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The Rise of Electronic Media and the Post-9/11 Terrorism

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Prof. Dr. Ahsan Akhtar Naz, Institute of Communication Studies, University of the Punjab
Pakistan's is a curious case of the historical media-government differences due to internal instability, terrorism, and wars. A succession of governments has exercised strict controls over a media that it fought rigorously through violations and severe punishments during the martial law regimes. The democratic governments began negotiating ethics with the media, giving it freedom and protection under the 1973 constitution. However, their differences were never settled despite the introduction of free media policy by Musharraf's (semi)martial law government at the advent of the new millennium. The history of media regulations presents a never-ending story of ethical violations by media groups and professionals who have compromised truth and objectivity for vested interests. The magnitude of this lapse has increased tremendously due to heavy induction of immature journalists. Consequently, the media groups lack abilities for managing information with responsibility in the present post-9/11 War on Terror scenario, that parallels a rise of free electronic media in Pakistan. This situation reflects a demand by some sections of the Press and public to implement media ethics to avoid mass-mediated view of reality pertaining to terrorism and sectarianism. The media should change its attitude and frame and implement ethics to avoid any future regulations by the government. This paper examines the Pakistani media scene and the historical media-government differences in view of Pakistan's internal instability and terrorism that global media project, putting challenges to the local censors and the credibility of the government and media in Pakistan.

The Pakistani media scene At the time of Independence in 1947, the Pakistani media was limited to eight daily newspapers (“Pakistan,” Background, para. 2, n.d.) and only two radio stations. By the turn of the millennium, it expanded to 815 papers and periodicals, 24 radio stations, three private FM stations, and five terrestrial TV stations that were supplemented by PTV World, Shalimar Television Network (Orient & Carat, 2010; Ziauddin, 2000), and a mushroom growth of illegal cable television networks that had begun with the arrival of the satellite in Pakistan in the late 1980s. These networks gave access to foreign channels and pirated films into homes throughout Pakistan, lacking state sensitization for responding to the issues quickly. They also showed an opportunity to private media groups to beam into every home and increase clientele through the electronic publication of news (A. Islam, personal communication, 1991). However, these groups did not succeed due to government's control over electronic media till the beginning of the new millennium. The government, finally sensitized to the spread of cable, responded by establishing Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to control the illegal access of foreign channels after about a decade.

Presently, the legal and illegal networks are beaming three state owned, and 82 licensed (PEMRA, 2010) and a few unlicensed channels in urban areas. As opposed to the year 2000, when the press, radio, and TV were catering to about 20% to 30%, 95%, and 70% population respectively, the Pakistani press, radio, and TV now cater to 39%, 97%, and 80% population through over 700 accredited and 2,700 non-accredited newspapers (1,199 in 2008), 160 accredited and 800 non-accredited periodicals till July 2010, 167 radio & FM stations, 22 TV stations, and 116 TV channels including the 14 in process (Gallup, 2009; “TV Viewership,” 2009; Orient & Carat, 2010; Radio, 2010; Jabbar, A., personal communication, 2010 (these two citations are not referred to in the list of references); PID, 2010; “Pakistan, Basic data, & Broadcast media”, n.d.; Ziauddin, 2000). The media expansion in Pakistan has broken the monopoly of the state over the electronic media, ending, what Rehmat (2010) calls, “virtual information darkness of the first 55 years”. However, the government-media tussle over media's sense of responsibility and ethics carries on.

Media-government differences over ethics

Pakistan offers complex situations of the historical clashes between freedom of expression and censorship, internal instability being the main cause since the 1947-Partition. A succession of democratic and military governments kept on putting curbs, while media kept on fighting for the freedom of expression, information, and publication. The governments distrusted media's lack of responsibility and ethics and exercised strict controls that formed a clash between the preservation and regulation of freedom of expression. This clash of objectives of the two incomparable bodies shaped strict legislations and a control over newsprint at the level of the government for, what it called, responsible controlling of information that media lacked; it focused on commodity selling and evidently failed in implementing a code of ethics by forming a Press Council. Incidentally, the struggle against the formation and implementation of statutory directives for strict censors lead media professionals into hardships and imprisonments, increasing the distrust between governments and media.

