Impact of Transnational Media on Broadcasting in Pakistan

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By
Hamid Raza Khan*

Introduction

The advent of globalization and the proliferation of modern communication technologies have led to the emergence of a new media order which has dramatically reshaped national boundaries. This has, in turn, made it difficult for countries to restrict worldwide cultural flows and control forces of global communications. Giving way to this trend are the national media systems which are increasingly becoming transnational in character as they negotiate cross-border movements of ideas, goods, capital and people. The impact of transnational media differs from one region to another depending upon the dynamics of regional politics and inter-state relations (Page, D. and Crawley, W.2005). However, some of the common features in the development of transnational and regional media are visible in the way a number of them have expanded themselves to acquire a global reach. One of the countries to have witnessed an impressive growth of the transnational media in recent years is Pakistan which has emerged as another success story in this area. In effect, the transnational media spearheaded by dozens of private TV channels has revolutionized the broadcast sector, making it a new decisive factor in determining the course of major social and political developments as they unfold in Pakistan which, in terms of population, is the sixth largest country in the world.

Contextualizing broadcasting in Pakistan

At the time of its independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited a small broadcast media comprising five radio stations. Against the background of the tragic events which preceded the partition of the South Asian subcontinent and the emergence of  Pakistan in the name of Islam, it was left to the newly established Pakistan Broadcasting Service to forge a strong sense of national unity and Islamic identity among the masses who were largely dispersed in the rural areas with limited access to schooling, electricity and other amenities. The radio was, in time, joined in this mission by Pakistan Television (PTV) founded in 1964 with financial and technical assistance from Japan. The first television station was set up in Lahore. The idea was to tap the talent the city offered being a hub of art and culture. As PTV’s programmes progressively became popular for being “spontaneous, literary and experimental,” the government bought majority shares in the corporation, bringing it effectively under its control (Pasha, Shireen 2000). In the preceding years, TV and radio provided the public a certain degree of awareness and entertainment through music and plays. PTV plays were not only popular within the country but also captured a huge viewership in India (Pawar, Yogesh 1999). However, the downside was its obsession with the twin task of promoting Islamic identity and ensuring the “legitimization” of the incumbent regime. This seriously hampered the progressive evolution of creative ideas indispensible for innovative programming. Official control became increasingly stringent and any criticism of the country’s domestic and foreign policies entailed serious consequences for the producers. Consequently, PTV’s flagship news bulletin, ‘Khabarnama,’ aired at 9:00pm became a tool of official propaganda and was jokingly characterized as ‘9 pm with one pm’ for its almost incessant coverage of the prime minister and his ministers (Barraclough, Steven 2001). This incrementally spawned a culture of self-censorship and gave birth to “a new cadre of people, within and outside the electronic media, who unabashedly sided with this opportunity reducing the media to a genre of mediocrity, hypocrisy and degeneration” (Pasha, Shireen 2000).

The coercive regime of restrictions which the PTV encountered became particularly pronounced in the 1980s when, during General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship, Islamization of PTV resumed in earnest. Even radio felt the weight of this policy when “absurd attempts to mutilate music” were made by officials as they sought “to ‘Islamise’ the names of classical music ragas” (Mooraj, Anwer 2007). For PTV, some of the early targets of Zia’s policy were women presenters who were directed to cover themselves with an all-encompassing dupatta (scarf). If they refused, they were summarily dismissed. It was however the burgeoning film industry that felt General Zia’s draconian measures more when he ordered a clampdown on the so-called vulgarity exhibited in the Urdu and Punjabi movies. The consequences were so pervasive that over the next 10 years more than 1000 cinema houses were closed and the owners forced to “do everything from advertising soap to running a circus to make money” (Kennedy, Miranda 2004).

