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A brash, fearless media

Hectoring anchors scrambling for ratings, reporters berating politicians, talk-show hosts talking back at the system, sensationally packaged exposés - the news on a plethora of Pakistani channels is mostly chaotic and irreverential.

world Updated: Apr 27, 2012 00:51 IST
Zia Haq

Hectoring anchors scrambling for ratings, reporters berating politicians, talk-show hosts talking back at the system, sensationally packaged exposés - the news on a plethora of Pakistani channels is mostly chaotic and irreverential.

With over 75 news channels and 1,600 newspapers, Pakistan probably has the freest media in the Muslim world. There are no holy cows, only whipping boys. Politicians are primetime targets, and currently, it's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's son on account of his alleged role in a drug scandal.

The country set up the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) in 2002 to liberalise the television sector, which then experienced a boom. So packed is the broadcast space now that PERMA has had to stop issuing satellite TV licences due to lack of capacity.

"The free media have impacted important policy outcomes and molded public opinion substantially," says Syed Fahd Hussian, executive director and talk-show host at ARY News. He says the media, which operate round the clock, has been responsible for shaping three major recent developments - anti-Americanism, the rise of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and exposure of corruption.

Things Pakistanis would once discuss in drawing rooms are now being discussed in studios, says senator Mushahid Hussain.

The newly-found media freedom, however, has also meant that objectivity is often sidestepped. Even war-mongering is fit to air. Last year, CITY 42 played a war song in the event of a US attack. It went like this: "Dushmano tumne uss kaum ko lalkara hai, Ka'aba he jinke jadeeno mein, Quran hai roshan jin ke sino me, Allah-ke jin ko sahara hai…" (Foes, you have challenged a nation of those who draw faith from Mecca's Ka'aba, whose hearts glow in the Quran's light and Allah's protection who enjoy…)

Long before US special forces took down Osama bin Laden, a gory picture of the deceased al-Qaeda leader was broadcast across many television channels. It turned out to be fake, and was withdrawn.

Pakistan still remains one of the most hostile places for journalists, and many have paid with their lives for snooping in the wrong places. Recently, Saleem Shehzad - a correspondent with Asia Times - was found murdered after he wrote about al-Qaeda's infiltration into the Pakistan navy.

"The media are still trying to find their feet," says Ashraf Javed, a correspondent with The Nation in Lahore. "Aggressive journalists are better than journalists with hands tied behind their back."