The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's pugnacious press

In recent days, details have emerged about the Pakistani government's pursuit of Internet filtering technologies that would enable it to block up to 50 million websites. This news comes just weeks after a parliamentary committee proposed a ban on "anti-Pakistan" programming on private television stations.

Pakistan's media may be feisty (the country's private television channels are often stridently anti-government in tone), but feisty does not necessarily mean free. In its 2011-12 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Pakistan 151st out of 179 nations. The country's culture of violence toward the media is the main reason for this low ranking, but state policies threaten media freedoms as well. Because the rapid and relatively recent expansion of the Pakistani press has not been accompanied by checks on its excesses, media-muzzling measures have effectively become proxies for regulation.

It wasn't always this way. For years, Pakistan's television media environment was dominated by the staid, state-run Pakistan Television. Not until the early 2000s did the nation experience a sudden and explosive proliferation of private cable and satellite TV outlets-the result of a liberalization regime initiated by then-President Pervez Musharraf, who, according to some observers, sought alternatives to the Indian satellite television channels watched by many Pakistanis at the time. Today, Pakistan boasts about 90 private television channels and more than 100 radio stations, but only one media oversight entity: the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, which falls under the information minister's purview and is widely regarded as ineffective.

What has this pell-mell transition wrought? First, it has produced a vibrant media environment that strengthens Pakistani democracy. It has also promoted civic activism; Pakistani television networks helped catalyze the anti-government fervor that erupted following Musharraf's firing of the country's chief justice in 2007.

Yet it has also unleashed a torrent of ugly content. This ranges from sloppy reporting (The News' coverage of the Congressional hearings on Balochistan earlier this year misidentified a witness, M. Hossein Bor, as a Congressman) to unethical practices (newspaper articles frequently print names, phone numbers, and even addresses of vulnerable citizens such as human rights activists and rape victims, and print journalists are often accused of plagiarism).

Then there is sensationalism. The recent exploits of Maya Khan and Shamoon Abbasi-TV personalities who, with cameras rolling, sought to expose dating couples frolicking in parks and lovers engaged in homosexual activities-have attracted considerable attention. Yet there is also popular TV personality Meher Bokhari, who berated and bullied the late Punjab Province governor Salman Taseer in a 2010 interview. One observer concluded that the interview whipped up such hatred that it contributed indirectly to Taseer's assassination just weeks later. Oftentimes, however, politicians drive the sensationalism. A senior leader from Imran Khan's party once hurled a glass at a fellow guest during a Business TV talk show. And just last month, an official from Musharraf's party appearing on Express News issued a death threat to a co-panelist-with no intervention from the host or producer.   

Perhaps the most troubling consequence of Pakistan's unregulated press is the erosion of the line separating fact and fiction. In late 2010, the Express Tribune published a horrifying story about Shamsul Anwar, a soldier-turned-taxi driver. Anwar claimed that two of his sons were kidnapped by militants, with one killed and the other released-only to be diagnosed with cancer, which Anwar had no money to treat. About a year later, The News published an update: not only was the son still in need of medical care, but Anwar reported that his daughter had now been abducted as well.

In January 2012, Anwar admitted that his story was a hoax-concocted, he said, to swindle money from sympathetic readers. Sehrish Wasif, who wrote the initial article, said she hoped the affair would be "a lesson to all journalists, including myself, to not let emotion be the guiding force of a news report." Yet the real blame lies with the anything-goes, report-everything media environment that Anwar so skillfully exploited. The murky distinction between truth and untruth also hovered over the coda to the Khan and Abbasi affairs, when both journalists claimed that their offending segments had actually been staged. And it loomed large in 2010, when several media reports insinuated (with little evidence) that a famous 2009 video of a girl getting publicly flogged in Taliban-occupied Swat was actually a fabrication orchestrated by paid actors.

Islamabad rarely responds to media shenanigans with carefully targeted interventions. Instead, it casts a wide net and resorts to outright bans. In 2010 the government temporarily outlawed Facebook and YouTube (for anti-Islamic content), while in recent months it unsuccessfully attempted to filter 1,500 words out of mobile-based text messaging-including incendiary terms such as "athlete's foot" and "finger food." 

These draconian measures are driven as much by political fears as by concerns about better-quality media. Tellingly, the announcements about Web filtering technologies and curbs on anti-Pakistan TV programming were made at a time when national coverage about Balochistan, a province rife with anti-government sentiment and separatist ambitions, has been on the rise. Rolling Stone's website has been inaccessible in Pakistan since July 2011, when it posted a story critical of the army's budgetary spending. And only in the last few days has the government overturned a four-month ban on BBC World News, which aired a documentary last November questioning Pakistan's willingness to tackle militancy.

Encouragingly, Pakistan's media and civil society have taken steps toward promoting regulation. According to Sahar Habib Ghazi of the citizen journalism portal Hosh Media, many small media outlets voluntarily follow the Society of Professional Journalists' code of conduct. The Huffington Post has spotlighted Citizens for Free and Responsible Media, comprised of Pakistanis "who regularly monitor and discuss" national media content. Other promising efforts, however, have lapsed. These include an attempt by Dawn News journalist Matiullah Jan to launch a TV show that singles out unethical behavior in the media. The show was cancelled after 12 episodes, and Jan acknowledged resistance "from the highest levels of the media industry."

This resistance to such ombudsman-like arrangements underscores a basic reality (and one not unique to Pakistan): Sensationalism sells. Criticism of questionable Pakistani media practices tends to emenate from other media professionals, and not from the general public. Media experts contend that news programming -- which produces the most outrageous content -- is more popular with Pakistani audiences than entertainment offerings.

Fortunately, there is another way to improve Pakistani media standards: Bettering the lot of the average journalist. In 2011, for the second year in a row, the Committee to Protect Journalists designated Pakistan as the most dangerous country for reporters. Yet their bravery often goes unrewarded. "It's alright to keep your employees starving while you sip champagne and devour caviar in the comfort of your many mansions," a bitter Pakistani journalist fumed last month about the country's media magnates. Even Taseer, who owned the Daily Times, was excoriated for his staff management; one critic alleged that his workers did not get paid "for months on end" or received only half their salaries. Meanwhile, according to Dawn columnist Huma Yusuf, most of Pakistan's 17,000 journalists have little relevant training; less than 1 percent of the labor force is trained in media or communication studies at the college level.

Expecting powerful media titans to take the lead in regulating their output quality may be expecting too much. A more realistic expectation is that they simply help their employees. Momentum is building for such measures; last week, the Media Commission of Pakistan, a media rights watchdog, released a report demanding that journalists be provided with health and life insurance. By offering more competitive salaries, providing training opportunities, and improving journalists' general well-being, media bigwigs can help make their staffs happier and more productive. Better compensated and trained journalists are more likely to practice their craft ethically and responsibly-thereby setting an example worthy of emulation by their bosses.

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached by email at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org and on Twitter @michaelkugelman

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

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