Liberalising the airwaves

For more than four decades, Pakistan’s 152 million citizens have had to bear with official news offerings reflective of one-sided propaganda and a blinkered view of major political events. But the winds of change started blowing in the 1990s when India liberalized its media sector which recorded an exponential growth from one state-owned television channel in 1991 to 70 in 1998 (Thusso, Daya Kishan 1999). Given their availability on the dish antenna and cable, the Indian channels penetrated Pakistani society through their superior, more open and glamorous programming. For some years, Pakistani rulers looked askance at this development and toyed with the idea of reforming Pakistan Television by encouraging private productions though avoiding permissive programming. These faltering measures, however,    failed to stop the cultural juggernaut of Indian channels from making further inroads into Pakistani society (Barraclough, Steven 2001). The turning point came during the Kargil war when the Indian channels successfully “squeezed out the Pakistani point of view” (Page, D. and Crawley, W. 2005). The PTV response was pathetically inadequate both in terms of content as well as quality with its “wooden-faced newscasters” woefully failing to make any impact on Pakistan’s own public who turned to Indian channels to get the latest on the Kargil conflict.

The ascendant influence of Indian channels on Pakistani society became a cause of considerable concern for the government of Pervez Musharraf who decided in 2002 to create a “media deterrent” to New Delhi’s propaganda onslaught. The government thinking was led by Javed Jabbar, the information minister at the time, who saw “a huge asymmetry” Pakistan faced in comparison to the Indian media. While pointing out “an insidious aspect to the way in which, between the song and dance, Indian media seek to undermine the rationale that validates and motivates Pakistaniat,” he stressed the need “to develop the media equivalent of nuclear weapons so as to equalize and neutralize the Indian superiority in conventional numbers and the attempts to corrode our persona” (Jabbar, Javed 2003).

It was therefore less for “altruistic” reasons and more for countering the “pervasiveness” of Indian TV channels that the military government of General Pervez Musharraf decided to open up the broadcast sector to private ownership in 2002. But the move came as a blessing in disguise for the Pakistani public who hungered for a real, reliable and relevant source of independent information. In the intervening two years, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued about 100 FM radio and 25 satellite TV licences, transforming the country’s media scene drastically. Since then, the number of private channels to have entered the market in Pakistan has increased steadily and by the end of 2009, the country boasted of 77 private satellite channels and 129 FM radio stations – an increase attributable to a considerable relaxation in cross media ownership restrictions and enhanced national advertising budget owing to the advent of many FMCGs (fast moving consumer goods) on the national horizon (PEMRA Annual Report, 2009).

Impact on state broadcasting

The impact of the transnational channels on the broadcast sector in Pakistan has been phenomenal. For one, it has helped end the monopoly of state broadcasters who are now suddenly up against a slew of formidable rivals challenging the long-held dominance of PTV among the viewers. Feeling the weight of the competition, the PTV introduced in the 1990s a more liberal approach in the news and current affairs programmes as reflected in ‘Open Forum’ and ‘Meezan’ (Scales) – two popular talk shows of the time. On the entertainment side, programmes such as Spotlight (beauty tips), PTV Gold and Her Taan Hay Deepak (film music), Lok Rang and Sohni Dharti (folk music) were a welcome departure from the “oppressive” Zia era (Barraclough, Steven 2001).

However, the arrival on the scene of local private channels dramatically changed the nature and scope of competition for PTV which found its new rivals far more competitive than the Indian channels in terms of resources and the reach they had to report the local events. While ARY and Indus gave PTV a run for its money, the real competition came from Geo TV, launched by Jang Group, which quickly staffed itself with some of the most well-known journalists already working with the Group’s Daily Jang and The News, two newspapers in Urdu and English with the largest countrywide circulation. In response PTV scrambled to put in place an assortment of new programmes, hired professionals from the market and went for all possible professional and technological innovations. A clear change was perceptible in the PTV plays which lent themselves to changes “in attire and idiom of characters corresponding to modernization of certain sections of the population” (Wasim, Mohammad 2006). There was also “a visible movement from unilinear to multi-linear themes of plays, reflecting a greater awareness about complex issues of public and private life than before” (ibid). Plays were also aired on themes that were previously considered sensitive and taboo including violence against women, family planning and AIDS. In recent years, plays like ‘Umrao Jan Ada’ which depicts the life of a 18th century sex worker and ‘Shaid Kay Bahaar Aye’ which details the struggle of a lawyer who is raped but fights her circumstances and finally emerges successfully from her ordeal, mark a clear shift in the official policy on entertainment (Kiran N. Ahmed, Uzma T. Haroon, 2003).

