Media wars

It is essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to conduct espionage against you and to bribe them to serve you. Give them instructions and care for them. Thus doubled agents are recruited and used. [Sun Tzu]

Before March 9, 2007, it was all dark on the horizon of Pakistan. A military dictator was ruling while dressed in khaki uniform; he was intent upon continuing his rule for the next 5 years; and the criminal politicians were all ready to help him rule for more than a hundred years. Such was the hopelessness that no rational being could dream of a silver lining. One could only fear what happened to Iraq after it grabbed Kuwait, may not happen to Pakistan.
All of a sudden, and it was just like a bolt from the blue, a hope started taking shape. First time in Pakistan, the point was made that the government must be run by the book. So, the lawyers’ movement taught the people of Pakistan three lessons in democracy: constitutionalism, rule of law, and fundamental rights. During this movement, the dynamics of Pakistani society changed the repercussions of which will be felt far deeper into the future.
One of the new forces that emerged in the midst of that movement is electronic media. Rather it may rightly be asserted that not only the plethora of TV channels got allied and aligned with the people at large, but they realized their power also. That made them self-conscious elephantine! Ensuing of a fierce competition among them was quite natural. In a Robbinsian economic sense, viewership as well as advertisement revenue was scarce, and they fought for a larger share forgetting all the norms and rules of the game. The one which won not only a larger portion of the viewership but revenue also became the target of envy and conspiracies by other lesser obtainers.
Previously, it was all melodrama. There was only one TV channel, the state-run PTV. For its survival, it was dependent on the doles from the state, and it blew the stat’s trumpet. In order to survive, it’s still extorting Rs.35 every month from every TV set owner by using the might of the state. Emergence of dozens of new TV channels, which of course were to be run like businesses, completely altered the scene on the stage. The state-run PTV slipped behind the curtain, and lost both its viewership and revenue to the new breed of TV channels, which in no way were dependent on the state. Instead they depend on their market of viewers who indirectly yield revenue to them. Thus, in the world of electronic media in Pakistan loyalty to the market is the rule, and loyalty to the state and its institutions is an exception (loyalty to the constitution is quite something else).
As the art of the statecraft requires, the private TV channels were brought under a regulator, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). However, in essence the ruling political parties came to control these channels for political gains and privileges. That the regulator in this case, as in so many other cases, was not given autonomy and the government kept it under its authority, it remained spineless, resulting in a chaotic broadcasting environment. A number of attempts on the part of these private TV channels to self-regulate failed, which provided ample space to the state and its various institutions and agencies to dictate their agenda items to this or that TV channel.
But that was not like PTV days, the golden days of melodrama and happy eulogies. The competition among these channels drove them to uncharted territories and unfathomed depths. They have already realized their elephantine powerfulness during the lawyers’ movement when they helped defeat a military dictator. Now they have their own fish to fry. They started questioning every practice of the state, its various institutions, including the security entities; the pivot and the point of reference was and is the constitution of Pakistan. The stories and acts which previously went untold and unheard, now found tongues and ears. The tales of Saleem Shahzad, Umar Cheema, and Hamid Mir had a rebellious tone, and challenged the perpetrators. It may also be explained thus that where politicians were required to act boldly was taken up by a TV channel itself. This shows the utter desperation of those who have no hope of justice.
Under the circumstances, the most relevant question is about the role of the state and the politicians. Related with it are other crucial questions, such as: why the constitution is not followed in letter and spirit by the various institutions and entities, be they security or otherwise. Or why the politicians fail to enforce a constitutional rule in Pakistan. Why there is blatant power play which in fact repudiates the spirit and provisions of the constitution. Why the politicians fail in securing the fundamental rights to the citizens, be they journalists. Why the politicians fail to set up independent and autonomous regulators and let them do their job.
In other words, it means had there been rule of law in Pakistan, no institution and entity would have engaged itself in un-constitutional activities. Had there been independent and autonomous courts, no suppressing of the fundamental rights would have been possible. Had there been due accountability mechanisms existent at every level of the state institutions including the Army and the intelligence agencies, there would have been no cases such as of Saleem Shahzad, Umar Cheema and Hamid Mir on the one hand, and on the other, no media campaigns against any security entity may have been unleashed. But all that remains completely absent in Pakistan; which emboldens every individual and every institution to do what they like.
No doubt, the anarchy prevailing in the realm of electronic media in Pakistan at the moment may not have been the case, had there been an independent and autonomous PEMRA, which would have acted in the nick of time in case of any irregularity committed by any media house. However, the PEMRA is still conspicuously absent from the scene whereas weeks have passed that a media war has been raging in Pakistan. That speaks volume about the failure of the ruling PML-N’s leadership!
Note: This article was completed on May 27, and was originally posted in July 2014.

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