Free Media: Good or Evil?

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The following post is an essay which was initially submitted by the author as part of his coursework during an International Journalism course at LSE in July 2009. Some necessary editing has been done before publishing on Pak Media Blog.

http://www.mediafuturist.com/gerd_in_the_media/

Pakistani Media & Skepticism: The evil side of free media By Umair Masoom

Media affects our attitudes, behavior and our daily lives in numerous ways. Mass media has the power to alter and change our perception of individuals, society, politics as well as nations. In an era where media freedom is being considered as an essence of democracy and where privatized media is advocating liberalization, many of us fail to understand the negative consequences of media freedom on audience behavior and thought processes. Just as fair and free media can support democracy in a developing nation, various forms of media bias may also result in the promotion of public criticism and mass dejection within a nation. Besides escalating criticism and political debate through exaggeration or persuasion, liberal media may also result in increasing political unrest and crime that have negative impacts on all important economic indicators. As Jean Seaton states “the reality is that the state of ‘political’ media – which provide the arena for so much of the political debate – closely reflect the conditions of the commercial market place in which the media industry works. The relationship between the press and politicians has always been interlocked, yet market driven”.[1]

Pakistan is a developing nation which emerged on the world map as an independent country in 1947. The country was always renowned for its natural beauty, rich culture, hospitable people and above all the patriotism. So was the case until the start of the 21st century when the nation was eager to take on the challenges of a fast paced world. The media industry until then comprised of few independent newspapers, a few radio stations and a government owned television channel, most of which were largely regulated, professional and highly nationalistic in their reporting. Then came the era of media liberalization, whereby the government handed over more than 30 licenses to various private investors during a short span. Within a year, the newsrooms started converting into platforms for rough political debate coated with the salt and spice recipes of leading news anchors. The noble profession of news reporting was thus given a new name in the linguistics of Pakistani media; it was called “infotainment”! It was much similar to the transformation of World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment having realized that they were unable to attract sufficient viewership and revenue through the true sport itself.

Few media outlets are striving to give the Pakistani people a balanced report on the critical news. The two most common forms of bias include “political bias” and “sensationalism” which are largely existing for either financial or viewership gains. If at all a media bias should exist in a crisis driven country like Pakistan it should be “nationalism”. How the citizens perceive the present and future of a nation is through a mirror that is being owned by its primary media outlets. It is a country where the flow of information is still owned by the Television industry, where only 11% of the national population has access to the internet whereas approximately 50% “86 million” people have access to the Television media.[2]

This argument hence is not against freedom of speech itself, but against freedom of speech in developing economies with minimal level of media convergence and lower access levels to alternate media. Many would argue that the media effect model has now changed to “limited effect on audience” [3] based on factors such as subsequent knowledge, selective perception, varying involvement levels and socioeconomic status. But for a country where 57% of the population belongs to socio-economic classes D and E whereas over 56% of the national population is illiterate[4], the impact is rather massive since majority of the total audience is radically passive.

Chin Chaun Lee states “Mass media can have important effects on people’s picture of the world as well.”[5] In the following case studies you can see how mass media is resulting in significant distortion in people’s picture of their country as well as the international community’s picture of a struggling nation.

Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

On the evening of December 27, 2007, one of the greatest political figures in the history of Pakistan was killed during a political rally in the city of Rawalpindi. The cause of death is still arguable as it could be either a gunshot or the shock caused to her neck in a subsequent blast. Approximately 10 minutes from her death, at 6:25 pm, this breaking news hit the screens of all leading news channels of the country promptly followed by the international media. It stated “Benazir Bhutto assassinated by a terrorist attack in Rawalpindi. PPP representatives blame government for lapse in security measures”. Within 5 minutes of this announcement, riots had started in every important street of the country. During that night, more than 30 people were killed;[6] hundreds of shops, factories, banks, petrol stations, police stations, foreign fast-food outlets and over 1,000 vehicles were set ablaze in cities throughout Pakistan. The people were killing each other; they were damaging citizen property.

What was the powerful media doing at such a time? Igniting the fire further or trying to calm down the nation? Provoking the people against the government or trying to explore the murder with a balanced approach? Soon after, President Musharraf had to announce his resignation and the other strongest party PML-Q was given the title of Qatil (assassin) league. The elections were won by PPP at ease and Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of late Benazir Bhutto became the “will”-full President of Pakistan. There were a few key missing links in this entire story, though, which were left un-served by the so-called liberal media.

