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Analysis: The changing role of media in Pakistan’s politics

BBC Monitoring

Analysis by Steve Metcalf of BBC Monitoring on 7 September

Whatever happens in Pakistan in the coming weeks and months, it will take place in a very changed media climate, particularly as regards television.

Since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999 he has introduced measures that ended more than 50 years of state monopoly on broadcasting. An ironic consequence of liberalization has been the emergence of a number of lively, popular television channels that are very critical of the general's continuing hold on power and his relations with the United States.

When the last National Assembly elections were held, in October 2002, broadcasting was still almost completely dominated by state-run Pakistan TV (PTV). The first privately-owned, mainly entertainment, channels had begun satellite broadcasts, but did not command large audiences. Now, PTV finds itself facing increasing competition, especially from those channels offering news, analysis and debate.

Changing habits

A BBC World Service survey at the end of 2006 found that 61 per cent of people in urban areas could watch satellite or cable TV channels (mostly cable) at home. This figure was up from 45 per cent the previous year. In rural areas the numbers were much smaller, but over 12 months they had doubled, from 4 to 8 per cent.

As the only nationwide terrestrial broadcaster, state-run PTV was the most watched network, with 51 per cent tuning in to one of its channels weekly. However, in urban areas PTV was being closely challenged by Geo and ARY, two of the largest private satellite broadcasters, both of whose networks include dedicated news channels.

The survey also found that while Geo and ARY had both gained high levels of trust, PTV had suffered from a significant loss of credibility. Viewers had also got used to having news available 24/7 and to surfing between channels to get the latest updates.

The growing power of the media, particularly television, to inform and involve people in the nation's political process was demonstrated by the coverage of the crisis caused by Musharraf's attempt earlier this year to suspend the chief justice, Iftikar Mohammad Chaudhry. A number of television channels, notably Geo News, ARY One World and Aaj TV, broadcast extensive footage of the subsequent protests and demonstrations by lawyers, and of the manhandling of the chief justice and his wife by security agents.

When Chaudhry embarked on a series of visits to address rallies around the country, the cameras followed his motorcade as it slowly made its way from one city to another along roads lined with supporters. When his attempted visit to Karachi was thwarted on 12 May, the private channels broadcast live the rioting and clashes and shooting that resulted in some 40 deaths.

The blanket coverage came at a cost. Journalists! were beaten and arrested and their offices attacked, on one occasion by police. Under pressure from the authorities, cable operators sometimes pulled the plug on live transmissions, and current affairs programmes were warned not to debate certain issues.

By June, President Musharraf had attempted to introduce stricter regulations governing the private broadcasters. But he was quickly forced to withdraw the measures in the face of a domestic outcry and international disapproval.

Accountability

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said that he intends to return to Pakistan from exile on 10 September. Press reports say that he plans to land in Islamabad and then drive the 260 kilometres to Lahore, the capital of his power base of the Punjab. Whether the government allows him to do so, and whether the private broadcasters are permitted to cover his arrival and planned motorcade, remains to be seen.

But whatever happens, gone are the days when reporting of such an event can be restricted to a few sentences in a news bulletin on state-run TV. When the campaigning for parliamentary elections gets under way, the rallies, the speeches and the casting and counting of votes will be subject to media scrutiny unprecedented in Pakistan's history.

The growing reach and influence of television has also obliged politicians to become more accountable. Ministers are doorstepped by reporters who question them about their ac! tions in detail. Late-night discussion programmes have heavyweight line-ups of cabinet ministers, military officials and opposition leaders arguing about the key issues and events of the day.

Even President Musharraf has been forced to follow the trend, although he keeps slightly above the fray. He now appears weekly in a programme broadcast from the presidential residence, in which he answers questions from a selected audience.

Global and local

The satellite revolution has had other consequences as well. Exiled politicians such as Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif can participate in these programmes from studios in London or elsewhere. But, just as importantly, many of the programmes can be seen by expatriate Pakistanis in the Gulf states, or in Britain or North America.

Most of the private TV channels broadcast in Urdu, or a mixture of Urdu and English. One, the recently launched Dawn News TV, is a rolling news channel almost entirely in English. But, as the number of channels increase, so does the number of languages used.

The past five years have seen the launch of satellite channels broadcasting in Sindhi, Pashto and Punjabi. The first Sindhi channel, KTN, now has the largest weekly audience after the state-run channels and Geo and ARY. A rival channel, Sindh TV, has recently launched a news channel covering regional affairs.

State-run Pakistan TV h! as struggled to come to terms with these changes and its fall in ratings. It has renamed and rebranded its channels and launched international satellite channels. PTV also launched a regional channel for Baluchistan in 2005, and has promised channels in Pashto, Punjabi and Sindhi. But these have yet to materialize.

New media

This growth has also seen traditional press barons move into the potentially lucrative television market. Geo is part of the Jang group controlled by Mir Shakil ur-Rahman; Jang is Pakistan's largest-circulation newspaper. Dawn News is part of the Hameed Haroon's Herald group which publishes the biggest English-language daily, Dawn.

Two other newspaper groups are also reported to be planning to launch television channels. The Nizami family's Nawa-i-Waqt group is planning Waqt Television and the Lakson group, publishers of the Urdu Daily Express and owners of the country's largest internet service provider, is also planning a channel.

Although most of the major newspapers and broadcasters have websites, the internet is not yet a big part of the country's media scene. According to the BBC survey, only 2 per cent of the population use the internet weekly.

One of the biggest growth areas relating to telecommunicatio! ns is mobile phone ownership. According to Europa World, the number of mobile phones in use doubled between 2004 and 2005 to over 12 million, overtaking the number of fixed-line telephones. The use of mobile phones, news alerts and text messaging to inform, communicate and mobilize during times of political crisis - when other media be may restricted - is a growing phenomenon that has been observed in a number of countries, as in Thailand during last year's military takeover.

Source: BBC Monitoring research 7 Sep 07

 

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