Pakistani journalism has an old tradition of respected and very credible journalists engaging in political activism. These activities have included supporting political leaders, committing to political ideas or ideologies and ensuring all these remain part of their journalistic activity. Sharing the stage with political leaders and pushing their political interests has also been an activity Pakistani journalists have indulged in. Journalists are now making a huge impact via social media and through their presence on television screens.
Those supporting political ideas and political leaders in the past were mostly ideologically oriented journalists. For instance, leftist journalists supported Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto and PPP during Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law and right wing journalists supported the Jamat-e-Islami. Some of them became financially well off as the news organisations they worked for compensated them well for their political reporting on account of their relations with the political elites of the time. These journalists belonged to a particular segment, a specific class that did not go higher than the respectable middle class.
In present times, the journalists and anchors pushing the agenda of political parties are totally different species as far as their class status is concerned. For example, what kind of journalist rides a bullet proof vehicle—the cheapest bulletproof vehicle costs around $75,000 – which is way beyond the reach of any Pakistani journalist who is relying only on salary from a Pakistani news organisation?
And what kind of journalist moves with his 16 well-armed security guards? A journalist relying on his salary from a Pakistani news organisation cannot afford such paraphernalia. Any investigative visit to Peshawar and tribal areas will make you aware of the dozens of cases where journalists are still facing life threats from militant organisations. They ride motorcycles and not bulletproof vehicles or move with 16 guards.
In Pakistan the power game is ruthless with assassinations, imprisonments, judicial killings, prosecution and victimisation of opponents being common practices. Exposing the powerful has always been a tradition of Pakistani journalism. But when you become a mouthpiece of one of the other political parties, and present their opinions, positions and viewpoints as gospel truth, you become a party in the conflict.
In such instances the journalist then qualifies for a treatment which the political parties reserve for their opponents. For instance, when you indulge in political activism against a political group, how can you legitimately expect that it would not target you as it does its opponents?
There is no denying the fact that political parties in this country have been targeting professional journalists who have in the past exposed them through their investigative reporting. There is also no denying the fact that violence is unacceptable whether it is committed against a journalist or a political activist.
Nevertheless, by maligning opponents of political leaders you cease to be a hero of journalism. Instead, you become a hero to the cause of that political party.
When it comes to organisations, since the advent of electronic media, traditional media outlets have undergone structural changes as far as its control is concerned. However, serving the financial interests of the media house or its owners has remained constant over the years.
Journalists in Pakistan have to work within the constraints imposed on them by the financial interests of the organisation they are working for. Financial interests are sometimes pushed very nakedly by the management of the organisation and sometimes it takes place in a subtle manner. These financial interests are often projected in an ideological garb.
In the olden times we witnessed professional editors resisting the encroachment of financial managers within the organisation when it came to editorial policy. But that was the dull and lackluster times of print media.
Since the advent of the exciting electronic media, the financial managers have taken over control of the editorial policy. News and analysis sections are treated as mistresses of the financial interests of the organisation and their owners. And so-called editors, anchors, reporters and analysts are willing participants in this process. The State has further vitiated the environment by using advertisement subsidies as a tool to influence the editorial policies.
The Pakistani state was never sympathetic towards the cause of a free, independent and vibrant media in the country. Pakistani journalists have faced many brutalities of the state in the past 75 years. This has introduced an anti-establishment streak in the Pakistani journalist community. Tryst with power, however, has always been considered an ultimate experience.
Nevertheless, majority of the journalists in this country have always seen their role as someone who exposes power through their reporting and, in this way, influences the happenings and events in power corridors.
In the past very few and privileged journalists acted as unofficial advisors to state officials and political leaders. Now every other journalist, anchor and commentator is an advisor. Some have made their way into power corridors to occupy official positions.
Media men’s role in the power game, however, is more of a myth. They are more of a pawn in the power game than any kind of real players. There is not a single instance of a Pakistani journalist in history occupying a position of power in state structure.
After the advent of electronic media Pakistani state machinery has turned media management into a science. Every state institution has a professional media management team, and most of the time officials working in these teams are more competent than the journalists employed by the media outlets to cover these state institutions.
The best of these media management institutions is known as Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate which is now part of General Headquarters (GHQ) of Pakistan Army. In the past ISPR used to keep contact only with defense correspondents of media organisations. Now it has a much wider operation to look after. It seemingly runs a media policy independent of the government.
There are national and international security experts who believe that in a fractured society like Pakistan where the military is engaged in two counter insurgency operations, the need for the military to project its view point on a national scale should be accepted as legitimate.
But the past two years have seen the military establishment trying to control the newsroom of major news organisations—something which is way beyond the legitimate need of projecting its view point on use of force against militants in a fractured society. The military’s sometimes subtle, sometimes naked interference in the operations of the newsroom during the past five years has been made easy by the commercialisation of news with the advent of electronic media.
The timid and irresponsible behaviour of the media organisations and owners is another factor that facilitated the increased role of establishment in the running of newsrooms. Destruction of an independent media and curbing of freedom for journalists will lead to the destruction of Pakistan’s weak and nascent democracy.
At the heart of the problem is the autonomy granted to the military to run its own media policy, which most of the time doesn’t seem to be strategically aligned with the policies of the democratic governments in power in Islamabad. This is the legacy of war against terror.
If, as claimed by the military leaders, the backs of the militants have been broken then perhaps the need for the military to independently pursue its objectives in the media no longer exists.