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Observations by the Media Commission with regard to TOR No.F

1. Observations in this section of the Report are being noted only on those aspects of the media that are of direct relevance to TOR No.F i.e. “to enquire into allegations of media-related corruption and suggest steps to ensure impartial and independent media in the upcoming elections”.

2. Observations by the Commission on aspects of media covered by the other eight TORs will be presented in the second part of the Report which is expected to be submitted on or before 31st May, 2013.

3. As noted in the Introduction to this Report and as detailed in the relevant Annexure, the Commission met with about 165 individuals associated with 80 different organizations associated directly or indirectly with the media sector, official and non-official, Federal and Provincial, between 7th February, 2013 and 186 March, 2013 in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta.

4. The Commission was thus able to benefit from the views and information provided by all these esteemed persons. Such inputs came from a Federal perspective as well as from the perspective of each of the four Provinces of the Federation. Virtually, every single segment of the media sector is represented in the range of persons heard and noted. The Commission received widely contrasting opinions and analyses. Some of these were often entirely contradictory of other claims about facts and other opinions.

5. Unsurprisingly, the Federal Government and each Province have their own distinct internal operative conditions and perceptions. The Commission separately met the Federal Minister and the Federal Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Secretaries of the Information Departments of the four Provincial Governments and other relevant persons. There were stark diversities of perceptions. For instance: in one Province, the Secretary stated with confidence: “There is not a single dummy newspaper published in this Province”. Whereas only about one hour later, in a meeting with media specialists of the same Province it was confidently asserted: “The large majority of the newspapers on the approved media list of the Department of Information consist of totally dummy newspapers.”

In one Province, there is a substantial sum spent on advertising the programmes of the Provincial Government in electronic media. In another Province, not a single rupee has been allotted for this same purpose.

In one Province, importance is given to the relevance of skills and prior experience possessed by an officer in the subject of media and communication before appointing him or her to the Information Department. In another, this aspect is given low or no priority.

6. In response to the questions as to what weightage interviewees would give to the influence of media on the voting and results of the Elections 2013, there was once again a sharp contrast. For example, Lt. General (R) Abdul Qadir Baloch, MNA from NA-271 comprising three large but sparsely populated districts of Panjgur, Kharan and Washab in southern Balochistan was of the firm opinion that the media’s impact would be “zero”. An additional reason given by him and others was that for several weeks past, organizations with extremist views have prohibited Cable TV Operators in southern Balochistan from distributing the signals of virtually all the PEMRA-licensed TV channels on political grounds. They said that only the single Balochi language TV channel is permitted to be viewed. As well as the fact that in many parts of this area of Balochistan, neither the national anthem nor the flag of Pakistan are permitted to be sung, heard or seen in public.

Other opinions from elsewhere, on the average, were of the view that media would influence the results with a weightage of between 10 to 20 per cent with only one individual claiming the effect would be about 50 percent.

It was said that the impact of media would be higher in urban areas compared to rural areas.

It was further said that, in overall terms, factors such as affinity with clan, tribe, sect, religion, language, ethnicity, loyalty to a particular individual candidate or membership/association with a political party would be the other sources of influence in shaping the Election results.

Compared to earlier Elections, the prevailing conditions in the country would enhance the role of the media in facilitating and campaigning by candidates wanting to communicate with potential voters.

7. With the announcement on 20th March, 2013 that the date of Elections will be 1 May, 2013, the potential role of media is likely to increase in terms of weightage because of the relatively short period available for campaigning after the process of scrutiny of nomination papers of candidates, appeals, etc. is completed.

8. This short time-frame places an onerous responsibility on the news media and on all related organizations and institutions to ensure that Codes, Guidelines, legally-mandated standards and any or all of the Recommendations of this Commission accepted by the Hon’ble Court and/or the Election Commission of Pakistan are faithfully fulfilled.

9. Despite low literacy, high poverty and other negative factors, media in Pakistan in general and news media in particular over the past 65 years since the birth of this nation-State have rendered a pivotal role in the country’s development and progress.

10. The independent Press has suffered oppressive laws and discriminatory policies and yet has sustained bold and courageous journalism to inform and educate the people on issues of public interest.