However, the openness displayed in entertainment programmes is at complete variance with the stricter government control on the news and views which continue to reflect the state’s point of view. This was glaringly apparent in an incident narrated by noted Pakistani broadcaster, Beena Sarwar, who wrote that soon after the 9/11 tragedy a short news film showing a protest against General Musharraf and US President Bush was telecast apparently inadvertently by PTV’s Tando Allahyar relay centre in Sindh. This prompted stern action by the PTV management who suspended the entire technical staff at the station “for violating the policy against covering anti-government unrest” (Sarwar, Beena 2002).

After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, there was a discernible shift in PTV’s policy towards the religious right and views critical of extremism were aired. While some analysts welcomed this stance against religious bigotry, others felt that it was motivated by no higher purpose than to justify the government’s change in   policy towards the Taliban regime in Kabul (Sarwar, Beena 2002).

The launch of a current affairs and news channel in October 2000 was also an attempt by PTV to deal with the competition from private channels. Two noticeable current affairs programmes were Question Time, based on recording of the question hour in the parliament, and Open Forum which brought ministers and officials face to face with the public on civic and political issues.

One of the popular current affairs programmes was ‘News Night’ aired daily   soon after the main 9:00pm Khabarnama (news bulletin). Hosted by Syed Talat Hussain, considered one of the top journalists of Pakistan, the programme attracted a sizeable viewership because of its variety of political views, the quality of debate and the perspectives that emerged during the live discussions. A real treat for the information- hungry PTV viewers came on the occasion of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Information Ministers’ Conference in Islamabad in March 2002 when ‘News Night’ aired live interviews with the visiting ministers, including India’s Sushma Swaraj. The interview was a massive hit and received press reviews both in Pakistan and India because of the particularly tense relations prevailing between the two countries at the time.

In recent years, PTV has tried to rejuvenate itself by improving its professional and technical resources as well as extending its outreach. Apart from PTV One, various new channels such as PTV National, AJK TV, PTV Bolan, PTV World and PTV Global have been launched. In August 2007, PTV One and PTV World were renamed as PTV Home and PTV News respectively. There is also a comparative improvement in the news and entertainment content. The duration of hourly news bulletins has increased and PTV has also begun to provide live coverage of selected events. Its marathon transmissions during the devastating earthquake that left over 70,000 people dead in Pakistan’s northern region were appreciated considerably. PTV also won appreciation for a programme hosted by popular compere Tausiq Haider who visited hospitals, clinics and relief camps set up in Islamabad and Rawalpindi for the quake victims and interviewed the patients separated from their families after being airlifted for medical treatment. The programme continued for several weeks and helped reunite many families.

Besides strengthening the profile of its news telecasts, PTV has also launched several current affairs programmes like News Morning (Urdu) and News Plus (Urdu) broadcast in the morning and News Night (Urdu), Aitraz (Urdu) and Salim Safi Kay Sath aired in the evening. World View is another talk show which caters to the English-speaking viewers. However, PTV’s most popular current affairs programme in recent years has been Sach Tu Yeh Hay which is aired every Saturday, followed by a repeat telecast the following day. Its panelists, often six, are drawn in equal number from the government and opposition political parties and they discuss threadbare key national issues often in two episodes, each of 50 minutes duration.

On the whole, PTV has adopted a far more open and liberal approach following the phenomenal expansion of transnational media but this is, to an extent, offset by the continuous government control which undermines its credibility and impedes creativity in its entertainment and general presentations.

Impact on news and entertainment

The impact of transnational media is clearly evident in the way news and entertainment segments of TV programming have been transformed in recent years in Pakistan. Far from the days when one-sided official propaganda churned out by PTV was imposed on viewers, private channels have made considerable advances in terms of engaging the public and educating them through well-informed analyses of social and political issues and this has been instrumental in influencing popular opinion (Wasim, Mohammad 2006).

