Polarization in Pakistan Media: Personal clashes or just business?
CSS General Knowledge
Many will agree with me that perhaps the biggest problem with Pakistani media today is its sharply polarized nature. The split between Geo, Jang group, Dunya and Dawn on one end and ARY News, HD 92, Express, Bol on the other, is clearly visible. The battle lines have been drawn, for quite sometime, but as it happens, the realization came later. I talked to several media practitioners, experts and those you can call “insiders of the industry” to make sense of what they think is happening. And the first thing I wanted to know was if “Polarization of media is directly proportional to political polarization?” (CSS General Knowledge)
Dr. Moeed Pirzada, prominent TV Anchor and foreign policy guru – who is currently with Dunya as its Editor Strategic Affairs but has worked previously with Geo, Express and ARY – and also someone who had served in the government as a CSS officer, kind of agreed with my characterization. He said: “Current sharp polarisation definitely reflects deep divide of Pakistani politics”. But he then added: “It also happened because Pakistani governments have penetrated private media by bribing them in several ways.” He continued saying that, “Independent media in a country like Pakistan are supposed to be critical of governments, not supporters of government, because government has its own information ministry, PTV & Pakistan Radio and news agencies like APP to give their point of view but once governments (especially the current PML-N government) penetrated media, to have its own loyal assets, then media got sharply split.” The prominent Anchor’s comments popped up a new question in my head: Is our state run media house, PTV, supposed to be a mouth piece of the government or the people of Pakistan?
This question, took me to one of the most experienced media executives: Yousaf Baig Mirza, nicknamed as “YBM” in the industry. Baig, who started his media career with Zee in London, has served twice as MD-PTV, and is credited with the successful launch of brands like Dunya News, Channel 92, PTV English, PTV Sports and others and who is believed to be busy launching another TV channel before the next elections. The busy executive did not have much time for me, but was forthright. When I asked him: why editorial boards cannot control polarisation in Pakistani media; he did not mince any words in announcing, “It is not about the editorial policy, it is more because of the alignment of a media group owner with different political parties. And it’s the political polarisation which is being executed through media.” Further Mr. Baig added: “The polarisation will continue like this because now its a power game and the stakes of both sides are very high, especially that of media. And the key players of the channels are trying hard to shape opinions.”
The media and journalism in Pakistan today is money driven and very commercialized. And this, reminds me of an old op-ed published in the Guardian with an interesting headline ‘When the rich are born to rule, the results can be fatal’ by George Monbiot.
Amir Zia, Senior Executive Vice President and a prominent presenter at Bol News argued that Pakistani society, as a whole is very polarised at the moment. Amir, who has previously worked as the editor of the major daily newspaper, The News, however claimed that, “Once upon a time channels and journalists used to take pride that they are independent and objective, unbiased and balanced, but what has happened now, not just in Pakistan but in [the] west also [is] that people are taking positions and they not just tell the story but give out their verdict as well.” Moreover Mr. Zia said, “I don’t blame a journalist because he has been forced to drive a particular agenda by the owner of his organization. For instance England’s media is also conservative and liberal but that’s because of ideological divide, here it all comes down to personality level, which makes it look very substandard.”
Many sources from the industry claimed that it is all because of the regulator “PEMRA” we have here in Pakistan – that media is not working the way it should be. The narrative being floated these days that the media houses should be self-regulatory is not going to help and the argument is just illogical. There are editor’s and Journalistic Code of Practice all over the world; such codes in the UK have been formed by the journalists for the journalists so in a way they are self regulatory but they still feel the need for regulatory bodies like OFCOM, IPSO (Independent Press Standard Organization) and PCC (Press complaints commission). As I listened to these apparently wise sounding arguments, words of YBM ringed in my ears: “its now [a] power game and stakes of both sides are very high”.
An example of rule of law and properly functioning media regulators, could be the law suit won by Pakistani media tycoon, Mir Shakeel ur Rehman in British courts against Pakistani TV network: ARY.