11. ‘While electronic media such as Radio and TV were State-owned and Government-controlled monopolies for over 50 years, they too rendered a valuable role in educating the people and raising awareness on aspects of social, cultural and economic development. These media also produced several outstanding drama, music and entertainment programmes which were highly popular in Pakistan and overseas. They trained a large number of professionals in electronic media. However, due to their Government control, entities such as PTV, PBC and APP have almost always, except for brief phases at different times been mouth pieces of the Government-of-the-day and have relatively low credibility in their news and current affairs programmes.

12. With the advent of privately-owned Radio and TV channels onwards of 2000-2002, the over-all media landscape of Pakistan has been transformed. Citizens have a wide range of choice in sources for news, entertainment, education, religious subjects, sports etc. both from Pakistani sources and overseas sources.

13. The privately-owned Press of Pakistan has enhanced and extended its vigorous use of freedom of expression in the past 12 years.

14. Together, private print and electronic media have extended pluralism and freedom of choice, have created thousands of new employment opportunities, and have provided on-the-job training and skills’ development to thousands of Pakistanis.

15. Media have also fostered a new environment of open, candid debate, of a new level of awareness, colorful entertainment and of enjoyment.

16. Yet TV news channels in particular, tend to focus excessively on bad news and use a hyped-up approach that is loud and hysterical, and often imbalanced. The aggressive intrusion of commercial advertising into programme content marked by frequent, prolonged and disruptive mid-breaks distracts attention and prevents continuity and coherence in discourse.

The ad nauseum repetition of “Breaking News”, particularly where such spoken and written headlines deal with incidents of violence and bloodshed are vicarious and offensive with a traumatizing impact on children and young people. Adults as well find such an approach to the presentation of news to be disregardful and insensitive to viewers and listeners.

17. As a consequence of the eruption of terrorism post-9/11, while the country itself is a prime victim of the fall-out from unilateral intervention by foreign countries in the region, and the victims of weak, internal governance, news media have been afflicted with unprecedented human losses and injuries.

18. Pakistan is regrettably rated as the second, or sometimes even the first, most dangerous country in the world for working journalists.

19. Viewed from a global, especially a Western perspective, despite the proliferation of the electronic media in the past 12 years and despite the continued robustness of print media, Pakistan ranks relatively low on an international index of media such as the Freedom House, USA. This anomaly exists because of deficiencies in the regulatory dimension of electronic media as well as in the roles of State and Government in operating electronic media and in controlling the allocation of advertising, as also due to the absence of enlightened legislation to facilitate easy access to information by citizens.

20. The standards of impartiality and independence are highly desirable benchmarks towards which all possible efforts should be devoted by media themselves and by institutions/organizations tasked with the responsibility to monitor these ideal standards.

21. At the same time, the fundamental right of citizens and of media to exercise freedom of expression inevitably involves the exercise of judgment and the statement of opinions that convey subjective, individual perspectives or convey institutional affinities.

22. There is one specific part of the content of the news media, be they print media or electronic media which should, in theory if not in practice as well, be completely fact-based, and without any subjective dimension.

23. These are news bulletins on TV channels and news reports in print media.

24. In recent years in Pakistan, particularly with the advent of private electronic media, a new form of content has been introduced into news bulletins as also in news media in general. This new content is covered by the term:”infotainment”. This term describes a form of content which combines fact-based material with elements such as music, satirical or humorous or critical words and phrases that are presented along with the news item itself.

25. Infotainment is predominantly subjective, not objective; partial, not impartial. While the media projecting such content may be “independent”, the sheer act of combining pure, fact-based news content with entirely subjective elements distracts from focus on the facts and also erodes the ideal of “independence”. Even when, during an election phase, all the principal candidates or political parties are satirically or humorously covered through items of infotainment, the simple injection of subjectivity into the content of news bulletins deprives the concerned media of the credibility of being truly “independent”.

26. During the Elections phase in particular, the sanctity of the fact-based content of news bulletins needs to be strictly respected and enforced. Any use of infotainment elements during news bulletins would always be potentially, if not actually, at the expense of the candidates or the political parties being portrayed in those infotainment-based news bulletins.

