Role of Media in National Development in the 21st Century

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Javed Jabbar[1]


(Several political, economic and social factors singly and collectively impact on national development. The process can involve rapid transformations as well as resistance to change. The role of the media is crucial and ranges from promoting national identity   and cohesion to galvanizing the resolve of peoples in achieving progress and development as well as meeting contemporary challenges. The downside is that the media can become the instrument of state propaganda. The media in Pakistan, in the sixty years of the country’s existence as a sovereign and independent state, rendered service in the varied aspects of national endeavour. The twenty-first century poses new challenges and opportunities in which the role of the media will be of fundamental importance.  Editor ).

States can be developed and built by deliberate human actions. Nations evolve almost always through a kaleidoscopic, spontaneous, multi-layered natural process, not subject to human will alone, except in some rare cases. The distinction is necessary at the outset as we proceed to examine how man-made factors such as media and others can influence the process of national as well as state development.

Factors that will impact upon national development in the 21st century include geo-political, economic, technological, social and cultural conditions of intense, rapid change as well as resistance to change. Climate change may devastate whole eco-systems so badly that nations too could be destabilized at their cores.

The physical frontiers and the communication frontiers of nation-states are likely to be in sharp contrast even as they sometimes converge.  As individualized electronic linkages e.g., wireless internet over cell phones, and other choices proliferate, media and nations and citizens may assume new shared roles.

Before we speculate about the role of media in national development in the 21st century, let us recall the role of media in a similar context in previous times.

Far more than in earlier centuries, with print media and books, it was in the 20th century that modern mass media acquired a pervasive political presence. Media played a significant role in national affairs and in national development across the world regardless of the specific type of nation and state they were located in.

Nation-states may be categorized according to their levels of evolution as nations and as states and as per their levels of economic development and military power.  It is not intended here to name each country in each such category but only to indicate broad categories of nation-states whose descriptive titles changed over time as a result of global political transformation.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, nations and nation-states could be described as belonging to any one, or more of the following descriptions:

Colonizing nations e.g. Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy.

Colonized nations e.g. most of South Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Non-colonizing nations e.g. Switzerland, Finland.

Non-colonized nations e.g. Thailand, Nepal.

During the two World Wars of the 20th century, there were the Allied Powers and their adversaries known as the Axis Powers.

In the era that began after the 2nd World War, the levels of economic development and institutional stability divided nations and states into the First World e.g. the U.S.A. and Canada; into the Second World e.g. major Communist and Socialist states  and the Third World e.g. Kenya, Pakistan, Bolivia.

Alternative terminologies for these three “worlds” of countries came to be used in the terms: “developed countries” to refer to those who became members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) representing countries with the highest per capita incomes. About 150 countries including both middle and low-income nations are generally described as “developing countries.” There are also the Least Developed Countries, known as “LDCs.”

Cutting across such categories, moving across continents and time zones, covering phases of peace and of war, of stability and tension, applying to nations and states in diametrically different conditions, media have rendered roles in the development of nations that can be placed in the following modes:

1)         As articulators of national identity, promoting campaigns for independence from colonialism or, where nations were already free, as re-enforcers of recognized national identities.

2)         As stokers of national pride and chauvinism, whether this be in regard to asserting differences from the identities of neighbours or in support of national teams in competitive sports.

3)         As representatives of majorities, and of minorities within nations.

4)         As motivators for national cohesion and unity, and doing so not necessarily only when owned by the State or controlled by governments but as expressions of their own beliefs and policies.

5)         As sources for valuable information about development, as in providing guidance and advice to farmers via radio and TV on the use of seeds and fertilizers in support of agricultural extension workers, who first helped promote the concept of development communications.

6)         As unabashed, unapologetic instruments of state propaganda and governmental policies, during conflicts, as well as before, or after them.

7)         As advocates of the free market and of consumerism, disseminating volumes of advertising content, serving as extensions for the marketing of goods and services.

8)         As means of expression for the marginalised, the dispossessed, the persecuted.

9)         As the public’s own, de facto, ombudsmen regarding people’s complaints and grievances.

10)       As independent, first-hand reporters on the actual situation in zones of war and violence.

