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Pakistani Media Still Seen As On A Tight Leash

It seems an increase in media outlets in Pakistan has not automatically led to better journalism.
It seems an increase in media outlets in Pakistan has not automatically led to better journalism.
By all appearances, Pakistan has a free and thriving media environment.

It has been three years since a coalition civilian government replaced direct military rule, and the selection of media outlets has risen on multiple fronts. There are scores of 24-hour television news channels, FM radio stations, and glossy new magazines and newspapers fill the newsstands.

Beyond this, however, there is little to suggest that much has changed. More outlets, yes. But the scope of coverage continues to be narrow, the reporting of sensitive security and human rights stories is limited, and coverage in general tends to follow the official line.

According to analysts, this suggests that Pakistan's powerful army -- now taking a back seat after years in power, while continuing to enjoy tremendous clout and influence on policy matters -- still dictates the broader terms of what Pakistanis can read and watch.

Authorities Set Media Agenda

Muhammad Ziauddin, editor of the English-language "Express Tribune" daily, says the media environment is comparable to the days when General Pervez Musharraf ruled the country and even preceding decades in which three other military leaders held power.

"When the military sets an agenda, it also tries to use its intelligence agencies to manipulate the nation, including the media, to fall in line," he says.

Ziauddin says that while the civilian government claims to be in charge, the military still sets the terms for all things tied to the national agenda, including the media.

And that is the problem, he says, not the media.

"So we are facing it, we are fighting it out," he says. "This is a transition, I hope. When the transition is complete, the army will go back to its barracks."

Plenty Of Quantity, Not Enough Quality

Aamer Ahmed Khan, editor of BBC's Urdu broadcasts to Pakistan, says the explosion of media outlets in the country has not led to better journalism. The cutthroat competition among television news channels keeps them toeing the official line because many depend on official support to generate advertising revenue or even direct support.

Khan, who used to edit the respected Pakistani news magazine "Herald," says the military's clout continues to grow because of its role in the war against terrorism. This, he adds, gives the military access to vast resources and influence over the civilian government in decision making on key national issues.
Experts believe Pakistani authorities manipulate the local media to their advantage.

As an example of the military's influence on the Pakistani media environment, Khan says many senior journalists and editors now give preference to its statements over those of the Information Ministry, particularly on issues related to extremism.

'Military Manages Media'

Unheard-of in Western democracies, the civilian-run Information Ministry used to function as a bridge between the media and the government.

Khan says that function is now being carried out by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military's media wing.

"We know it for a fact that recently the ISPR has kind of restructured itself," he says.

"It has set up several wings: one dealing with private television channels, one dealing with the FM radio stations, [and] one dealing with the media. So it has become quite a sophisticated kind of machine in dealing with the media."

Khan says that the military has been very effective in using the media to its advantage.

He notes that while violence attributed to the Taliban figures prominently on Pakistani news bulletins and front pages, allegations of human rights abuses conducted by government troops in Swat and Balochistan are ignored.

He specifically cites the insurgency in Balochistan, where the Pakistani military has been battling secular Balochi separatists for the past six years. Khan says that over the past few months, mutilated dead bodies of known Balochi activists have been discovered.

While such stories would interest media anywhere, he says, they are largely ignored in Pakistan.

"I don't think that the media in itself can be held responsible for ignoring these stories," he says.

"They are not ignoring it. They are very clearly being told to ignore it. And that speaks for the extent of the influence that the current military media machine has over the Pakistani media."

Army Rejects Criticism

Major General Athar Abass, the director-general of the ISPR and spokesman for the Pakistani military, rejects any criticism of the military's role in manipulating media.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Islamabad, he says that the civilian government deals with the media in Balochistan, and argues that the Pakistani media has reported in depth on the army's inquiry into the alleged executions of militants by soldiers.
Major General Athar Abass, Director-General of the Pakistani military's media wing

"The army has declared zero tolerance for any bypassing of law or overruling of law by the armed forces," he says, declaring that Pakistani media is "freer than any other media in the world" and that journalists are free to cover everything under the sun.

"Day in and day out, they are reporting on everything," says Abass.

"There is nothing that is out of their reach. There are absolutely no holy cows. And they are absolutely free to report on any incident -- any matter of government, military, security, and the army."

Many journalists in Pakistan, however, would find their daily experience in sharp contrast to this official line. Noting that eight journalists were killed in 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists described Pakistan as the world's "deadliest place" for journalists.
  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

  • 16x9 Image

    Abdul Hai Kakar

    Abdul Hai Kakar is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

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