The government-media differences for self-preservation and regulation rise from a lack of mutual trust. According to Ziauddin (2000), freedom of expression and statutory directives like censorship and code of ethics cannot co-exist without “mutual suspicion, bitterness and acrimony”. Such hostility is evident in the Pakistani case where media “has always functioned under strict control” regarding the permissible and prohibited. Since the Indo-Pak Partition, every government has tried to discipline the “ever increasing waywardness” of the Press by making the laws “more draconian” especially during the (semi)martial law regimes of Ayub and Zia (Ziauddin, 2000). The media did not cope with this situation through self-regulation and became “too preoccupied with self-preservation” (Ziauddin, 2000). The resentment of the laws created dichotomy between freedom and functioning of the Press within the bounds of a self- imposed, universally recognized media code of ethics. Ethnical violations became the norm as the Pakistani media neither developed nor adopted the universally recognized code of ethics for decades. Hence, the permissible and the prohibited took the shape of the anti-Press laws that persisted through the succession of governments.

The governments have historically relied on the colonial laws for exercising absolute control over the freedom of (individual) expression, the freedom of the Press, and the freedom of information since its creation. According to Ziauddin (2000), the print media functioned “within the limits of” the colonial Press laws: Lord Wellesley's first Press Statute (1799), Press and Registration of Book Act (1867), the Official Secrets Act (1923), and the Press (Emergency) Powers Act (1931). Field Marshal Ayub Khan's first martial law government imposed further restrictions “in the name of ideology, morality, and a host of other concepts … of an insecure and unstable state power”. He began controlling the unfavorable press by taking over a part of the free press in 1959 that, Naz says, was “made the mouthpiece of the government” (1999, p. 53).

He further imposed Press and Publication Ordinance (1963) that turned the independent newspapers into government gazetteers (Ziauddin, 2000). According to Qudrat Ullah Shahab, Ayub believed in the power, acceptability, and credibility of printed words that could mislead public despite being lies (Naz, 1999, p. 54). Hence, a strict censorship policy was followed by his government both before and after the 1965-War against India. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) supervised the media through the Department of Reference and Research that gauged political affiliations, moral and ideological values, and other undesirable contents in different publications. The transgression or violation of the guidelines resulted in single or triple forfeiture of the publication, the press, and the security deposit. The ministry exercised general control over the activities of media personnel: editors, journalists, advertisers, and distributors. It appointed media touts and prepared “a list of 'obstinate' journalists”, who were imprisoned, or denied access to official sources of information and travel abroad even under legitimate circumstances (Ziauddin, 2000). These incidents mark the beginning of the self-preservation struggle by the Press against the repressive policies and actions of the government.

The government-press tussle continued for about three decades that reflect two more martial law regimes by Yahya and Zia with only six years of democratic governments in between by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. According to Naz, both Yahya and Bhutto allowed some relief to Press (Naz, 1999, p. 54-59) despite the internal instability and the external intrusions. The internal instability is reflected in, what Naz calls, the psychological war of the “ideological confrontation among political parties” run through propaganda press, or political affiliations of the papers during Yahya's period (1999, p. 54). An extreme level of internal instability geared by external intrusions was felt that ended with the 1971-War against India and, consequently, the separation of East Pakistan. However, the information about the situations that lead to the separation was unethically controlled, censored, and hidden from the public till the last moment (Naz, 1999, p. 54). Bhutto, despite the War, the Fall of Dhaka, and the prisoners of war crisis continued giving some relief to the Press under the1973 constitution. The same was suspended by Zia's martial law regime in 1977, and through the period of the US funded Afghanistan War with USSR, that caused a spill of terrorism into Pakistan in the 1980s.