11)       As popularisers of the arts, literature, music and creative cultural work.

12)       As mirrors of reality in respect of the basic functions of media i.e., for information, education and entertainment.

13)       And at the same time, as distorting mirrors, unwitting or willing sources of censored messages and of wilful disinformation.

The preceding 13 functions of media in nation-states of all kinds range from the sublime to the subversive, from exceptional roles rendered only in individual cases to collectively-observed patterns.  Whether a country has been reasonably stable as in the case of the USA or whether a country has been volatile as in the case of Kenya, media have played a notable role in the process of national development: with the proviso that, in the case of countries such as Kenya, access to media by the people is far lower than in the USA. Therefore the impact of media is proportionately far less.

The growth of nations over decades, and sometimes centuries, is marked by unpredictable and sometime even un-manageable change. This catharsis is driven by forces that cannot be controlled by any single, or even multiple set of drivers or elements.  During its departure, colonization often imposed arbitrary divisions to artificially create new nation-states. Sometimes, ideologies or strong individuals exert a decisive influence on how nations and states develop. But seen in holistic terms, all the contributory factors that shape the development of nations are far too numerous, intricate and diverse to be subject to any laboratory-made, pre-set design.

Thus, even when, and if, the inherently diverse nature of media could be calibrated and co-ordinated to a particular single purpose, the variables and imponderables that govern the changes in nations cannot be subject to the exclusive influences of media.

Let us briefly survey the case of a single nation’s advent and the relevance of media to this process.

To briefly examine the role of media in the national development of Pakistan would be to take an unusual example that is not necessarily representative of the average nation-state of Asia or of most developing countries.  This is because the very nature of the Pakistani nation-state is quite unique. For instance, by virtue of its concept, the relative newness of the name itself i.e., as a word, “Pakistan” was invented in 1932 and became an independent state in 1947. This was in contrast to nations such as China and Persia whose names and identities have existed for thousands of years.  Pakistan is also unique for the awkward and unprecedented form in which it was originally created. The two wings of the country i.e., East Pakistan and West Pakistan were separated by about 1000 miles of hostile territory. There are other features as well that make Pakistan quite distinct from other nation-states. Yet, because this writer knows Pakistan best and because Pakistan shares many features with other developing countries it is relevant to note the country’s evolution with reference to the role of media.

Certain features are shared by Pakistan with other developing countries. These include, particularly in the initial and formative phase, high levels of income inequality (which ironically, persist, or have increased despite six decades of independence!), erratic and weak patterns of institutional development; misgovernance; inconsistent enforcement of the fundamental rights of citizens; inability of the system to resolve internal conflicts peacefully resulting in systemic violence and corruption; denial of authentic freedom to media (for about 4 decades out of 6) as well as other features.

Almost arbitrarily forced into creation on 14 August 1947 with the absurdly short notice of only 10 weeks imposed by the arrogance of Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy, the leaders and the people of Pakistan were not even certain about the exact demarcation of their frontiers when they won their freedom. The Boundary Commission had not, as of 14 August 1947, completed the task of declaring its “awards” of various territories on the margins of proposed borders. This uncertainty ignited panic and bloodshed between adherents of different religions who had lived together for centuries but were now suddenly faced with insecurity of life and property, community and identity. Appeals through media e.g. radio could not curb wide-spread violence.

There was the big yawning gap of territory between the two wings divided by distance as also by language.  The East wing was predominantly Bengali-speaking. The West wing had a range of provincial languages.

At this critical time Radio Pakistan assumed a role far larger than the sum of its stations and its offices.  As a broadcasting system converted overnight from parts of All India Radio into a new, autonomous entity, Radio Pakistan instantly became “the voice of Pakistan.” Regardless of whether the language of news bulletins and programmes was Urdu or Bengali or English, the call sign and the signature tune of Radio Pakistan became the immediate audio-icon of a new nation-state that was bringing together into a new state identity, people who shared the Muslim faith but also reflected remarkable differences.

As some of the princely states gradually declared their accession to Pakistan and as the Boundary Commision awards finally made the frontiers clear, and the map of the new nation state took shape, there also erupted the conflict with India over Kashmir. Just as the name and the sound of Pakistan were becoming part of the air waves, Radio Pakistan also became a rallying point for the sentiments of patriotism and the desire to assert the defence of a new homeland against threats from India.

