Most would agree that the media play a critical role in democracy by amplifying public voice and holding government accountable. I recently read a BBC Media Action Policy Briefing on the media of Pakistan, which analyzes the media’s role in Pakistan’s on-going democratic transition and offers policy recommendations to those in the international community wanting to support deepening democracy within the country. I summarize here some key points made in the report.
Historically, Pakistani media’s relationship with the state had been “one of intimidation and control”. Broadly speaking, Pakistani political landscape consisted of the military, civilian bureaucracy, and provincial leaders with the military being the most dominant power. Media had been a tool for the government, especially for the military to build a national identity and propagate “a unified national position on domestic and foreign policy issues”. In addition to the political ties, the media’s financial structure makes the industry vulnerable to their control, as the industry relied heavily on government and private sector advertising revenue.
Today, Pakistan has a vibrant media landscape thanks to the media reform law that liberalized the sector in 2002. Since the reform, the media has been establishing its reputation as an alternate political force in Pakistan by providing a platform for public grievances on many issues. According to the report, Pakistanis currently enjoy 89 privately-owned satellite television channels and 115 FM radio stations. These channels air diverse programs from news and soap operas to political satire/comedy shows in regional languages, Urdu (national language) and English. “Observers, from UN representatives to US politicians laud Pakistan as having among the most vibrant and independent media in the Islamic world”, says the report.
However, according to the report, Pakistani media continues to face challenges. First, the media is constrained by its political and financial ties with the government. Even though the country has been ruled by civilian leaders for the last 6 years, the military remains a significant power bloc in Pakistani politics. The coverage of national security and foreign policy matters are still considered sensitive by the authorities.
Second, despite the media’s impressive progress, the public is still skeptical of media’s role as a driver of change. In addition, the regional programming and social media could be a double edged sword, providing voice to those that were previously excluded from political discourse while further polarizing the country along ethnic and linguistic lines and empowering extreme views.
The report argues that Pakistani media’s greatest achievement has been its role as a gatekeeper, “empowering diverse voice” by articulating public demand. The report offers
The following recommendations to the international community to support the on-going democratic transition in Pakistan:
- Help build capacity of regional-language broadcast media to strengthen the politics of inclusion;
- Work with Pakistani regulators, broadcasters, telecommunications companies and civil society organization to counter ‘hate speech, divisive and exclusionary online content’ to strengthen the online presence of pro-stability, inclusive and democratic media;
- Promote digital literacy across Pakistan;
- Improve the quality of Pakistan’s media outputs; and
- Convene a donors’ working group on media support in Pakistan; and increase the inclusion of media content analysis and strategy in donor country assessment.
I think these are all good recommendations for the international community to consider though local ownership is critical. Personally, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of media in Pakistan as is the paper. The progress the media has made in the last decade is remarkable, and the positive impact it has had on the country is clearly visible.
The challenges mentioned in the paper are, on many levels, out of the media’s control; these are the challenges that the whole nation faces in its democratic transition. One thing I would note is that the media reporting in Pakistan has become increasingly sensational, presumably for ratings, and this is an alarming trend that could inflame extreme and polarizing views. With the literacy rate at around 50%, many Pakistanis depend on broadcast media for information, giving the media tremendous power to shape public opinion. That power comes with great responsibility.
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Photo credit: BBC