Propagandistic and slow-moving PTV has long represented Pakistan’s face to the world even as the Hindi satellite channels carve out a Subcontinent-wide footprint for themselves. Some of this may change, with private satellite channels coming online.
Pakistan was carved out of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947, born of a complex set of circumstances that have lent themselves to the controversy of whether it was meant to be an ‘Islamic state’, or a liberal, moderate Muslim nation built upon democratic principles. This confusion has also dogged the media policy of successive governments. The founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared that religion has nothing to do with the business of the state, but this view was literally censored shortly after his death in September 1948. The struggle to make public this perspective has been part of the battle of ideologies in Pakistan, and is reflected in the media.
Sections of the Pakistani press have put up a fight for democratic principles and editorial independence, but much of the media, especially radio and television, have largely toed the government’s line, particularly on foreign affairs and domestic policies. This is thrown into sharp relief during times of conflict when ‘national interest’ is more ‘paramount’ than usual. Landmark instances include the 1965 war with India, the Baloch insurgency of the 1970s, the 1971 war with former East Pakistan, and the Zia years (1977-88) when there was strict censorship in any case. After the supposed restoration of democracy in 1988, the press generally played a more independent role, although this has been severely tested, as always, during conflict situations like the nuclear tests of 1998, the Kargil crisis of 1999, in post-9/11 events and the subsequent, ongoing tension with India.
Pakistan Television (PTV) was set up in 1964 as a public limited company with the government holding a controlling stake, pushed through by President Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s recognition of its propaganda potential in his bid for a second presidential term – an objective of which the original managers of PTV were unaware. Since then the state’s utility of it as a propaganda tool has outweighed the stated objectives of providing information and entertainment.
The propaganda model was strengthened, and the process of ideological indoctrination accelerated, after General Zia-ul Haq’s military take over in 1977. The religious parties, already pandered to by the previous government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, were further encouraged to create a constituency for the military usurper, counter the movement for democracy, and build a base for the war in Afghanistan in which Pakistan was a frontline state. The increased use of religion as a political tool also led to an increase in religious programming and content in the media.
The media policy, pegged firmly on an ideological frame during the Zia years, largely continued to be aggressively followed after the dictator’s death in 1988. Pakistan’s ‘moral and diplomatic’ support to the uprising in the Kashmir Valley included stepping up the propaganda against New Delhi. News bulletins in Arabic and Kashmiri were added. The first Benazir Bhutto government attempted to open up cultural expression, but such efforts drew a storm from the religious groups that had been strengthened during the Zia years. Other attempts, such as establishing fairer ground rules for presenting government and opposition views, were subverted because the government was forced to make political compromises with the military establishment.
After Benazir Bhutto’s government was prematurely dismissed, Gen Zia’s political protégé Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as prime minister following general elections in 1990. Sharif’s Muslim League, which had protested vocally about being excluded from the airwaves during Bhutto’s tenure, predictably practised the same policies when in power between 1990-93. The process of accelerated indoctrination was revived, one symptom being the reinforcement of the dupatta policy whereby female presenters were required to cover their heads. Sharif was dismissed in 1993, and the subsequent general elections returned Benazir Bhutto to power. As one analyst observed, in her second term, Benazir Bhutto was more “proprietary” over the media, and one calculation shows that in the first four months of 1995, PTV news gave the opposition only 5 percent of the coverage given to the government. There was complete blackout of all criticism of government policies.
By contrast, Sharif’s second tenure was marked by a more sophisticated media style. Question Time in Parliament, including criticism of government from the opposition benches, was relayed and PTV launched a programme called ‘Open Forum’, in which ministers and officials were subject to questioning by members of the public. In substance though, little had changed. While the second Nawaz Sharif government had recognised that too much propaganda could be counterproductive, it showed no sign of surrendering control in this key area.
