning without a chairman depicts the deep fissures between its non-official and official members, making a mockery of what a regulatory body should be,” says Javed Jabbar, who has once again become a central figure in formulating the rules and regulations of broadcast media.

The Supreme Court last year intervened and took note of several petitions by the public, including one by journalists Hamid Mir, Absar Alam and Asad Kharal, and constituted a media commission headed by Justice (R) Nasir Aslam Zahid and Javed Jabbar to address issues pertaining to media, including secret funding from agencies and advertising contract irregularities among others.

Pakistan’s media and its relationship with the power loci has once again entered the limelight and become the subject of several reports, including those by Amnesty International and Committee to Protect Journalists. As alluded to in the 2014 Amnesty report “A Bullet has Been Chosen for You”: Attacks on Journalists in Pakistan’, the greatest threat to journalism has been from the state and political actors whether through censorship, withholding advertisement contracts or simply “making them [journalists] disappear”.

A few weeks after being attacked, Raza Rumi in an interview with the Jinnah Institute said: “Pakistan’s media landscape presents a sorry picture. On the one hand, various violent groups threaten and attack media workers. On the other, declining standards and corporate rivalries compound the matter. After the assassination attempt on me, individual voices of support notwithstanding, the response of the media was simply pathetic. Rival channels refused to make it into an issue and even international media news outlets with an Urdu website made no significant effort.”

Few statements could better summarise the maladies plaguing Pakistan’s media. Without adequately understanding the sector’s historical development, however, there can be little hope of redressal.

 

~Sarah Eleazar is a Lahore-based journalist.

~Sher Ali Khan is a Lahore-based journalist.

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