From the '60s till the '80s, the Press functioned under the PPO (1963) and, what Naz calls, Zia's ideological, social, and pre-censorship guidelines (1999, p. 55-57; Z. Niazi, 1994, p.5 -14) to control the information pertaining to internal instability, political mobility, the loyalty and allegiance of the forces and the martial law administration, the wars, the Fall of Dhaka, and Bhutto's arrest, trial, and execution, which is perceived as politically motivated judicial murder by the sections of general public. Under these tough circumstances, Zia's government made the first ever historical attempt to resolve the Press violation issues by signing an accord with the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE) on March 6, 1980. Ziauddin (2000) says, the accord “made it obligatory for the Press to abide by an agreed code of ethics” (2000). However, the Press flouted this code because of Zia's heavy censorship policy and the suspicion that the martial law regime forced the CPNE to sign the agreement. Z. Niazi says Zia terrorized the Press (1994, p. xv), but adjusted policies following the lawsuits (1994, p. 5). As reported in papers, Zia used both punishments like whipping and jailing and rewards like “plots of land” to control and oblige the journalists “who desperately vied with each other” to greet Zia first at the conferences (Naz, 1999, P. 57-58; Z. Niazi, 1994, p. 6; Masood, 2010). Naz quotes Z. Niazi who says political affiliations of the journalists and “the selectivity' in reporting” reduced politics to “narrow sectarianism, religious and ethnic divide” (1999, p. 58). Z. Niazi's comment on unethical practices during Zia regime offers a historical perspective of the relationship between Pakistani media and politics since Yahya.

From Yahya to Zia, the governments ignored several press violations and the demand to repeal the PPO (1963) by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), All Pakistan Newspapers Employees Confederation (APNEC), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), and the respective local unions of journalists in each city and town (Ziauddin, 2000; Naz, 1999). Many citizens from all sectors of life supported media campaigns and professionals who filed and won a petition in Federal Shariat Court to repeal the PPO during Zia's martial law regime. According to Ziauddin (2000), the Court “declared various sections of the Press law un-Islamic and called for their deletion or amendment.” “A clear consensus on major reform of the law” was felt across the board when the Supreme Court “upheld certain observations” of the Shariat Court in its judgment of the appeal by the martial law government in January 1988 (Ziauddin, 2000). By July 1988, the Senate passed a resolution to repeal the law that followed the passing of Registration of Printing Presses and Publications Ordinance (RPPO) by the government to repeal and replace the PPO (1963) in September 1988.

The 1988 Press law exorcized the arbitrary powers of the government and expanded a lot of dignity and integrity to individuals by incorporating the observations and recommendations of both the Shariat Court and the representative bodies of mass media (Ziauddin, 2000). It reinstated press freedom under the constitution (1973) and abolished MIB's unpublished black list of journalists, intellectuals, and citizens who criticized the establishment, or opposed martial law. It also eliminated the requirement of no objection certificates for media professionals for travelling abroad on invitations of foreign governments and organizations (Ziauddin, 2000).

Unfortunately, the absence of legislation caused the reappearance of the PPO (1963) by default, legally disabling the media. However, Ziauddin says, it was not used (2000) and the mass media picture remained relatively stable due to comparative leniency of the governments till the military takeover in 1999 and after.

During the eleven years from 1988 till 1999, the government switched ten times between the military, the democratically elected oppositions, and the interims. They include four periods of the democratic rule, two each by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, four interim governments that followed their successions and dismissals, and the two military regimes at both ends. However, the 1988 and 1999 reversals between emergency and democracy reflect distinctive developments in the Pakistani media scene that range from freedom to tremendous expansion of (electronic) media at the start of the new millennium.