Zia to Musharraf
In the era of globalisation, market forces prevailed on the cultural censorship of television and the strictness that had long outlasted Zia was relaxed as a result of a strategic review of PTV’s falling popularity and, consequently, growing debt. PTV was losing precious advertising revenue to the increasingly popular Hindi channels from across the border. Added to this was the financial mismanagement that had become a hallmark of the corporation. The government had an idea of establishing a broadcast regulator to issue licenses to and regulate the activities of private broadcasters, but this idea came a cropper as Nawaz Sharif decided to respond to the Hindi challenge instead by launching ‘PTV World’ in 1998.
Meanwhile, his government reacted strongly to the attempts of the country’s largest publishing house, the Jang Group, to launch Geo, a satellite channel that would have 24-hour news and current affairs programming. The controversy that erupted was a messy one, ostensibly over old income tax cases dragged up against the Jang Group, and the Group appealed to the Supreme Court with journalists’ organisations up in arms. Hostilities were finally settled out of court and although the terms of the ceasefire were never made public, the government stopped pressuring the group to sack or sideline specific senior journalists, withdrew the tax cases it had had slapped on the Jang Group and restored the Group’s newsprint quota and government advertising. The Group stopped its public campaign against Sharif and his functionaries, and quietly, indefinitely, postponed the launch of the new channel.
When the Sharif government was again dismissed in October 1999, this time not by presidential ordinance but a military coup similar to the one that had ousted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, it was a secular-minded Chief of Army Staff, unlike the religiously inclined like Zia, who took over the reins of power. In fact, Gen Pervez Musharraf, who took on the title of ‘Chief Executive’ and later, President, is a self-proclaimed liberal who makes no bones about wanting to rid the country of religious extremism. But his stated objective remains in mid-2002 unfulfilled and the resulting ambiguity, with all its inherent dangers, continues to be reflected in the media.
Gen Musharraf may have been the first head of state to formally acknowledge the need for private and independent radio and television channels in Pakistan but PTV remains firmly in the government’s control. Packed with bureaucrats, some unknowns, and two isolated private sector representatives, the television station’s board remains unwieldy. Unless measures are taken to inject fresh, professional blood into the corporation, it is unlikely that PTV will be able to stand up to the competition provided by private channels now in the pipeline.
Although until just last year it seemed unlikely that a private terrestrial channel would be allowed, the Federal Cabinet in January 2002 formally approved the text of an ordinance to create an autonomous regulatory authority for independent electronic media. First initiated in April 2000, the authority was originally rather ominously christened ‘Regulatory Authority for Media Broadcast Organisations’ (RAMBO); it has subsequently been renamed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). An autonomous Media Regulatory Authority was created under the PEMRA ordinance to award licenses for radio and television channels in the private sector.
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, channels will operate outside government control from Pakistani soil and they might well challenge the very existence of a PTV over which the government’s grip has tightened. However, the ordinance has been criticised for containing clauses that are biased against large print media groups. In fact, “these clauses have been inserted specifically to keep the Jang Group out, while media buying companies, like advertising agencies, have been given a go-ahead”, asserts Imran Aslam, chief strategist for Geo, the group’s satellite channel.
The private channels
It might appear that there is suddenly a great deal of freedom of information in Pakistan today, but this is an illusion that hinges on a new-found freedom for the media to criticise the ‘jehadi’ groups in the wake of the government’s u-turn on its Afghan policy and its apparent dissociation from religious militancy, post- 9/11. Media freedom begins and ends there, though. An example of the strict control on the state-run media was when in September 2001, soon after terrorist strikes in the US, a short news film, showing a protest against Gen Musharraf and US President Bush, was telecast from the Tando Allahyar relay centre in Sindh, apparently by accident. The PTV management suspended the entire technical staff at the station for violating the policy against covering anti-government unrest.
The government’s policy appears to have changed in a minor way: some dissent is now allowed on the talk shows that are broadcast on PTV. This may owe to the competition that emerged in the form of two new Pakistani-owned satellite channels, Indus Vision in Karachi and ARY Digital in London, that began broadcasting Urdu language news and current affairs programmes in the fall of 2001.
