Never before has the private television industry been faced with such challenges
Starting relatively late, the private television media grew within a short period. Against all odds, journalists working for various channels established their professional worth. The best example that comes to mind was the unprecedented coverage of the devastating earthquake in 2005. Remember, the private television sector was only three years old at the time.
In the last almost two decades, countless sacrifices – of which most remain unappreciated and unaccounted for – were made by journalists. But today, things are not looking as bright for them as they did a decade ago.
Never before has the private television news industry come across challenges it is facing today. Setting aside threats to individual journalists and press freedom, the biggest challenge now before this industry is its very survival. With a growing uncertainty among thousands of journalists and media workers regarding their future, one wonders how the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) continues to issue more and more television licences, each at a cost of millions of rupees.
While pressure from the government continues, journalists – many of them working for TV– are being killed in the line of duty. Pakistan became a hotbed of terrorists after 2001, just as private television channels were being launched in the country. This made journalists highly vulnerable, as they lacked proper training for reporting in the circumstances. Many became victims of the war. Over 120 journalists have been killed in the country since then.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporting. If passed, a draft bill for the protection of journalists, which the federal cabinet has agreed to “in principle”, would be one of the rare laws to provide certain safeguards for journalists. There are, meanwhile, dozens of laws in the country that restrict the media. It is also encouraging that the government has decided to review the new social media regulation rules and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, which had been used against journalists and rights activists.
Gen Pervez Musharraf, the former president, credited by many for his vision of the private electronic media landscape during 2001-2002, banned the same media in 2007.
There is a lesson here for Prime Minister Imran Khan, and all those plotting measures to ‘control’ the media in the name of regulation, that in this era of digital and social media, it is better to promote a culture of freedom with responsibility than try to impose restrictions. No one can be a better regulator of news than an independent editor.
The private television news industry came about in the backdrop of events which unfolded during the Kargil war, when many within the Establishment reached the conclusion that the country was far behind its hostile neighbour on the media front. India had many private channels during the war while Pakistan only had the state-run PTV.
It took another few years for news and channels like GEO and ARY to shift their headquarters to Pakistan after acquiring uplinking facilities.
Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, the federal information minister in 2002, told me that it took him sometime to convince Musharraf to allow cross-media ownership although rest of his cabinet opposed it. “Some powerful quarters were particularly opposed to giving a licence to GEO. But I told them that they could not exclude Pakistan’s biggest media house,” he said.
Perhaps, the authorities were not prepared for 24/7 news channels. The state-run PTV used to run for six to twelve hours till the 1990s. Over the past two decades, this industry has produced hundreds of journalists. Many of those were fresh graduates. Educational institutions, too did not offer courses on television journalism.
The challenges are enormous as media continues to battle at several fronts, including for the freedom to report. It was during the government of Benazir Bhutto that the coverage of political opposition was first allowed on PTV. But that lasted for a very brief period.
Those who advised her not to make PTV, Radio Pakistan and the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) autonomous institutions were not her friends. She got the chance in 1988 when the late Aslam Azhar, the founder of television industry in Pakistan, was brought back as PTV MD. He allowed the coverage of opposition rallies and meetings on PTV. But that was banned after the live coverage of a violent protest in Islamabad. He resigned after the government started interfering in violation of the understanding he had with the prime minister.
Today we have a strong private television sector and an even stronger digital media resulting in unprecedented availability and reach of news and opinions. Can restrictions imposed in the name of regulation stop this? I doubt that.
Azhar sahib once told me in an interview that a problem with every politician in the country had been their dislike for dissenting voices when in power, and the love for freedom of press when in the opposition.
“No one in this country wants to see PTV like BBC.”