In recent years, some of the major national events which were closely monitored and reported by the private channels include the general elections of 2002 and 2008 as well as the earthquake tragedy that visited the northern areas of Pakistan in October 2005. It was the enormity of the tragedy that prompted massive electronic media coverage for weeks on end and this evoked a spontaneous and generous response from the local and international community. Yet another occasion when the country’s private television channels stood out for their fearless news reporting came during the judicial crisis in 2007 after President Musharraf sacked Chief Justice  Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. The situation deteriorated sharply after the president    imposed emergency and deposed half of the country’s higher judiciary. This blatant violation of the constitution ignited popular outrage and the country hurtled towards turmoil. The ensuing mass movement spearheaded by the lawyers and supported to the hilt by the intelligentsia assumed the proportions of a political tidal wave. This contrasted starkly with events in India in 1975 when civil society “caved in” during the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. (Nayar, Kuldip 2007).

The private television channels joined the  fray and  refused to be cowed down by the government which wanted them to moderate their extensive coverage of the anti-Musharraf protests. The media was determined to protect their hard-won freedom. The turning point came when the private channels provided a blow by blow coverage of the riots in Karachi in May 2007 when armed government supporters killed dozens of their rivals (Walsh, Declan 2007). This was a complete departure from the past, especially the 1980s when Karachi was aflame with ethnic violence and bomb explosions wreaked havoc in the markets and populous civic centers which the controlled electronic media was unable to report.

Indeed, one of the reasons for the steep fall in popularity of the Musharraf government was the worsening security situation that was effectively projected by the   private channels through their live or on- tape reporting of bombs blasts and other terrorist incidents. For instance the country watched in sheer horror the live reporting of the bomb explosion killing over 140 people during the massive PPP rally organized in Karachi to welcome its chairperson, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, on her return from exile on 18 October 2007. A little more than two months later, the entire country was again stunned when television cameras captured images of the suicide    bombing that targeted and killed Benazir Bhutto as she waved to crowds while  driving home from a public rally in Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Garden on 27 December 2007.

The private channels have also changed the concept of political reporting and with it the country’s politics and the conduct of politicians. This is clearly visible in the political talk shows which “feature a diversity of views that would please Ofcom” (Waraich, Omar 2007). People love to watch politicians as they ramble and squirm in the face of teasing questions by hosts keen to scrutinize their personal and professional conduct on matters of public concern. The private channels “freely criticize the government for going against the spirit of the constitution, violating democratic traditions and being unaccountable to the public at large for inflation, unemployment, poverty, deterioration of the law and order situation and highhandedness against opposition” (Wasim, Mohammad 2006). Indeed, the popularity of political talk shows such as Capital Talk, Jawab Dayh (Accountable), Mairay Mutabiq (For Me) and Aaj Kamran Khan Kay Sath (Today with Kamran Khan) of Geo News; Live with Talat Hussain and Bolta Pakistan (Pakistan Speaks) of Aaj TV; Off the Record, Second Opinion and Q&A with PJ Mir of ARY; Doosra Pehlu (Other Aspect) of CNBC Pakistan; and Kal Tak (Until Tomorrow) and Centre Stage of Express News is such that even after a repeat telecast by their respective channels, many of these programmes land up at popular websites such as YouTube, blip.tv, pkpolitics.com, awaz.tv, politicsarea.com for the viewers to see them all over again.

Religion has always been at the centre of social and cultural life for a majority of the Pakistanis. Religious programmes therefore get a sizeable had a simple format, now such   programmes by private channels have moved away from the stereotype. For instance, GEO’s Alim Online has a suave young host with a closely cropped fashionable beard who has a laptop and a telephone in front of him. The programme is unique in the sense that it brings together scholars from the Shia and Sunni sects which have often been embroiled in sectarian violence against each other. The outreach of the private channels is vast and broad-based thereby enabling hitherto marginalized communities to voice their grievances and to bring these within the ambit of public consciousness and become a part of the broad national discourse. Furthermore, religious festivals and community functions of minorities are reported widely while special programmes are run to mark other events such as Valentine’s Day and New Year celebrations.

