January, 2018

By Javed Ansari

When Absar Alam, a working journalist, was appointed Chairman of PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) in October 2015, it was being expected that with an active journalist in the driving seat, the media regulatory body (only pertaining to electronic media) would move ahead on professional lines and weed out those elements on TV and radio channels who had nothing to do with the business of news media or had never been journalists. He was also expected to hammer sense into the unprofessional presentation of TV news. However, this never happened and Pakistani TV channels went from bad to worse.

Absar Alam has recently been removed from his position following a court order but will this spell any improvement in the plight of TV broadcasting in Pakistan? It would be worth finding out that when a journalist like Absar Alam could not transform most TV news channels into professional outfits, will someone be chosen to run PEMRA who can knock some professional sense into the heads of those who run these channels or those who project themselves as ‘faces’ of these channels in the garb of news anchors?

The fact is that freedom for Pakistani media came too fast and in more liberal quantities than ever expected. Before General Musharraf freed the media in 2000, the newspapers and magazines had probably never even imagined that freedom would be thrust upon them in such a liberal manner. Those were the days when a civilian government was not in power but a military man was in charge. It was unimaginable therefore that journalists who were used to applying an invisible code of censorship on their writings and other editorial output, would be let loose to publish what they pleased, of course, barring a few ‘don’ts.

This was also the time when radio and TV licences began to be doled out to anyone who applied. Before this, up until Nawaz Sharif was in power (until the October 1999 coup), even cross-licencing was not allowed. This meant that those owning a print medium could not get a TV channel licence. Musharraf’s government changed this policy, with the result that newspaper barons became media barons in the real sense.

This may have been a good arrangement but the problem was that the media sector in Pakistan did not have the requisite trained manpower to handle the electronic media. The TV channels had to rely on journalists who were already working for the print media. There were not many people who could move to TV and become the ‘faces’ of the channels.

The TV channel owners meanwhile discovered the influence on the masses that the TV medium wielded. On the one hand, they turned the presentation of news and current affairs discussions into a form of entertainment, complete with loud music and sound effects and, on the other, they started hiring anchorpersons who were


either females with pretty faces and scant knowledge of whatever they were talking about or fast-talking men who could make a mountain out of a molehill with their glib tongue. The professional journalists who came into the ‘anchoring’ profession were few and some of them still hold the fort.

The prime job of these ‘anchors’ it seemed was to keep the current affairs show going by leading the participants into verbal fights (which even turned physical at times). The anchor who created the most noise would win the highest TRPs (ratings) and that is what drove the advertisers to these channels. How the ratings of particular channels flew high and of others kept low was debatable because the daily viewership sample was and is a small one. The fact, however, is that it does impact the amount of advertising that the channel pulls.

The fact that because there were not many trained people on the scene, TV channel owners relied on amateurs to ‘create’ news out of nothing and that is where the phenomenon of ‘breaking news’ was born. By definition, ‘breaking news’ means news that has either just happened or is currently happening but it must be news worth reporting and not just any happening. The trend these days is that any small occurence becomes ‘breaking news’ on the TV channels. It can be the report of a pet dog having been stolen from a house or a police raid on a government office. Added to this is the spice and flavour of the anchor’s presentation and the sound effects and dramatic music thrown in by the so-called news producer.

What it all boils down to is that news channels end up exploiting their freedom to drum in news into the viewer’s head by angling it to their advantage and to the advantage of a certain section of society. The same happens in the print media but it is perhaps not so noticeable because Pakistanis, by and large, do not like reading their news. They prefer to watch and listen - a function that even the illiterate can perform. They get carried away by whatever is forced down their throats by TV news and discussion shows and they do not mind if the same clip or footage is a part of the presentation day in and day out. For example, if there is a story on PIA, the producer has no qualms if the same footage of a Boeing-747 is run time after time, despite the fact that PIA got rid of all the 747s in its fleet about two years ago!

If it is a matter of responsibility that freedom is supposed to entail, the Pakistani media are certainly a big let-down. The size of the media has grown but whether this has contributed to constructive awareness of the people is a moot question. In fact, if there is an air of despondency and gloom in the country, the media has a lot to do with this – especially the TV channels and social media and, to some extent, the lower-tier print media.

Perhaps it is time that instead of celebrating freedom of the press, we were given freedom from the press.

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