Of the past millennium's last decade, Ziauddin (2000) says, the Press, under Bhutto's regime, demonstrated “a remarkable sense of vigor and assertiveness” as she eliminated “the newsprint quota permit” and governmental control over “newspaper management and editorial policy” during her first (1988-1991) and second tenure (1993-1996) respectively. These terminations resulted from the government's disinvestment of the share-holding of the National Press Trust in English and Urdu dailies, Pakistan Times, Imroz, and Mashriq. These shares were sold to the private media groups “on the basis of competitive bidding” that ended 36-years of “official control over a specific set of newspapers” (Ziauddin, 2000). Ironically, the private media groups bought these papers to monopolize media and trash the competitor, in this case the government, by gradually cutting and closing down the production and circulation of these papers. The government gave up the so-called state propaganda in favor of freedom of expression, which is undermined due to sensationalizing skills, hence, anti-state propaganda and political affiliations of its amateur media. Nawaz reacted to these elements by restoring the newsprint quota permit through executive decision during his first tenure and Benazir Bhutto proposed to pass a defamation law for publishing investigative stories due to the growing complaints regarding media's sense of responsibility and ethics by government and public sectors in 1994 (Ziauddin, 2000). Bhutto's proposal appeared like a threat to media's freedom that compelled the publishers, APNS and CPNE to enter into negotiations with the government.

The government and media agreed on drafting a code of ethics for all public and private media bodies and a “framework for a Press Council” for “adjudicating complaints under the code” for publishing any content which was immoral or obscene, aroused sectarian, or class hatred, or undermined the state security, integrity, or ideology, or the loyalty to the forces (Naz, 1999, p. 56; Ziauddin, 2000). Unfortunately, the Press flouted the 1994-agreement like it did with the 1980-accord with Zia's marital law regime. Nawaz's second government also failed in this dialogue with the Press despite obliging the journalists with, what Naz calls, plots, unlimited facilities, and appointments on well-paid government posts (Naz, 1999, p. 59). According to Ziauddin, Musharraf's military government continued negotiations on media ethics with the APNS, CPNE, and PFUJ “in view of the ongoing convergence of broadcasting, telecommunications and information technology” (2000), hence, tremendous expansion of the electronic media in Pakistan at the advent of the new millennium. The government introduced free media policy, eliminated news print quota permit, and issued licenses for private TV channels and cable networks that began setting up and transmitting legally around 2000-2001, and testing 24/7 news transmission by August, 2002. Since then, the number of cable TV channels has increased from four to about ninety in most places. Coincidentally, this media expansion coincided with the post-9/11 U.S War on Terror in Afghanistan that started in October 2001, giving real ethical challenges to the amateur media and the government.

Media and terrorism

The government-media clashes reflect a crisis with respect to the coverage of the spill of the post-9/11 terrorism and War beyond the borders of the Afghan conflict zone into Pakistan. The whole country, especially Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), faces the effects of this spill from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Terrorism has emerged as a permanent threat to the national security, an irritant that continuously affects Pakistan's socioeconomic, political, and societal structures. Sultan (2010) says these effects can materialize a radical transformation of the state despite applause by the American administration and the accounts of political, economic, and cultural connotations blended with theology. The Pukhtoon social code has appeared as an explanation for the rising tide of extremism and terrorism in FATA, which keeps Pakistan in the focus of international media. It also explains the reasons behind the incidences of violence against tribal journalists and their families for denying the pressure of the deviant groups for manufacturing a mass-mediated view of reality by highlighting some aspects of terrorism, portraying terrorists frequently and powerfully, hence, marginalizing others outside the mainstream.

The mainstream coverage of this rising tide of terrorism only became possible because of the rise of electronic media and private ownership in Pakistan. The increase in the number of terrorist attacks across the country parallels an increase in the number of news channels that attempt to keep pace with the attacks for the purpose of the coverage. Though merely a coincidence, these two phenomena deeply affect the way of life in the country. The situation is very different from a similar spill of terrorism into Pakistan during Zia regime in the 1980s as there was only one state-controlled TV channel in those days. Even the outgrowths of the Kargil conflict in 1999 between Pakistan and India escaped such media attention due to slight difference in the time frame that scripts one semi-private and two state controlled TV channels.

