(Part 1 – The Paradox of ‘Urdu Medium’ and ‘Seth’ Culture)
Among the diverse issues that face a post-colonial and post-millennial Pakistan, the enormous disparity in education and wealth among its nearly 175 million citizens manifests itself in severe barriers to accessible and objectively presented journalism.
Most Pakistanis do not possess the basic literacy to read their news in any format. Meanwhile, those who are literate cannot afford to regularly access printed media. These facts make the television media the only truly affordable and accessible platform for information and discourse and, as a result, a serious player in the Pakistani polity.
Since it was de-regulated less than a decade ago under the regime of the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, the media has gone on to play a critical role in many of Pakistan’s escalatingand interconnected civil, military, social and political conflicts.
It was the media that covered the tragedy of Mukhtaran Mai, the victim of a brutal gang rape in rural Punjab, and propelled her to become the international voice of suppressed Pakistani women. It was the media that took on the Musharraf dictatorship by supporting the activist Lawyers Movement for the restoration of an un-constitutionally dissolved Supreme Court bench. It was the media that aired live images from across the “divide” during the Mumbai attacks, challenging the Pakistani ‘establishment’ to confront its ambiguous stance on supporting terrorism and – for the first time in the country’s history – inadvertently cooperating with arch-nemesis India in bringing the alleged ring-leaders of that terrible onslaught to justice.
But given the country’s reputed status of being the eye of the global security storm, what role is the Pakistani media playing in this region’s version of what was once called the War on Terror? Is it exercising its immense power responsibly? Does it quantify and qualify its news agenda to cover the critical wartime issues that actually matter, or is it politicized and serving special interests? Is the media ‘selling’ the war to Pakistanis, or is it aligning itself with the anti-war (and thus essentially anti-American) movement?
In question is the media’s use of language in targeting, developing and exploiting preordained opinions among sectors of the polity. Like most media, the Pakistani industry takes its lead on language and ‘copy’ from its print counterparts. In Pakistan, most Urdu news publications are relatively more conservative and less secular as compared to the English press. Considering that the English-Urdu divide in Pakistan is actually a manifestation of the haves versus the have-nots (a classic socio-economic problem that persists in most former colonies as the elite are in a position to commodify a Western education), the media in Pakistan effectively tends to merge linguistics and politics by serving Urdu news to the ‘teeming masses’ compared to the English carriers that cater to the ‘ruling elite’. Thus, different information goes to di, fferent people, channeled through the interface of the language divide in the media.
This is a critical trend. An entire generation of Pakistanis is receiving news and analysis that is not in sync with another generation that co-exists with them, greatly outnumbers them, and relies on them for their economic survival. What further complicates this argument is clear evidence that bi-lingual media groups shift their editorial stances from left to right based on the language of their products, thus providing a controlled experiment that premises language as the key driver of the growing schism in a disparately politicized Pakistani audience.
Then there are the built-in structural efficiencies and/or deficiencies of the Pakistani media, including an inherent arrangement that motivates self-interest over objectivity. All local media groups are family-owned (only one entertainment-centric group is publicly listed). That ends up giving substantial control to a very small group of individuals and with it, the ability to advance ‘personal’ agendas into the information mainstream.
This ‘genetically driven’ structure (also called seth culture) is the ‘elephant in the room’ (or the news studio) as far as Pakistan’s media powerhouses are concerned.
The first, automated affect of this arrangement is the breach of the ‘Church and State’ divide, which in journalism stands for the separation between ‘Management and Editorial’. Thus, inherent in the industrial configuration of the Pakistani media is a natural dilution of the most basic principle of unbiased journalism.
Watch this space to track the bizarre, modern evolution of Pakistan’s fourth estate, which many slam as its fifth column.
Originally published in the Express Tribune on April 15, 2010 as “The Evolution of Pakistani Media”