The fact that Radio Pakistan was a state-owned medium did not detract from its invaluable role in serving as a binding force that literally forged into being the vocally expressed identity of a new nation.

In its first two decades Radio Pakistan also became a training ground for hundreds of individuals whose talent and interest in broadcasting were nurtured and guided towards high levels of professional skills.  From engineering to management to production to recording to writing to music to narration, acting and presentation, Radio Pakistan became one of the founding institutions of the state.  It attracted individuals of all ages to a new profession and to a new part-time vocation. There was built a pool of human resources from which many went on to become the pioneers in the advent of television in the late 1960s, and onwards.

Despite relatively low literacy at that time, the print media comprising newspapers and magazines exercised an influence on the policy process and on public opinion disproportionate to their actual circulation and readership. Newspapers and magazines became the instant history books of the new nation. They were eagerly awaited, respectfully read, spurred extensive quotations through word-of-mouth. More numerous than the singularity of Radio Pakistan, they also served as the “word of Pakistan.”

During the life of the original, two-winged Pakistan that existed from 1947 to 1971, the press became the victim of draconian laws and authoritarian policies that curbed its independence.  Parts of the press, including newspapers, were nationalized. Harsh penalties were threatened and sometimes imposed on print media proprietors and journalists who did not abide by the new laws.

In this phase, the cinema too made a limited but notable contribution towards promoting a sense of nationhood and a new identity. The screening of news-reels and documentaries in all cinemas made compulsory by law and policy kept people well-informed about the official version of how a new state was taking shape and on how it was conducting its affairs. The compulsory screening and playing of the national anthem and the national flag before every cinema show reinforced awareness of, and pride in, the new national identity.

One of the great chapters in the relationship between the media and the original Pakistan came during the 1965 war with India. Radio Pakistan kept millions spell-bound with its news bulletins and its reports as also with war songs to boost morale. The media in general, in East or in West, accurately and fulsomely reflected the nation-wide surge of a new sense of fellowship. They memorably extolled the courage and skill with which the armed forces engaged Indian troops and “enemy” targets, capturing the mood of the nation’s will for survival and for victory.

In contrast, a tragic inter-face between media and the nation-state occurred with the eruption of the crisis in March 1971 when the then-military Head of State indefinitely postponed the convening of the National Assembly elected a few weeks earlier in December 1970. This act deprived the East Pakistan leadership of their due right to becoming the ruling group at the federal centre.  Severe armed action was also unleashed against the political forces of East Pakistan.  State-owned radio and TV became mere hand-maidens of the military junta. They relayed propaganda without question, while state-controlled print media also did the same.  Even most of the independent print media in the western wing fell in line with the ruling clique. In less than 10 months, as the situation in the eastern wing deteriorated rapidly, media in the western wing, regardless of being state-owned or independent failed to realize the enormity of dangers facing the country from the alienation of the people of East Pakistan, exploited fully and openly by India. When the General commanding Pakistani troops signed the surrender document on 16 December 1971 in Dhaka, most people in the western wing were stunned with disbelief: their media had not prepared them well for this catastrophe.

At the time, TV was too new and too limited in its reach to make a major impact. In any case, it was a state monopoly subject to official control of content.

The 1971-2006 period of Pakistan’s history is marked by significant changes in the role of media. Post-1988, concurrent with restoration of civil, political democracy, restrictions were removed on the print media and while the state monopoly of electronic media remained until 2000, palpable changes toward a new liberalism commenced  in December 1988, and continued intermittently thereafter, up to about 1999.

With the assumption of power by General Pervez Musharraf in December 1999, media in Pakistan entered a distinct new phase of rapid change and notable ironies. Between 1999 and 2006, Pakistan has quite clearly become a country where the media, amongst the 57 member-states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, enjoys the highest level of freedom of expression despite a military general being first the Head of Government (1999 – 2001), and presently Head of State. This is so, notwithstanding the continuance in place of some laws and some aspects of policy that do inhibit the media. But in overall terms, it can be stated with confidence that the media in this period have helped the Pakistani nation to acquire a new level of awareness and to express pluralism in public discourse unknown in all previous decades of history. In doing so, they have also helped promote a sense of pride in being Pakistani and in fostering a new ethos of a post-1971 nationalism which can perhaps best be described as “Pakistaniat,” a term that evokes the sharing of an exclusive national identity.