Presently, Pakistanis get access to about 60 entertainment and 30 news and current affairs channels in national, international, and local languages such as Urdu, English, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto, and Seraiki that run 24/7 for less than US$5.00. Rehmat (2010) says the number of journalists has increased from about 2,000 to an estimated 10,000 and their average age is reduced to half, about 20 years, a factor that points to the permeation of lots and lots of inexperience into Pakistani media. These components together form an amateur media that despite being on the track of freedom, makes errors in the area of ethics and responsibility by giving a lot of focus to terrorism, militancy, and extremism that are rooted in the post-9/11 US tracking back of the origins of Al-Qaeda in the Pak-Afghan region. According to Rehmat, terrorism, militancy and extremism have engulfed Pakistan … Over 20,000 civilians alone have died [in a large number of suicide attacks] across the country ... Military casualties also run into a few thousand as the Al-Qaeda-Taliban combine reacted to an apparent change in policy of Pakistan's security establishment to counter the wave of militancy that posed a serious challenge to the state (Rehmat, 2010).

The Al-Qaeda-Taliban combined increased terrorist attacks across the country in reaction to the establishment's decision to support the US through War on Terror. This fusion triggered a series of interconnected incidences that alone sufficed media's need for content for running 24/7 on 30 different news channels. More terrorism is attracting more coverage and more public attention on Pakistani media.

Pakistanis are generating, processing, and consuming real-time information for the first time in the history of the country. Rehmat says, “It's almost if the virtual information darkness of the first 55 years of the country is now being avenged by a people whose hunger for information can't be easily satiated. Pakistan's is the curious case of a country whose prime time” does not comprise of entertainment aiming at relaxing the audience by “softening the sharp edges of their weary days …, [but] of talk shows that focus on hard politics. Virtually all of the dozens of … [news and] current affairs channels are running talk shows” from 7pm to 11pm with 9pm to 10pm news in between (2010). These shows follow upon terrorist attacks. Rehmat says these channels have invariably covered over 2,000 rumors and terrorist attacks in the past decade that were presented as “breaking news” (2010) to sell blood, meeting the terrorist needs (Jamali,2009). These news are often speculative than attributive or authoritative (A. Niazi, personal communication, August 05, 2010) please cite this document in the references also, reflecting a general redundancy of training, research, responsibility, and ethics of the journalists and the media groups. Such treatment is reflected in the coverage of most incidents including Manawan and GHQ attacks, Benazir Bhutto's murder, and the Lal Masjid operation.

The operation was conducted out of necessity because the militants, who took over Lal Masjid, vowed to enforce a parallel judicial system in the capital based on their perceptions of the Islamic laws and threatened to unleash a wave of suicide bombers if the government took any action to counter it (Raza, 2007). As a news report in Dawn states “the Lal Masjid operation opened the floodgates to militant attacks” throughout Pakistan, especially Lahore, “the capital of the liberal elite” (“Three years on, Red Mosque legacy bites” 02 August 2010). These attacks triggered a process of foreign disinvestment and the exodus of foreigners that increased tremendously following the attacks that succeeded the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The media speculatively nominated the beneficiaries: Musharraf government and Zardari as Bhutto's assassins. The denials were again reported and speculatively challenged by amateur and esteemed anchors of various media groups during news coverage and current affair discussions of politics, assassins, and law and order situations. More news was generated as her assassination triggered a number of riots, killing people, wrecking public and private buildings, trains, and cars (“Bhutto,” 2007; “Bhutto's Party,” 2007). Please cite these documents in the references as well.

The car burning, property wrecking, and killing carry on as militancy, extremism, and terrorism continue limitlessly, attracting media and public attention in Pakistan. Rehmat (2010) says the amateur, but information crazy media runs tickers of professional terrorism with watermark showing the coverage of a public event as exclusive “a panicky description that is basically repetitive, uninformative and stating of the obvious”. The news story is invariably based on 4Ws: Where, Why, Who, What narrative whereby all except 'where' is speculated. Rehmat (2010) questions the ethics of where why who did what narrative because thrusting “the mike in the face of a usually dazed person who was in the vicinity of the attack and has survived” only generates caricatures of speculative information. Further, the reporter pushes the authorities, usually a police officer, to put the responsibility for terrorism on any of the six forces: Taliban, Al-Qaeda, anti-state elements, terrorists, hidden hands, and India (Rehmat, 2010). That too is ironically speculative.

