Who Watches the Watchdog? The Pakistani Media's Impact on Politics and Society
Pakistan's independent electronic media outlets are increasingly the focus, rather than the source, of news coverage about the country. Liberalized in 2002, they are celebrated as proof of Pakistan's democratic credentials. But they are also viewed as a destabilizing force—one that spurs political instability, hijacks foreign relations, and promotes extremism. On April 11, the Wilson Center's Asia Program hosted a presentation by Wilson Center Pakistan Scholar Huma Yusuf that examined which interests Pakistan's independent media better serve: public or vested. Her remarks centered around the country's private television networks, which reach anywhere between 40 and 70 million viewers in a nation of 180 million people.
According to Yusuf, a journalist with the Pakistan daily Dawn, Pakistan's electronic media sector exhibits "schizophrenic" tendencies, given that it is "both free and fettered." On the one hand, press freedom indicators have improved considerably in recent years. Yet on the other hand, Pakistani journalists operate under significant constraints. Their work is highly dangerous; in 2010, more reporters were killed in Pakistan than in any other country. Additionally, Pakistan's army maintains "informational vacuums" in the country's tribal areas. The current civilian government—and the military ones that preceded it—have often blacked out news coverage. Even the Pakistani courts have played a role in media regulation; reporters are frequently threatened with contempt of court proceedings.
Such constraints, Yusuf explained, are complicated by the fact that the media liberalizations of 2002 were impelled by a strategic imperative: to counter perceived pro-India propaganda, fueled in great part by the emergence in Pakistan of new private international satellite television networks (many of them Indian). As a result, today, Pakistani television channels—and particularly their wildly popular prime-time political talk shows—tend to reflect a heavy anti-Indian bias.
Can the Pakistani press truly flourish as an independent force, or will it simply be co-opted by the Pakistani establishment? In response, Yusuf presented two case studies: Pakistani media coverage of extremism, and of Pakistan-U.S. relations. On the former, she noted that the media have been harshly criticized for broadcasting excessive coverage of terrorist attacks; for refusing to condemn them; and for propagating conspiracy theories about them (such as that Muslims could never commit acts of terrorism). This "culture of denial," she argued, originates not with the media, but with the establishment.
Meanwhile, ever since Geo, one of Pakistan's most-watched television news channels, broadcast live and continuous interviews with an Islamist militant as he presided over the takeover of Islamabad's Lal Masjid mosque in 2007, the electronic media have given ample airtime to radicals "who otherwise wouldn't get any attention." On this count, Yusuf singled out the media. Journalists like scoops, she said, and interviews with radicals constitute major coups.
As for coverage of Pakistan-U.S. relations, Yusuf asserted that in this context the media are often used as "pawns" by Islamabad. In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed (and President Barack Obama signed into law) a $7.5 billion economic assistance package for Pakistan. The Pakistani military concluded that some of the conditions in the legislation amounted to excessive micromanagement of Pakistani affairs. Accordingly, the country's powerful intelligence agencies leaked reports alleging such micromanagement. The media promptly picked up these reports and widely disseminated their findings.
Yusuf insisted that though often exploited by Pakistan's intelligence agencies, the country's media are by no means subservient to them. Yet even as the Pakistani press refuses to succumb to such forces, it struggles to overcome its capacity problems. Though the number of Pakistani journalists has increased dramatically in recent years (from around 2,000 to 17,000), most of them are young, and very few have any relevant training. In fact, she noted, less than 1 percent of Pakistan's entire labor force is trained in media or communication studies at the college level.
This lack of capacity extends to topical expertise as well. After last year's devastating floods, Yusuf recalled, she and her fellow Dawn journalists wanted to produce stories on how the floods crystallized the effects of climate change. Yet instead, the paper's post-flood coverage was largely restricted to political stories, such as those about President Asif Ali Zardari's poor response and about the various conspiracy theories surrounding the deluge. The reason? A shortage of science reporters.
Despite all these challenges, Yusuf identified some positive developments in the world of Pakistan's independent media. Outlets demonstrate "resounding support" for the country's vibrant civil society, she noted. Additionally, amid the backlash against how the media cover terrorism (particularly the graphic nature of reportage), some networks have decided to devise new codes of conduct. And finally, a new crop of better trained journalists could well emerge within the next few years.
By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program