While the liberal programming has broadened the minds of the people, it has also made them aware of issues which were previously swept under the rug. The rampant domestic violence against women and their exchange as goods of trades to settle disputes in certain tribal areas have been highlighted consistently by the private channels. “And social mores have relaxed to the point where fashion shows and a transvestite talk show host, Begum Nawazish Ali, are proving more popular than the new breed of Muslim televangelists” (Waraich, Omar 2007). Private channels regularly feature edgy comedies such as Geo’s Hum Sub Umeed Say Hain, Dunya’s Hasb-e-Haal and Aag Channel’s 4 Man Show which often satirize politicians and celebrities from film and sports alike.

Geo TV broke taboos when it launched its popular weekly show ‘Marriage Online’ which is frequented by the youth who describe themselves and ask prospective suitors to contact their parents. Geo also caused a public outcry in 2004 when it broadcast a report on Rawalpindi’s Internet cafes serving as hubs for pornography and meeting spots for young lovers. A year later, the channel again created a stir when it aired a discussion on the ultra-sensitive topic of incest on its Agony Aunt programme, Uljhan Suljhan. During the show, host Hina Khwaja Biyat read out a victim’s letter in which she wrote how her brother had sexually abused her for six years. Among the panelists was a doctor who identified the mutual dependency situation as incest and strongly recommended the use of contraception to prevent further complications. It was a daring talk on issues considered highly provocative in the deeply conservative Pakistani society and the channel had to pay for it when a group of armed men claiming affiliation with a religious organization attacked Geo’s Karachi building, beat up security guards and ransacked the first two floors.

In recent years, this freedom has been used to delve deep into the labyrinths of politics with channels going into an overdrive to unmask incidents  of  corruption,  malpractice  and  maladministration.  From a legislator cheating in an examination hall or shopping on a stolen credit card to police officials publicly lashing persons under detention are some of the spectacles that are coming as a routine daily diet on television news. Indeed, the media has become an effective watchdog, holding the government and opposition leaders to constant scrutiny and exposing corruption and highlighting social ills and human rights violations (Lodhi, Maleeha, 2010). The    media has also transformed and enlarged the public space and enhanced citizens’ engagement with issues which are now debated on the television screen, not the floor of parliament (ibid).

Occasionally, this unchecked freedom has also been used by new channels to step into legal controversies. In 2006, Geo ran a series of debates titled Zara Sochiey (Think for a moment) to highlight “lacunae” in the controversial Hudood laws dealing with cases of rape and adultery. Consequently, the government amended the law to make it more balanced. Although, the liberal view presented by new channels is often frowned upon by ultra-conservative Islamic groups, there is also a sense of satisfaction at the way new programmes have replaced the international media, like BBC, CNN, Fox (CBS News, 2004). The new channels argue that while they have a responsibility to fight conservatism, they will continue to “to nudge it towards the middle, bringing it out of these dark dungeons of PTV programs but protect it from ‘Sex and the City’” (ibid).

liberal programming, the impact of such programmes on the society is already visible. Pakistan-born British novelist Mohsin Hamid who travelled to Pakistan in 2007 to watch his would-be wife performing the lead role in a show called Jutt and Bond, an Urdu sitcom about a Punjabi folk hero and a British secret agent, recounts “the incredible new world of media that had sprung up in Pakistan, a world of music videos, fashion programmes, independent news networks, cross-dressing talk-show hosts, religious debates, stock-market analysis, and dramas and comedies like Jutt and Bond” (Hamid, Mohsin 2007). “Views both critical and supportive of the government are voiced with breathtaking frankness in an atmosphere remarkably lacking in censorship. Public space, the common area for culture and expression that had been so circumscribed in my childhood, has now been vastly expanded. The Vagina Monologues was recently performed on stage in Pakistan to standing ovations” (ibid).