Irony increases as “Pakistan: Code” points to some other aspects of “situations like explosions” (2008). Two to three hundred media people “reach emergency wards of hospitals. A doctor's priority in such a situation is the patient,” but the queries of media crowd “affect administration of the medical aid” to the injured (“Pakistan: Code”, 2008). Media groups ignore the space limitations and medical aid administration issues by disturbing the staff and the patients in the emergency wards of the hospitals just for the sake of going live before the competitor. Such attitudes reflect that media groups have lesser interest in human issues and more interest in marketing the coverage of terrorism as live and exclusive. The groups and their reporters and anchors amateurishly handle terrorism and militancy. Their sole purpose is hooking audience to increase their worth. Marketing gains primary significance, and ethics secondary. Their recording and broadcasting methodology and selectivity of chunks cause, what Rehmat (2010) calls, content's degeneration into tabloidization, caricaturization, or oversimplification of terrorism by Pakistani media.

Pakistani media groups, owners, and anchors' attitudes reflect negligence, immaturity, and childish greed pertaining to selling a commodity named blood. Qadir (2009) questions the ethics of media groups and professionals as collective policies emerge from individual acts. Everyone wants to make money by selling a commodity called news even if it is about blood, a measure of everyone's success whether the anchor or the channel. Jamali says “blood is a better story to sell” than a social good, “one of the fundamental problems with Pakistani media” (2009). The anchors exaggerate, misrepresent, intermix information with opinion, use “emotionally-charged arguments” and “fancy words, metaphors, [and] proverbs … to report heavily on juicy aspect of stories with shock value rather than reporting on more pressing issues to the general public” (Jamali, 2009), highlighting redundancies of an amateur media.

Media being amateur lacks the ability to address or frame ethics to govern its own freedom; or, it disbelieves in ethics as governing expression is not freedom to many minds. It can also be said that electronic media is the extension of an unethical press that has existed for decades in Pakistan and nurtured by governments and politicians on need basis. The unethical press needs to unlearn its poor traditions that are passed on to the electronic media. The reporters, anchors, and groups need to reconsider the differences among marketing, blackmailing, and ethics and responsibilities of news media.

Media groups should work together to tackle the permeation of inexperience through training amateurs and press professionals in electronic media about values, sense of responsibility, and ethics of broadcasting. The reporters and anchors should avoid attitudes of general ignorance of ethics of journalism and the connection between reporting and matters of national interest. The reporters providing live coverage of terrorism should neither ignore ethics of journalism nor the need for self-censorship. However, the identification of the general redundancies shall not undermine the long struggle of a Press that went through hardships to win freedom of media. Qadir says media reports increasingly reflect “freedom and courage” since 1988; now, the professionals need to struggle with themselves to objectively report a balanced case of the War on Terror (2009). Such efforts will reduce the chances of freedom being misunderstood for another phase of virtual information darkness of Pakistani media.


The free media policy points to the licensing of unregulated news channels that have become the tools for covering almost real-time, professional terrorism that affects the way of life in the country. The enemy has strategically combined the War on Terror with the expected highlights of suicide bombing and terrorist attacks throughout Pakistan. Information crazy people are seen switching to graphic news and discussions of the suicide attacks at prime time despite thousands of deaths of people and unlimited military casualties. This past decade points to a strong presence of media marketing and the inability of the government and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to control or create awareness regarding ethical violations by the amateur media groups.

Media groups should frame ethics to govern themselves before the government or the court makes new legislations to control their follies. All the bodies, associations, and committees belonging to the print and electronic media should get together to formulate a framework spelling out codes that are implemented. They should develop an understanding of the governmental issues to solve historical differences between media and government. Neither curbs nor unethical freedom can help Pakistan or its media. The controversy concerning freedom and ethical issues should be settled with mutual understanding in view of the globalization of media.
Such understanding is unavoidable because international media broadcasts what is locally censored, putting challenges to the credibility of the government and media in Pakistan.


posted @ 11:08 AM,


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