Resuming speculation about how media are likely to interact with the process of national development in the 21st century: threats to national security and to individual security in the broadest sense appear to be vital factors that will shape the next nine decades.  Such threats may spring from a wide range of sources. They could come from the spread of viruses as well as of violence, from the desire of a single country to exert hegemony and practice unilateralism, as also from the effects of the heedless pursuit of material advancement accompanied by inevitable spiritual turbulence. And all this will be happening as the loss of biodiversity is likely to irreparably damage the web of life that sustains us all.

Nations in the 21st century, particularly in Asia, will face the challenge of dealing with new parallel frontiers and multiple frontiers. Their national entities will, of course, remain within the territorial frontiers in which each state exists. Already the new parallel, multiple frontiers exist to a degree as a result of the ceded sovereignty that comes from the membership of regional pacts (e.g. ASEAN, SAARC) or any bilateral or collective military alliances e.g.  Japan and South Korea vis-à-vis the USA. Given the trend of continued economic co-operation in the Asia-Pacific-region, and elsewhere, the growing plurality of frontiers will pose entirely new tests to how nations deal with them.

Seen in conjunction with the already abundant presence of media, such political and economic change will create entire arenas of globalism that will be placed within the framework of singular nationalisms. Yet some nationalisms may retain archaic, insular compartments that are only selectively global e.g. parts of the north-western areas of Pakistan adjacent to Afghanistan, where one may find satellite dish antennas on rooftops  bringing MTV under which women live strictly sequestered lives.  As also the alarming violent spread of the Taliban psyche and the Pukhtoon overlap across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Democracy having become a global norm – with the exception of certain monarchical and dictatorial states – the electoral and representational systems of many nations will face grave strains and pressures.  These will be caused by the inability of the existing electoral systems to serve as effective checks and balances upon executives and governments. For instance, some governments are empowered by the previous election but then the same popularly elected governments face mid-term challenges, and unexpected crises e.g. Thailand in 2006. As it is, the absence of compulsory voting – which, otherwise makes elections truly representative of public opinion – deprives most of the existing electoral systems in Asian countries of being truly representative of the people’s will.

Judging in 2007 the slow pace in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) defined at the UN summit in 2000  for fulfilment by 2015, the gross inadequacies in respect of health, water supply, education, employment, energy, environment and equity will generate polarizing tensions for most nations.

Against this canvas of contrasts, media will be expected to balance their role between two poles. On the one hand, as partners and beneficiaries in the avaricious advance of the free market, as vehicles for increased, aggressive commercialism and advertising.  On the other, as custodians of the public interest which are expected to rise above considerations of profit and income to serve the national good.

News media will be expected to function as “early warning” sentinels that alert citizens at large and the leadership of civil and political society to the critical trends already emerging within nations as also likely to develop in the future. Whether news media can fulfil such expectations depends on major enhancements and versatility in their professional capacity. They will need to add new capabilities that go far beyond event-centred reportage and stenographic reporting to creative and conceptual levels untrapped in the conventional mind-set of daily journalism.

Perhaps this century will also witness reconciliation between a basic contradiction that prevails between states, societies and media. This is with regard to the curious anomaly to be found whereby there is virtually no sharing of media content on a daily basis between the civil societies of states which, on the official level, enjoy historical and contemporary relationships of deep friendship. For instance, the media of China, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have no inter-action on a popular level with the people of Pakistan. There are various reasons for this anomaly including those of linguistic differences. But the anomaly becomes an amusing paradox when it is noted that, in contrast to this lack of day-to-day contact between the people and media of countries with which Pakistan has, for the most part, excellent relations, the media of India have an extensive and intrusive presence in every Pakistani town and city, and in many villages as well. The irony is made the more stark by the hostility and outright conflict which have marked Pakistan-India relations for almost six decades.  Here too there are explanatory reasons. But the contrast between one set of states, societies, and media, and the contrast with the Pakistan-India equation, remains an area worth venturing into for the purposes of rationalization and reconciliation in the decades ahead.

