Today, the media in Pakistan is free – indeed, fearlessly so. Since the advent of the current democratic dispensation following the general election of 2008, it has been perceived as trying to set the national agenda in almost every sphere of life, and even to be asserting itself as a vigorous power broker.
Of course, media freedom is a good thing; nonetheless, one does feel that in Pakistan some questionable practices are being passed off as principled. Mistakes are made, and half-truths circulated, occasionally as if they were scripture. Sometimes tight deadlines are to blame, but at other times, more worryingly, it is a matter of trying to ‘go one up’ on the competition.
A part of the Pakistani media is performing its role of a watchdog fairly competently, holding politicians, the state apparatus and the army accountable and keeping the general public well informed. However, at times one finds media content distorted because of coercion, pressure, bribery and propaganda from outside actors. One also finds in the Urdu media a strong trend to promote radical ideas, especially religious obscurantism.
An added complication is that facts are becoming more and more difficult to check and re-check in an era of real-time reporting. Revolutions in information technology and communications have proven to be game-changers; there is, therefore, an urgent need for some new ‘rules of the game’. Specialised stabilisers must be developed and put in place, otherwise short circuits will continue to afflict Pakistan’s media, potentially with dire consequences for not only the media itself but for the general public also.
The boom in electronic media has led to a vast influx of formerly untrained personnel who are still learning on the job. Even so, the Pakistani media’s performance during both the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods can be classed as nothing less than inspirational. Without experience of covering a disaster of any significant magnitude (or in some cases even a local mishap), media personnel went into the most inaccessible disaster areas with no style books and little idea of how to use much of their equipment, to which they had been introduced only a few years back. Yet their astounding coverage was crucial in mobilising national and international support.
Pakistan’s media has survived four vicious military rules, spanning almost half of the country’s 64-year history, and several non-democratic civilian governments. It has blossomed into what it is today despite having suffered the blackest of media laws and the vilest of attempts to subjugate it. Nowadays, in spite of the issues described, compared to the media of most East Asian countries and almost all Muslim countries, the Pakistani media is exceptionally vibrant and free. Perhaps this is because it began from a position of strength: having already been inculcated with British ideals about press freedom, the South Asian media pursued independence from colonialism with an almost missionary zeal.
Today, however, the media in Pakistan faces a new kind of challenge: the country is ranked the deadliest in the world for journalists, mainly due to widespread militancy in the tribal areas, parts of Khyber Puktunkhawa and Balochistan. As it becomes increasingly hazardous to report from these conflict zones, one is able to make the poignant observation that the only censorship Pakistan’s media is likely to suffer these days is that imposed by civil unrest.