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Home Knowledge Articles Pakistan's Media Environment and its Development

Pakistan's Media Environment and its Development

For many scholars, the Pakistani media environment is a testament to the power of independent outlets to incite social and political change, even though this was not the intention of the Pakistani government when it opened the door for such media to exist.
The end of the state’s monopoly over electronic media in 2003 was primarily aimed at creating a home-grown challenge to media based in India. Some scholars believe it was the 1999 Kargil war between Pakistan and India that convinced the former Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharaff that media liberalization was needed. During the war, instead of watching the heavily censored coverage of state-owned TV and radio, Pakistanis tuned in to Indian satellite television for live coverage. The Pakistani government, understanding that it could no longer fully control the narrative behind the news and the information citizens consumed, reckoned that independent, privately-run Pakistani news outlets would be preferable to those from India.
In general, Pakistani media remain nationalistic in tone but they have also proven to be highly critical of the government and its leaders, particularly satellite and cable television channels. While the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) fully liberalized the radio sector (currently there are 106 operational FM stations), it effectively bisected the television market between terrestrial broadcasting and cable/satellite television. The state has maintained its monopoly over the terrestrial broadcast television market through the Pakistan Television network, which features a variety of stations broadcasting news and entertainment and in multiple languages. For information on popular media outlets see the Media Outlet Matrix.

Media’s role in democracy movement

Licensed cable and satellite channels have proven to be crucial players in shaping Pakistan’s cultural and political environment. Programming on these channels (77 satellite channels have been licensed) has challenged social norms and political authority. The information-saturated environment is credited with fueling the movement to restore democracy in Pakistan. The movement climaxed with the sacking of Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry and the democratic opposition’s victory in the 18 February 2008 elections.
A few of the outlets that challenged the authority of the Musharaff regime included Geo TV, ARY One World, Aaj TV, and Dawn News. These stations not only called into question the legitimacy of the Pakistani government but also provided an outlet for opposition parties to air advertisements. After a large bomb attack killed Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who returned to Karachi from exile on 18 October 2007, the government placed restrictions on public rallies and processions, the traditional staples of Pakistani political campaigns. Due to the bifurcated nature of Pakistan’s TV market split between the independent media and the state-run Pakistan Television network, democratic opposition movement would not have been able to voice its opinion to a national audience without these independent channels.
The importance of this development was emphasized on the November 3rd of 2007 when Musharraf declared a state of emergency the day before the Supreme Court was to rule whether he was eligible to run for president. The state of emergency created a media blackout; within days, the forementioned TV stations and three international channels (CNN, BBC World, and Al-Jazeera) were shut down.
Even after the lifting of the state of emergency in December 2008, the Musharraf regime continued to use PEMRA laws to tame the media. During the state of emergency, which ended in December 2007, PEMRA rewrote the “voluntary” code of conduct for electronic media without consulting Pakistan’s long established Federal Union of Journalists or the Pakistani Broadcasters’ Association. PEMRA then required all media outlets to sign to the new code of conduct in order to resume broadcasting. Eventually, all the blacked-out channels signed the code of conduct by the end of January 2008. [1]
During this period, PEMRA’s 12-member board was dominated by bureaucrats and ex-police officers. This has changed to an extent since the current government took office in March 2008. However, media activists have made the point that the media should have greater representation on the committee. [2] An example of the committee’s influence was the attempted suppression of the many political talk shows that furthered debate and discussion on current issues. A statement by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists in January 2009 describes how the government has told private TV channels to stop giving assignments to several influential journalists and show hosts, including the Aaj’s Nusrat Javed, GEO’s Hamid Mir, Dr. Shahid Masood and Asma Chaudhry, and ARYONE World’s Kashif Abbasi, and Asma Sherazai. These popular hosts did not appear on television until after the February 2008 national and provincial elections.
PEMRA, along with some members of political party leadership, continue to try to influence these talk shows. In March 2009, evening broadcasts of Geo News and Aaj TV were taken off the air in many major cities of Pakistan. The step was taken by President Ali Asif Zardari and the Pakistan People’s Party-led government; just days before, Pakistani lawyers had called for a protest to force the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry. The ban eventually led to the resignation of the Information Minister Shehri Rehman. [3] Critical media outlets have also been subject to threats and intimidation from both state and non-state actors. [4] One tool widely used by the government is to cut off critical media from governmental advertising. [5]
Since the election of a new government in March 2008, activists and some public officials have launched renewed efforts to reform PEMRA laws and role back some of the repressive practices of the Musharaff regime. Despite some instances of repression, as mentioned above, there does seem to be some consideration by government officials to review PEMRA laws. Former Information Minister Rehman, at a meeting with the heads of major broadcast media outlets, requested them to prepare a draft code of conduct. However, during the meeting it was emphasized that PEMRA officials would only consider the draft and were under no obligations to recognize it.