Several highly combustive conditions are likely to characterize the 21st century. With world population set to increase from about 6.2 billion to about 9.2 billion by the middle of the 21st century, certain countries, and their cities in particular, are going to become giant concentrations of humanity living in conditions of congestion, pollution, competition for scarce resources and space for assertion of respective identities which cannot but lead to life lived as if on a razor’s edge.

Media have an intrinsic bias for urban centres. Most media practitioners live and operate from them. Advertising, the life-blood of commercial media, also originates from the cities because all the decisions regarding placement of advertising in media are taken there. Governmental centres and other focal points of policy-making and opinion-making are also urban-based.

In the 21st century, several urban centres of Asian nations are going to attain the size and scale of mega-cities.

Already, some of the cities and towns present awesome spectacles of barely controlled disorder, of over-flowing sewage and empty water pipes, of smoke- spewing vehicles which breed like rabbits and slums that swell with unemployed, under-employed – or unemployable! – human beings facing critical scarcities.

The governance and management of these cities are going to be major pre-occupations of nations. Huge demands will be generated for unavailable financial resources or inadequate organizational skills. These places could become arenas of destructive combat. How media will faithfully mirror these ominous trends and whether media are capable of going beyond instant reporting and bad news to offering forums and opportunities for constructive dialogue and for peaceful non-violent resolution of conflicts, in tandem with other civil society processes will determine media’s crucial role.

Terrorism thrives on news media’s addiction to the sensational and the destructive. Terrorism damages nations and state structures by fomenting insecurity and uncertainty, by undermining the ability and credibility of state institutions to effectively protect the lives and property of citizens. Some media seem to revel in repeatedly showing the terrible outcome of violence. This gives to the work of terrorists just the very exposure they cherish – but such coverage also drives people and nations into gloom and despair. Do media in the 21st century need to review the instant, high-pitched sustained coverage given to brutalities and to terrorism committed by states and by non-state actors, without reducing the scale of the tragedies, and without diverting attention from the implications of such acts?

More than ever, states are now concentrating into themselves the power of nations. In spite of decentralization of media, e.g. cell phones, big corporations are concentrating into themselves the power of mainstream media and telecommunications media. The resulting imbalance works against an equitable distribution of power within and between nations. It is only through the proliferation of low-cost, public service, community based and/or citizens’ media that the unhealthy convergence of power can be peacefully challenged and new, counter-balancing measures are taken. Bloggers on the internet are on the front line of this unfolding struggle to check the dominance of converged power of states, business and media. New initiatives are direly needed for creating a balanced global media civil society.

Diaspora sub-nationalisms can be reinforced and recently immigrated communities shrunk to a ghettoization of the mind with the help of media. For instance, TV channels originating from South Asia are distributed by cable into households of South Asian origin in North America. For a significant number of families, including small children, some of the religious and cultural content of these TV channels becomes essential daily viewing. The media become comforting life-lines of “affinity-connectivity.” Yet these media also insulate their audiences from immediate reality. They prevent assimilation and integration. They promote a bizarre alienation between immediate physical neighbours. Will this pattern continue?

In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, many nations are states only in name. Only a few have stable, strong state institutions. Substantive improvements are required in institutions and there is also need to create new structures. Will media help or hinder?

The 21st century will be as much an era of building state structures and systems as it will be a period of building and boosting nations to their optimal potential.

All this while, we will need to remember that mother earth is infinite in her beauty but has limits to her capacity.  The finite, non-renewable resources of the planet, be they fossil-fuels or species of fish made forever extinct by massive over-harvesting, seen in the context of global warming and climate change, will create a grim and awesome environment.

To conclude: media in the 21st century will have a full and daunting agenda. How to facilitate the building of better systems of democratic governance in rural and in urban areas.  How to cope with tumultuous mega cities. How to harmonize conservation with consumption.  How to help make nations cohesive and how to make states more respectful of individual citizens and of human beings even as media and their audiences move onwards into uncharted times of fascinating complexity.

[1] The author is a former Minister of Information.