Indus Vision began test transmissions in December 2000, with an uplink provided by PTV. Permission for the channel to begin operations in Pakistan is believed to have had a lot to do with the identity of its then major investor, Shaheen Foundation, a charity run by retired Pakistan Air Force officers. Shaheen eventually pulled out for various reasons, but the channel attracted enough private investment to jump into the independent news and current affairs fray in October 2001, with a half hour Urdu news bulletin. In this, it was given a vital push by what Ghazanfar Ali, the Director, terms the ‘halla gulla’ (commotion) that followed the US-led bombing of Afghanistan. PTV provided temporary uplinks for news broadcast by foreign channels like BBC and CNN, and at that point the government couldn’t very well refuse Indus Vision. This was the first time a channel based in Pakistan was allowed to broadcast news and current affairs.
London-based ARY Digital began test transmissions” in August 2001, with an initial uplink from its UK base. The satellite channel, which bought into the company Assalam-o-Alaikum Pakistan, has subsequently been able to uplink from Pakistan. Its regular programming, which started in September 2001, also received a boost with the war in Afghanistan. “We are the number one channel in the country”, says SM Shakeel ARY Digital’s Senior Reporter based in Karachi. According to him, there is no pressure of any kind from the Pakistani government, and the news and current affairs programmes enjoy complete editorial independence. However, the channel’s attempt to please the authorities was evident in the way Gen Musharraf was eulogised as ‘leader’ and ‘statesman’ when in April, the channel carried the news of the May referendum.
Long before the current crop of private channels had come up, in 1989, a private limited company named Shalimar Recording Company had been allowed to operate a television channel amid allegations of nepotism. The owner of what came to be the Shalimar Television Network (STN) happened to be a friend of then-Prime Minister Bhutto’s husband. STN was fifty percent government-owned and it gained viewership by virtue of broadcasting some BBC and CNN programmes, including news bulletins. However, STN’s autonomy was compromised by being obliged to carry official PTV news bulletins and it has not been able to make much headaway today as the other private channels enter the fray. It is however, the third largest channel, covering all the major cities and metros through its 13 transmitters, which can broadcast independently. Today it has practically no programming, and is currently hooked to PTV World.
The privately-owned satellite channels in Pakistan include Indus Vision and its music channel, Indus Music; ARY Digital; and Uni Plus, owned by the Din Newspaper Group, which focuses on music videos.
Besides STN, there are also several privately owned cable networks including Shaheen Pay TV and Infohighway (owned by the Jang Group). A host of private cable operators provide services in the major cities. These operators worked informally until May 2000, when they were legalised and issued licenses by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). Since then, a wider range of information and entertainment has been legally available at far cheaper rates. In September 2000 the government responded to criticism from the religious right that cable operators were corrupting impressionable young Pakistani minds by making it mandatory for them to transmit PTV news broadcasts and religious programming. Meanwhile, Indian TV channels also operate through associates within the country. However, tensions between India and Pakistan often result in Indian channels being banned or blocked.
Amidst this plethora of private and foreign channels available to the Pakistani viewer, it would be wrong to write off PTV. There are said to be about 4 million television sets in Pakistan and more than 40 million adult consumers of terrestrial television, which gives PTV by far the highest viewership in Pakistan by virtue of its high degree of penetration. PTV has a daily broadcast of about 12 hours, the satellite channel PTV-3 (beamed on Thai-Sat Corn) has a daily broadcast of about seven hours and PTV World (beamed on Asia-Sat) is a 24-hour channel. In addition, there is Prime TV, which caters to Pakistanis settled in Europe, launched in June 2000. As happened in India, where the state broadcaster Doordarshan improved its programming and image when private competition was allowed, PTV may also be able to extricate itself, even partially, from the grasp of the administrators.