Regulatory environment

The constitution and laws such as the Official Secrets Act grant the government the power to limit freedom of speech on such subjects as the constitution, the armed forces, the judiciary, and religion. Harsh blasphemy laws have occasionally been used to suppress the media. Under the 2004 Defamation Act, offenders can face minimum fines of 100,000 rupees (US$1,700) and prison sentences of up to five years.
The safety of journalists continues to be a concern. Both state and non-state forces have subjected journalists to physical attacks or arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detention. In conflict-prone areas, notably the FATA and NWFP, Islamic fundamentalists and criminals have been hired by feudal landlords or local politicians to harass journalists and attack newspaper offices. The media watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres has reported several instances in which journalists have been detained by security forces without due cause after they uncovered government corruption or have been critical of security operations. [6] Journalists have also been limited in their ability to report on recent military operations within Waziristan (October and November 2009) and have been granted only limited access to refugee camps that formed as a result of these operations. [7]
There are a number of privately-run radio stations both in urban and rural areas. However, the state-run Pakistan Radio network is the only network that has a national presence. In the past there has been a general prohibition on radio stations from broadcasting their own news programs. There have been several instances in which radio stations have been shut down for attempting to regularly broadcast investigative news. [8] However, there are private stations that do provide independent journalistic content. [9] A number of these stations receive support from domestic and international media development organizations.
For examples of such projects see the Radio section of the Communication Overview.
In addition to formal and informal restrictions on electronic media, the Pakistani government has also been granted broad powers to monitor and arrest individuals for activities relating to cyber terrorism. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance (PECO) criminalizes “cyber terrorism”—broadly defined as using or accessing a computer, network, or any electronic device for the purposes of frightening, harming, or carrying out an act of violence against any segment of the population or the government—and provides harsh penalties in cases resulting in a death. The government blocked dozens of websites in 2008, particularly those involving Baloch nationalism. In February 2008, government authorities ordered internet service providers to block Youtube for allegedly providing access to blasphemous content. Even though the domestic ban only lasted several days, the site crashed for several hours worldwide. [10]
Only 8 percent of urban respondents in the 2008 Pakistan survey said they use the internet at least monthly. Nonetheless, the web has become a potent political force. In 2007, while the ban on most broadcast channels was being enforced, news websites and politically-oriented blogs became important sources of information for many in Pakistan’s metropolitan centers. These websites and social media-based groups became crucial means of relaying information as lawyers and other citizens’ groups began to organize in response to the Musharraf regime’s attacks on the judiciary. With the introduction of a new government in 2008, there has been strong debate about the reform of the PECO and its vague language. However, this discussion has taken a back seat to larger debates regarding constitutional reform and the distribution of power between the parliament and the presidency.
Brief Note on Media Development

Domestic Initiatives

There has been a substantial amount of foreign and domestic investment in the last 10 years to strengthen independent media in Pakistan. There are a small number of domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Pakistan who conduct media development trainings and projects. Most projects involve the training of professional journalists on either general journalistic skills or on particular issue-based news reporting. These projects are often held as either open workshops or targeted trainings for specific outlets.
The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) is a leading domestic NGO working to supplement the training of journalists. As an independent media research, documentation and training centre the activities of the PPF includes conducting seminars and workshops on issues in mass communication, the training for journalists, and the development of training materials.
Recent workshops offered by the PPF (late 2009) included trainings on covering environmental issues, democracy and governance (analyzing performance of local government) and an article writing workshop held at Federal Urdu University. The PPF has received assistance from a large number of international organizations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization which co-sponsored with the PPF the series of workshops educating journalists on environmental issues mentioned above. Other national and international organizations the PPF has collaborated with include the Commonwealth Press Union (CPU), Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), The Thompson Foundation, The British Council, and The Knight International Foundation. For short profiles of other domestic media development NGOs see the Radio section of the Country Overview.