In the first official press conference after his wife’s murder, President Zardari mentioned that his close friends from Jail were deputed by him for the security of his wife. Both these friends were so honest to the task assigned to them that they were not close enough to protect their beloved friend’s wife when the incident occurred! Yet, their efforts were recognized so much that within a month both of them went on to take extremely important government offices. Within a few days of the incident, most of the oldest members and dearest friends of Benazir Bhutto resigned from their positions as they were unable to work in the new structure of the party. There were ongoing arguments inside the party over the responsibility of Bhutto’s murder as well as repeated allegations of a fake “will” which had done wonders to the career of President Zardari. Even though Zardari still remains to be the most alleged for Bhutto’s murder within the political sector of Pakistan, these questions never reached the masses of our country nor most of the International media. This truly reflects the negative power of free media in a country like Pakistan.

As Charlie Becket has termed “The reporting of politics is the most important function of journalism. It is how societies have a conversation about power”.[7] But where the reporting becomes more powerful than the politics itself, these conversations must be regulated.

War against terrorism

After the 9/11 incident, President Musharraf announced that Pakistan will join the war against terrorism in response to a call from the United States. Initially, War started in Afghanistan but after sometime it had started moving towards the northern borders of Pakistan since Talibans were recruiting a safer base than Afghan soil. The first region of Pakistan to be affected was South Waziristan where the Taliban had strongly infiltrated by the first quarter of 2007. A clean-up operation had to be announced which is still on-going and has resulted in numerous deaths of civilians as well as Pakistan army. Due to the infotainment genre of mainstream media, the civilian deaths during the operation attracted more national sympathy than that of soldiers who gave their lives for the pride of the nation.

By July 2007, Taliban had started spreading their word through Lal Masjid, a huge religious center in the heart of Islamabad. There was sufficient reason for the government to confirm the presence of militants inside this mosque and so the ministry of defense had to blow the facility after giving reasonable notice to all students to walk out. While approximately 1,500 students walked out of the facility before the operation some media anchors argued through unofficial evidence that over 1,000 people stayed inside Lal Masjid. A large portion of these were the suitable victims to the media i.e. “women” and “children”. The official death toll was 102 including 1 soldier of Pakistan army. According to official sources, the people killed inside the facility were either militants or they chose to die for Taliban objectives since sufficient grace time was given to everyone before the operation.

To attract maximum viewership and national debate, the liberal media again chose to sell this event with alternate spice recipes for a few weeks. The cameras went everywhere from hospitals to graveyards to the sorrow families thus evoking strong national unrest and debate against the Lal Masjid and South Waziristan operations. The media was playing with the emotions of citizens for their commercial interests. The people started perceiving the government and the Army as being ruthless or heartless. Not realizing that all this was being done for the national security, to save the country from a major threat. Who is to be blamed for misguiding the nation? The Lal Masjid and Waziristan operations were the biggest reasons for decreasing popularity of the Musharraf government besides the Bhutto assassination.

Interestingly, President Musharraf was the first to have accepted the notion of free media in 2001. Though, it was not only him who suffered at the hands of this free media. It is an entire nation which has been misled; a nation that has established partial sympathy towards supporters of Taliban, a nation that has lost hope, a nation that does not want to live in their country anymore, a nation that is divided in parties and provinces, a nation that lacks direction, a nation that could do much better!

If things are to improve, it requires the formulation of a media regulatory body developing a healthy communication policy with governing guidelines that can prioritize social, national and economic goals over viewership and political goals. Lightenberg had stated that “the teleological argument maintains that freedom of speech is not an end in itself but an instrument for achieving certain values such as truth and fairness, and that positive government action can sometimes achieve these values more effectively than non-interference”. [8]

These values of truth and fairness are subjective, having varied interpretations at different levels of comprehension within a developing society. The media thus has a greater responsibility to forecast these differences in comprehension and to manage the resulting impact on the life of its audiences. This is too huge a responsibility to be handed over to the business driven media organizations alone, the objectivity of reporting must be formulated with a nationalistic intent and direction; which is only possible with fair government involvement.


[1] Reference: A fresh look at Freedom of Speech, Page 117: Politics and the Media – John Seaton, 1998

[2] Source: Gallup Pakistan annual report 2008 / Pakistan media scene 2008

[3] Reference: When Capitalist and Socialist Television Clash: Power, Money & Media , page 245 – Chin Chaun Lee

[4] Source: Federal Bureau of Statistics, statpak.gov.pk

[5] Reference: When Capitalist and Socialist Television Clash: Power, Money & Media , Page 247 – Chin Chaun Lee

[6]Source:  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article3106200.ece

[7] Networked Journalism and Politics, page 87: SuperMedia – Charlie Becket, 2008

[8] Liberalism and Free Speech, page 67: Democracy and the Mass Media – Judith Lightenberg 1995