Media freedoms have long been deemed as integral to the workings of vibrant democracies. Oftentimes, stifling media freedoms is dubbed anti-democracy, as information is critical to enabling citizens to play an active role in shaping governmental actions in-line with their aspirations. A robust media landscape is, by all means, an essential component of a progressive, strong, and democratic society. Media have a significant role to play in establishing cohesion and harmony, and creating, propagating, and projecting a country’s narrative. At a time when repudiating the Information Age is not an option, Pakistan’s media scaffold has indeed evolved, in fact, it has seen a great turnaround. Recently, an Atlantic Council report titled “Evolving News Media Landscapes in India and Pakistan: Implications for regional peace and stability”, authored by Fatima Salman, has delved on this very transformation in both Pakistan and India.
This interesting eight-page report is an outcome of a two-year-long field research. The report is fairly balanced insofar as critiquing both the Indian and Pakistani media is concerned. It has brilliantly traced how both countries responded to openness and calls for a more liberalized media. That said, the report has made a modest attempt to parse the convoluted paradigm of the Pakistani media, and instead looked at it through an age-old lens that, understandably is a Washington-led one. Let’s break down what the author writes about the Pakistani media. In gist, she argues that the media in Pakistan are controlled, influenced, and manipulated by the military and government. She further asserts, after taking views from, and of, a select group of journalists, ethical journalism is being strangulated in Pakistan, and that the country’s leadership is enamored by the “authoritarian and draconian policies of China and Saudi Arabia when it comes to controlling media outlets and journalists.” In simpler words, the author says this: journalists in Pakistan have two options. Either they pander to the State, or else face the wrath of the State.
This assessment that has germinated from conversations with a very small group of journalists, is a rather simplistic one, in need of more nuance and depth. The analysis glosses over a lot that is happening in Pakistan. Even a cursory look at the ability of the Pakistani media to get away with virtually anything tendentious, will help critique the framework used in this study. To understand whether media are tightly controlled by powerful quarters in the country or not, it is instructive to recall what Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said, during his engagements in Washington, D.C. last year. He dispelled the impression that the Pakistani media are in the grips of censorship. He went on to say that Pakistan has one of the freest presses in the world, a line that he has repeated many a time since then. While the report has fairly commented on the degree of freedom and somewhat challenged that assertion, it has missed out on a lot of important details.
In Pakistan, some of the most revered and renowned media men in Pakistan have openly accused the government of ‘selling-out’ Kashmir. Recently, journalists stood alongside fanatic miscreants in a bid to topple the government. This report and other western treatises on the Pakistani media also do not account for how an ‘all-powerful’ State apparatus is, through fake news and sensational claims, heavily criticized in Pakistan. It was only recently that media men were openly telling their followers that some of the top Pakistani government officials are conniving with hostile elements to defang Pakistan’s nuclear program. If that was not enough, we saw journalists root for carnage in the country so that the incumbent government is kicked out of power. By all means, if Pakistan were to follow the Chinese and the Saudis, all this would have been impossible.
Such big is the space to lambast the State that bloggers can write and publish a piece that claims to have exclusive details of a one-on-one meeting between PM Imran Khan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Those that confront such mendacious propaganda, are, in this report, considered as part of troll armies. Thus, a major reassessment in this regard will give follow-up studies a more balanced outlook.
Unbridled freedom and independence, it must be stated, is a myth. An environment in which media are independent and free, has to be promoted. However, freedom sans accountability and responsibility is exactly what a democracy does not need. Pakistan’s journey towards that end-goal is slow, for there are impediments, which are also alluded to in the report.
The study tries to juxtapose the coverage of the Pulwama-Balakot crisis done by the Indian and Pakistani media. The comparison is rather unfair and a tad problematic. While the Indian media were pushing the government to invade Pakistan and break it into pieces, the Pakistani media were showing utmost professionalism in sharing news and giving their analyses. Coverage in Pakistan was free from the display of jingoism and chest-thumping. This is certainly because both governments wanted to use the media differently. While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to whip up emotions to garner votes to get re-elected, Pakistan was looking for de-escalation and crisis-termination.
The author is right in saying that media on both sides toed the lines of their governments, during the Pulwama conflagration. The lines were , however, starkly different. This is certainly not limited to India and Pakistan. In fact, in times of crises with nuclear undertones, the quantum and quality of information disseminated could be make or break. While media coverage in India was incendiary, that in Pakistan was measured and commensurate with the country’s avowed policy based on restraint, responsibility, and resolve. Come to think of it, the damage that a fully free media could have caused to Pakistan’s refrain during the crisis while upping the war ante, would have been colossal.
The report has given some solid recommendations both to create better understanding between journalists in India and Pakistan, and make media more formidable and credible . The idea of reinvigorating cross-border exchanges is a good one, but probably will not materialize, given ongoing tensions between the two countries. The research has outlined the urgent need for the media industries to rejig their business models. This is perhaps the most important factor in a bid to create a better ecosystem in which there is less room for manipulation.
The report is certainly an important, first of its kind contribution to the discourse on the role of media in South Asia’s strategic theatre. A follow-up study, based on a broader prism and aided by a more diverse sample, would be more than useful to enrich the disquisition on the very many sets of topics it deals with.