As the only source of Pakistani news and current affairs programming until October 2001, PTV has periodically tried to update its stodgy, governmental image. In October 2000, the corporation introduced its own current affairs and news channel, including an unprecedented live political interview series. During the SAARC Information Ministers’ Conference in Islamabad in March 2002, to the astonishment of viewers, PTV even broadcast a live interview with the Indian Information Minister Sushma Swaraj.
While discussing the degree of freedom of expression in the government-controlled electronic media since the present government took over power in October 1999, Gen Musharraf’s one-time information minister, Javed Jabbar, finds several issues on which opinions critical of the present government’s policies and programmes have been broadcast by PTV and Radio Pakistan: the devolution of power; the state of the economy and rising prices; the poor quality of law enforcement; the arguments against signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; the accountability process; the Kalabagh Dam debate; government policies on education; aspects of culture; social and developmental issues; and, aspects of governance.
Says Jabbar, “The expression of such critical opinion takes place in current affairs programmes, talk-shows, sometimes even in Khabarnama, in lines spoken by characters in plays, as an aspect of satire in entertainment shows. However, because radio and TV omit coverage of the words and actions of political leaders and others who are harshly critical of the Chief Executive and of the government, the predominant conviction in the minds of most Pakistanis is that there is neither pluralism of opinion nor credibility in the political and general content of our electronic media”.
Since 9/11, there has been an increased openness due firstly to the need to convince Pakistanis that the government’s u-turn in its Afghanistan policy was a correct and necessary move, and secondly, to the increased demand for news displayed through the increased popularity of channels like BBC, CNN, Star and Zee News. However, regional and sectarian conflicts within the country are still reported as aberrations, notes media critic Sarwat Ali: “The ethnic situation within Pakistan is presented as if all are brothers, living with equal rights in one country and whatever little conflict there is it is because of some miscreants or agents of the neighbouring country”. Ali does see that there have been changes, however: “The content of the news has remained more or less the same with TV serving as a mouthpiece of the government, but the scope of the debate presented has widened”.
Indus Vision and ARY Digital have to walk a fine line in their news and current affairs programming, in spite of being private broadcasters. The Indus slogan ‘Freedom with responsibility’ is an indication of how acutely aware the management is of the limitations that come with its license to function. There is an awareness that certain things are not to be touched. Neither channel would talk about the Inter Services Intelligence openly, for example, or broadcast comments by politicians that criticise the government. Any private channel that is dependent on PTV for uplinking, such as Indus Vision is, is at the mercy of the government and that will undoubtedly affect its professional freedom.
What can be expected of the evolving television media of Pakistan? A look at the larger media picture shows that the state-owned electronic media and the Urdu press of Pakistan uphold a conservative view that has been appropriated as the ‘ideology of Pakistan’. The independent print media, particularly the English and Sindhi language press, have maintained a relative freedom of stance. Given the demands of the population for more and better news and entertainment on the one hand, and the constant presence of Indian (Hindi) satellite channels beaming down on its territory on the other, the Pakistani state has no choice but to allow more freedom to the private channels and the state broadcaster PTV. The evolution of Pakistani television will therefore depend upon the professionalism and circumspection of the new players and the government’s willingness to take a long-term vision on the power and potential of terrestrial and satellite television.
At the very least, it can be said that Pakistani television is in for a change. When that happens, with professional and credible output, perhaps the rest of South Asia will also begin to spare some time for satellite programming from Pakistan the way they do today for channels uplinked from New Delhi.
Government-owned Radio Pakistan broadcasts a total of 302 hours daily from 23 stations around the country, reaching a wide domestic and international audience on medium and shortwave bands. The country’s first private radio station, FM 100, became operational on 23 March 1995. Owned by Assalam-o-Alaikum Pakistan, FM 100 operates from the metropolitan areas of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and is also backed by Radio Pakistan’s high frequency stereo transmitters. In October 1998, the government also set up FM 101, which broadcasts 24 hours from three stations.