John Boone, Guardian’s correspondent in Islamabad, in his article had written: “The court found ARY guilty of making 24 separate defamatory claims against Rahman and ordered the channel to pay damages of GBP 185,000. When costs are included, ARY’s total bill is thought to be almost GBP 3 million.” Boone also wrote, “Pakistani television stations are answerable to British courts because it rebroadcasts in the UK.” Isn’t it funny? Could ARY not be sued in Pakistan? This example tells a lot about how well our regulator regulates and how our media houses are just not answerable to anybody here. But then there were others who argued, off the record, that Pakistani politicians and power elite are exploiting English law on technicalities; because people need to defend their reputations in jurisdictions where they are ordinarily residents – its only there that courts can judge between the arguments of plaintiffs and defendants.
Dr. Moeed Pirzada, said that “Current sharp polarisation definitely reflects deep divide of Pakistani politics”. But he then added: “It also happened because Pakistani governments have penetrated private media by bribing them in several ways.”
Rauf Klasra, an eminent investigative journalist, columnist and an outspoken TV commentator, said, “Many anchors are even told what’s their topic for the show. Often the anchors and the owners of media groups find a common ground and sign deals that allow the anchors to conduct, for instance, two shows according to what they want and two shows according to what their bosses want.”
According to Mr. Klasra the reason behind polarisation is only financial. There is no editorial reason at all. He expressed his concern saying that, “In the last four years the government has given approximately Rs. 10 billion to media houses to run its advertisements. Just take a look at official figures and you would find out which media group made how much money through these adverts and how polarisation is done.”
Hence, the media and journalism in Pakistan today is money driven and very commercialized. And this, reminds me of an old op-ed published in the Guardian with an interesting headline ‘When the rich are born to rule, the results can be fatal’ by George Monbiot. Similarly about media group owners we could also say that ‘When the rich are born to run media houses and news agencies, the results can be fatal’.
It looks like editorial boards have ceased to exist in our media industry – if they ever existed – and the editorial authority rests with the owners of these media groups.
Many sources from the industry claimed that it is all because of the regulator “PEMRA” we have here in Pakistan – that media is not working the way it should be.
Not very long ago we heard right from the horse’s mouth and everyone was amazed when Mir Shakeel ur Rehman said, “I have nothing to do with journalism, for me its my business.” And this statement of his on national TV, while writing this article, is compelling me to share a famous dialogue from a celebrated movie ‘Godfather’ that, “Its just business – nothing personal.”
May be its just business; polarisation in media in US, UK or elsewhere takes place on the ideological basis or it might take place on the basis of journalistic principles – at least we think so – but in Pakistan its purely because of profit generation.
In Pakistan, we are not just victims of colossal corruption but we are also suffering from acutely low morals and ethical values. When will we, as a society, reach a level where people wouldn’t say things they are not sure of – journalists wouldn’t accuse someone without enough evidence and if one does, with malicious intentions and proves to be harmfully inaccurate, then could he, she or their organization be sued for it?
Polarisation in media in US, UK or elsewhere takes place on the ideological basis or it might take place on the basis of journalistic principles – at least we think so – but in Pakistan its purely because of profit generation.
The media, and supportive governments, in Pakistan, have failed to act against unethical journalistic practices. This politics, referred to as “power game” by one of my interlocutors, has precisely encouraged this unethical and irresponsible behavior on the part of media practitioners. Polarised or not polarised – media, as an industry, and journalists as practitioners, should take responsibility to discourage irresponsible journalism.
Pen was mightier than sword! Is it still so?
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an English novelist, in 1839 wrote ‘a pen is mightier than a sword’ in his play ‘Cardinal Richelieu’. A journalist’s pen certainly had that very power Edward was talking about in the 19th century. I believe Lytton’s words are still true: a journalist’s pen can steer the public in the right direction. I believe, he or she – if they care to understand – do greater good to the society than a politician can.
Shiffa Yousafzai is a freelance writer; She is an International Alumni Ambassador for Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, where she studied Multimedia Journalism. Earlier, she graduated with business and marketing at Air University, Islamabad. She had been vice-president Air University Cultural Society; She is a singer and has performed in cultural events. Shiffa could be followed on twitter @Shiffa_ZY and on facebook @Shiffa Z. Yousafzai.