The contribution of private channels towards promotion of popular music genres is also significant. The phenomenon set in the late eighties by the likes of pop stars Nazia and Zohaib and later picked up by Vital Signs and Junoon has been taken to a new high by dedicated 24-hour music channels led by MTV Pakistan, The Music, Indus Music and Aag Channel.  Massive corporate sponsorships and availability of more air space for pop acts have resulted in hundreds of amateurs and underground bands trying to burst on the music scene (The News 2007). Pakistani singers Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Jawad Ahmed, Rahat Ali Khan and Ali Zafar routinely perform in India. Popular songs by some of them have also been included in Hindi movies. The story of Amanat Ali, a 19-year-old lad from Faisalabad, ending up as second runner up after polling 43.8 million votes in a global music contest organized by Zee Music in 2007, reflects on the music mania private channels have created in Pakistan. Besides music channels, entertainment channels featuring infotainment, drama serials and sit-coms have also encouraged frequent injections of music videos and soundtracks being composed by established musicians.

The proliferation of television channels has also opened up new vistas for the corporate world which has catapulted the advertising industry to new heights at the back of a competitive economic environment and strong consumer spending. Pakistan’s robust telecom industry boasting over 80 million subscribers at the start of 2008, the banking sector which has maintained one of the best growth rates in the region, and a resurgent construction business spearheaded by companies like Emaar and Al- Buraj Group have all combined to transform the country’s advertising industry which now boasts of Rs 17 billion annual revenues (Yasir, Muhammad 2007). And the prime beneficiaries of this boom remain private television channels whose revenues have skyrocketed. While new channels join the foray increasing the on-air ad space, ad rates on the satellite channels have continued to climb. During the early days of its launch, Geo TV sold ad time for between 5,000 to 10,000 rupees per minute with ARY and Indus also enjoying similar rates (Qizilbash, Talib, 2007). “Now, Geo’s prime time tariff rates (undiscounted) are quoted at 75,000 rupees. Among the other top channels, ARY One World and Indus Vision command 60,000 rupees, while Hum TV and Aaj TV ask for 45,000 and 37,500 rupees respectively for a 60-second prime time spot” (ibid).

The Pakistani TV going transnational has also reached the expat community all over the world, bringing them closer to events at home. Channels such as Geo, ARY and Aaj enjoy a massive viewership among the Pakistani expatriate community. The number of telephone calls made to television talk shows and news magazines by Pakistanis living abroad is a measure of their engagement with politics back home.

The impact of transnational media on broadcasting is also reflected in an overall transformation of professional skills and work ethics. The quality of news and investigative reporting is consistently improving. The demand for quality has also contributed to better wages for the journalists. With the expansion of the broadcast sector, the intake of fresh blood into the industry has also increased manifold. At the time Jang Group launched Geo TV, it added 2,000 employees to the existing 3,000 workforce and some 500 journalists were trained for six months through international media consultants. This was  in addition to a network of reporters developed across Pakistan and in 10 major cities throughout the world. The new channels have also contributed to an all-time high intake of students in mass communication departments of Pakistani universities. The standard of journalism has also improved considerably. Subjects such as TV production, investigative and online journalism are quite popular now.

Conclusion

This essay has encapsulated the impact of transnational media on the broadcasting sector in Pakistan with references to the changes the sector has undergone in recent years. From the way it has shaped itself, this broadcasting revolution has been thrilling and “a reality television in the truest sense of the word” (Qizilbash, Talib, 2007). While the future television landscape in Pakistan is likely to change with the focus shifting to very few hybrid channels and many more regional and news channels, the nature of infotainment and its presentation has undergone an irreversible change. The beneficiaries of this revolution are the viewers who now have a “smorgasbord” of TV viewing options. Indeed, from Quran TV which has championed religious programming, to Fashion TV Pakistan which gets away with partial nudity in the middle of the day, to Muzik which showcases Pakistani pop arts, to Pakistan’s first English language Dawn News, there is little the burgeoning new industry is not auditioning (Mufti, Shahan, 2007). The phenomenal growth the broadcast industry has registered in Pakistan has already spawned a healthy competition which is likely to result in more viewing options for the public, more revenue and jobs for the national economy and more opportunities to make money for the entrepreneurs and prospective investors.

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