This vital distinction between pure news and subjective opinions is a globally recognized and practiced principle. For example, Guideline No.8.2 in the document titled:
“Reporting Elections: Broadcast Guidelines” issued by four reputed international forums such as UNESCO, Reuter Foundation, Index for Free Expression and Article 19 states, in part: “All broadcasters should endeavor to clearly identify editorial opinion and to avoid airing it during news programmes”.

It is deeply regrettable that, in the past several years, this line of demarcation is violated every day by broadcast media in Pakistan.

Even in print media, adjectives conveying opinions are sometimes made part of headlines and the text of news reports. While it is sometimes necessary to use some adjectives e.g. “negligence” while reporting tragedy caused by incompetence, the principle of separation between pews and comment should be respected.

27. The purity of fact-based news bulletins on TV channels and radio channels should be enforced by the relevant oversight authorities i.e. through self-regulation, collective representative bodies, civil society forums, State institutions such as the Election Commission of Pakistan, etc. News media should then be freely able to exercise freedom of expression in satirical programmes, opinion shows or features or editorials, etc. but even in such programmes, the principle of even-handedness should be ensured.

28. While reiterating the standards of impartiality and independence as the ideal benchmarks for news media during Elections 2013, it is equally necessary to ensure that in the content of news bulletins on electronic media and in news reports in print media, the values of fairness and balance be rigorously pursued and enforced.

29. With reference to the section in this Report titled “Categories of normal content in news media”: there are thirteen different types of normal content of TV channels; thirteen different types of content of Radio channels, nine different types of content in printed newspapers and magazines, eleven different types of content in web-based/cell phone media.

30. The values of fairness and balance must apply to all these types of content in all three categories with exceptions only in respect of the need to make allowances for the nature of some items e.g. a cartoon normally represents humour and/or makes fun of a subject or figure. By itself, a cartoon cannot be “fair” and “balanced”, except to abide by norms of taste and decency. But if a newspaper prints a notably large number of cartoons over a certain period of time, all of which make fun of only say, one political party or one candidate, then obviously even an item of content like cartoons can be used in an unfair and imbalanced manner.

31. Thus, applying reasonable standards of judgment as to what is fair and balanced, all the different types of content in TV, Radio and print media should actually be fair and balanced, so as to contribute towards ideal standards of “impartial and independent media”.

Since 2000-2002 when the proliferation of private electronic news media commenced in Pakistan and now in 2013 when there are over two dozen TV news channels alone, viewers and listeners have the unprecedented freedom to choose which channel they wish to listen to or view. Therefore, if they find that a particular channel is projecting content with which they disagree, they have the opportunity to switch to other channels.

32. The interests of the proprietors of private media are they print or electronic, and whether such interests are only related to the media enterprises or to their commercial interests in non-media sectors, impinge upon the capacity of the media to be truly “independent”. Because the question arises as to whether privately-owned media which operate on a commercial basis can ever be truly “independent” of commercial and private business considerations.

33. In the case of the State-owned media which are Government-controlled: During the Election phase, in which a Caretaker Government holds office and thereby determines the policies and practices of these State-owned media: It becomes vitally necessary to ensure that any residual, lingering effects of the same, State-owned media being controlled by the preceding Government for five years does not have a subtle or distinct “carry-over” effect during the Elections phase in which the State-owned media, even more than privately-owned media, should be impartial and independent, fair and balanced.

34. Some of the negative aspects of the media that could have an adverse influence on the nature of coverage by media in Elections 2013 were said to be as follows:

(a) Lack of adequate training in the fundamentals of Journalism of those who presently occupy prominent positions on screen in electronic media e.g. as correspondents, TV anchors etc.

(b) Low salaries paid to some senior-level, mid-level and junior staff in certain media organizations in comparison to very high sums paid to TV anchors making staff at certain levels vulnerable to corruptive influence.

(c) In smaller towns and in rural areas, the claim is that local reporters/ “stringers” are paid no salary whatsoever, or only a token fee. Such persons are allegedly encouraged by media houses to misuse their “media cards” in order to generate income thus resulting in distorted and inaccurate content being fed to channels in large cities.

(d) Lop-sided and imbalanced coverage given to large cities and large Provinces at the expense of the two smaller but equally important Provinces such as Khyber-Pakhtukhwa and Balochistan.