The Might (and Plight) of Pakistani Media (Part 3 of 3)

(Part 3 – Current Biases, Future Fears)

Though contemporaneous to those militants being labeled as “terrorists” who are being confronted ‘inland’ (in the urban centers and Swat) by the Pak Army, the insurgents who are attacking the U.S. (and Pakistani forces too, for that matter) from the border areas have been downgraded to “tribals”, “Pashtun nationalists” and “extremist militias” in the ever-evolving newspeak of the Pakistani media.

Moreover, the collateral damage and civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes is also being widely reported and debated, while there is barely any mention of the same type of losses incurred by assaults from Pakistani gunships and artillery barrages on entire villages.

Is this editorial shift developing due to U.S. involvement in the affected area – a media-generated thumbs-down for disappointing America’s noblesse oblige?  Is the mere engagement of the U.S. in the Af-Pak border region enough for the media to create one ‘good’ (inland) and one ‘bad’ (frontier and tribal areas) perception of the different theaters of conflict within this unified, overarching and regional war?

There are several ‘projectionist’ issues that also need to be raised to identify the increasingly complex correlation between the press and politics in Pakistan.

How is the media’s regional bias (considering all media houses are headquartered in the more developed southern and eastern provinces of Sindh and Punjab) affecting the coverage of the war? Pakistan is fighting insurgencies in the lesser-developed western and northern provinces. Infrastructure is scarce and access and outreach difficult in that remote warzone. How is this logistical gap affecting the frequency, veracity and depth of stories coming from a very critical part of the country?

What about ethno-centricity within the media? Most mainstream journalists are not from the war-affected areas (they hail primarily from the more educated south and east). Most of them do not speak the languages and dialects of the volatile west and north, nor do they have family/clan contacts and sources within the tribal communities there that are key for tracking developments and inspire proactive reporting in a region where personal relationships guide political realities.

Considering that most reporting in these areas has always been community-based, centered on the word-of-mouth communication culture of ‘stringers’, is this ethnic fissure between mainstream journalists and their assigned beat creating a skewed and essentially biased perspective of the war? And more importantly, what more beyond mere self-awareness by the actors involved must occur in order for the media to truly reflect the region that it proposes to cover?

What about coercion? Though immensely powerful, the Pakistani media is vulnerable to violence now more than ever before. Considering that the Taliban recently passed a fatwa against the media (and have been executing it unofficially as well, increasing attacks on reporters in 2009 compared to 2008), will the media be coerced by them? If so, can we expect mainstream journalism to become increasingly less secular as it strives to prove its religious credentials to everyone, including the legitimate or banned political and militant groups that threaten them?

What of the media’s manipulation by Pakistan’s all-powerful military-intelligence apparatus? Some local think tanks, allegedly financed by different spy-agencies (often with diverging agendas) have been on the offensive for the last few years, propagating their views through the anarchic and rapidly proliferating world of Pakistani cyberspace. Their perspective is gaining popularity in the mainstream media as reporters increasingly cite online publications and articles that have a dubious heritage.

Is this correlation between ‘quack and hack’ online ‘experts’ and bloggers and mainstream reporting incidental or engineered? Is it motivated by a convergence of ideology and editorial leaning or other, less ‘principle’ factors like financial incentives (the Pakistani media has a notoriously corrupt reputation)? The relevancy of this question is compounded by the widely held belief that several Pakistani news portals and websites are allegedly funded by front organizations for militant and terrorist groups, even Al-Qaeda.

And finally, where does the money trail lead? Will this country’s dragging economy continue to force the media to intensify its ‘tabloid’ style of coverage as the fight for advertising revenue and ratings battles become the final arbiter of survival? Will the Pakistani media cut its family-run roots and transition to the advanced stage of corporate ownership, shedding one set of deficiencies for another, possibly more problematic one? And will this changeover make for a more secular, nationalist or liberal media? Finally, how will that evolution affect the political economy as well as the public relations of the Pakistani state, especially during a time of war?

The nexus of press and politics in Pakistan has been left undiscovered for too long. Watch this space to track that evolution.

Also published in its abridged version in The Express Tribune on April 29th as “The Manipulation of Our Media”

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