International Efforts

Since the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 2001, media development in both Afghanistan and Pakistan (notably the border regions between them) has been a focus of activity by Western states and multilateral institutions, particularly the U.S. and the U.K.
The U.S. and U.K. has described their media development efforts as having two purposes. The first is the empowerment of independent media, which previously had not existed. These projects when working with particular broadcast media outlets are almost exclusive with radio stations. For most of Pakistan’s broadcast history there has been a general prohibition on radio stations from broadcasting news. [11] This has changed in recent years as some community-based stations, specifically those that have received media development assistance, have begun to broadcast their own news programming. News production has focused primarily on local stories and issues, which are less likely to attract the ire of PEMRA.
The second declared purpose for these foreign funded projects is to empower local media voices to counter broadcasts by religious extremists, notably the Taliban. Many of these religious broadcasts from Pakistan’s border provinces, where the U.S. and other N.A.T.O. (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) countries are engaged in military operations along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For example, the U.K.’s Department for International Development has funded “Channels of Change – Empowering the media to amplify voices for change”.
Through staff training, the project aims at increasing the ability of local FM radio stations in the NWFP to create programming that is citizen-based. According to the U.K. embassy in Islamabad, the project has trained up three radio stations in the Charsadda and D.I. Khan municipalities, with a fourth under way. [12]
The U.S. State Department released in February 2010 its “Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy” which lays out how the U.S. hopes to bolster the Pakistani government and independent media’s ability to better communicate with citizens and therefore counter the propaganda of religious extremists. The policy document also outlines a five year, $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan’s energy, water, agricultural and education sectors. [13]
In the fall of 2009, the administration of President Barack Obama established a special unit within the State Department dedicated to countering militant propaganda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The unit would spend up to $150 million a year on training local FM radio stations and help produce audio and video programming. [14]
The U.S. is also supporting the construction of media infrastructure (radio, television and mobile service towers) in order to expand media access to underserved areas that are currently dominated by “extremist” media. In many areas within the FATA and NWFP, so-called Mullah-radio stations are often the only broadcast media outlets available to residents. For example, there are only four legal FM radio stations, compared with more than 150 illegal low-watt stations run by militants, according to officials involved in countering militant propaganda. [15]
The US is also looking to support the deployment of services such as mobile banking, telemedicine and mobile micro-finance. An interesting initiative the US helped to launch in November of 2009 was Humari Awaz, Our Voice, a mobile phone-based social networking platform. [16] The network allows customers to share news and information via SMS without the need for expensive data services. Since the launch of Humari Awaz, two other locally created mobile-based networking platforms have emerged, Pringit and Chopaal.
All of these communication-based projects carry with them the hope that when new lines of communication are open, whether they be traditional broadcast media or new mobile and web-based media, Pakistanis themselves will challenge the narrative of the extremists and offer their own vision for Pakistan.

[1] “Pakistan demands broadcasters sign conduct code”. Committee to Protect Journalists. New York, NY 12 November 2007. and “Pakistan’s private Geo TV back on the air”. Media Network. Radio Netherlands World Wide. 21 January 2008.
[2] “Between radicalization and democratization in an unfolding conflict: Media in Pakistan”. International Media Support. July 2009.
[3] “Censorship of Geo News and Aaj TV condemned”. Reporters Sans Frontiers. 17 March 2009. Accessed March 2010.
[4] Farooq, Umer. “The Media Revolution in Pakistan”. Asharaq al-Awsat. 4 April 2010. Accessed April 2010.
[5] International Media Support, July 2009. and “Map of Freedom: Pakistan”. Freedom House. Washington, DC. 2009. Accessed April 2010.
[6] “Dangers for journalists in Pakistan: exclusive report from Peshawar”. Reporters Sans Frontiers. 8 December 2009. Accessed March 2010. and “Reporter probably held by army after being kidnapped by Taliban”. Reporters Sans Frontieres. 13 January 2010. Accessed April 2010.
[7] “Call for better media access to Tribal Areas”. Reporters Sans Frontieres. 10 November 2009. Accessed April 2010.,34965.html.
[8] Naz, Ahsan Akhtar. “FM Radio Revolution in Pakistan”. Global Media Journal. Allama Iqbal Open University: Islamabad, Pakistan. Volume 1, Issue 1 (Spring 2008)
[9] International Media Support, July 2009.
[10] Freedom House 2009.
[11] Ibid.
[12] “Empowering the media to amplify voices for change in NWFP”. British High Commission Islamabad. Islamabad, Pakistan Accessed March 2010.
[13] DeYoung, Karen. “Pakistan says it is ‘satisfied’ with U.S. pledges on aid delivery”. Washington Post
[14] Shanker, Thom. “U.S. Plans a Mission Against Taliban’s Propaganda”. New York Times. 15 August 2009. And Azami, Dawood. “Pakistan’s Taliban radio insurgency”. BBC World News Service. 22 June 2009.
[15] Ibid.
[16] “Afghanistan and Pakistan Stabilization Strategy”. Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. Department of State. Updated February 2010.

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