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Media is emerging as a threat to democracy

 

SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, February 17, 2012 14:49
Tags : media in Pakistan | print media in Pakistan | media emerged as an aggressive watchdog | |
 
Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based media development specialist and a political analyst. He heads Intermedia Pakistan, which focuses on advocacy, research and training on media issues, and promotes civic action initiatives on development issues. He regularly writes for a string of publications within and outside Pakistan. In this interview with Saurabh Kumar Shahi, Rehmat talks about the opportunity and challenges facing Pakistani media.

How do you see the present media scenario in Pakistan in terms of its role as the fourth estate of the democracy?
The media in Pakistan played a key role in transition from military rule to democracy in 2007-’08 by taking a firm position against General Musharraf in his confrontation with the top judiciary, which precipitated in elections and return of the country’s top two political leaders – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – from exile. It also supported restoration of judges who opposed and ruled against Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency in November 2007. Post-election, the media has slowly emerged as an aggressive watchdog on the performance of the democratic dispensation. It has grown from monitor to critic to a discernibly anti-incumbent advocate and has been charging the coalition government with corruption, despite the fact that in the court of law there hasn’t been conviction of any government functionary in any significant case. Disturbingly, the media has, in the past two years, emerged as an opponent of the democratically elected parties in its confrontation with the traditionally hostile military establishment. By becoming a party in the battle between traditionally powerful military and emaciated political forces, the media is emerging as a threat to democracy.
 
In the subcontinent, there has been this age-old battle of sorts between English language media outlets and their vernacular competitors. What sort of schism is there in the Pakistani media space with this regard?
In Pakistan, the schism between mainstream English print media and the vernacular press is as wide and as deep as ever. In a country of 180 million, the total newspaper circulation figures are hardly three million. Even if there are five readers to a newspaper, that’s still only 15 million for whom newspapers are a primary source of information. Of the three million circulation figure, barely 0.5 million are English newspapers sold a day. However, the English newspapers are overwhelmingly urban-based and distributed and read by policy makers, social and business elite. The vernacular language press is mostly read by middle and lower middle classes. This press is hampered by a lack of professional reporters and a generally weak beat system, which prevents subject expertise and lack of analysis. While the English print media in Pakistan is pluralist and offers analysis, the vernacular press is heavily opinionated and characterised by a general lack of fact and verification.
 
With the closure of Express News channel, there are now no 24 hours English news channels in Pakistan. What do you think is the reason behind this vacuum? Is it just the issue of not being able to monetise, or do you believe there is little scope for such channels in the present space?
The number of TV channels in Pakistan grew from a baseline of one TV channel (government owned) in 2002 to about 100 now (all but five are government-owned) of which about 40 are 24/7 current affairs channels. At one time in 2009 there were two English language channels and a third was about to launch. However, due to increasing competition for viewers amid a tanking economy, sensationalism became the determining factor to get audiences and advertising. The consumers of English language TV channels in Pakistan – unlike the vast majority of their counterpart consumers of vernacular TV media – did not depend on TV as their primary source of information but on the internet. Also, the average English language media consumer in Pakistan shies away from opinionated content and sensationalist bent. The viewers, which never reached a critical mass in the first place, dwindled and with them advertisers. This led to closure of the English language channels.
 
In a nation where the English channels have struggled to survive, how do you explain so many liberal leaning English newspapers such as The Dawn, The Express Tribune and The Friday Times? 
The limited English language newspaper circulation translates into a high percentage of focused/targeted audiences with high purchasing powers. The advertising pie for these newspapers is big enough because of the high-end audience the newspapers get. These English print publications have the kind of critical mass of English-speaking elite readers to be sustainable.
 
Visual media in Pakistan has remained vocal in the last few years. How effective has it been in promoting the liberal cause? Or do they, like the TV channels in India, resort to mere sensationalism? 
The deteriorating economy of the last few years (due to terrorism and energy shortages) have forced the visual media in Pakistan to resort to sensationalism to battle for the dwindling advertising pie. This has eroded professionalism and promoted highly opinionated content and extreme positioning on issues that has, in turn, affected support for liberal causes. There is a strong argument that the visual media has promoted intolerance and extremism.
 
How effective is the transition towards New Media in Pakistan? Can we expect a boom in the coming years? 
The transition to new media is encouraging. There are about 25 million Internet users in Pakistan, an overwhelming majority of which is young. The nature of new media, in general (and despite exceptions), has promoted a more inclusive and pluralistic debate. There is much more support for liberal causes and alternative and pluralistic voices online than in offline media in Pakistan. With growing Internet telephony (over 111 million use mobile phones), the introduction of 3G technology by mid-2012, and cheaper rates for online access, we can definitely see a boom in new media in Pakistan. 
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Issue Dated: Apr 27, 2014