A new information order

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By Arif Nizami

Like the rest of the country facing an existential threat owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the media is no exception. Even before the deadly disease set in, most newspapers and television news channels were fighting a battle for their survival.

The financial downturn for the print and electronic media is stating but the obvious. Even a bigger challenge however are the multifarious issues facing the media owing to the perennially shrinking space for expressing dissenting opinions.

The financial crisis is endemic the world over. Many newspapers have folded up all over the world, being unable to make ends meet. This is largely owing to a down-slide in advertising revenues and declining circulations. Barring the London Economist, news magazines are almost extinct.

Obviously, the new media in the form of social and digital has created its own space sharply cutting into revenues of the print and electronic media. The younger generation neither has the time nor the inclination to buy newspapers or even watch electronic news channels. Getting the news and instant analysis on multimedia- as you go- is a more attractive proposition.

Of course, the traditional media has to adapt itself to the new realities if they want to stay in the business. It is survival of the fittest.

Newspaper tycoons over the world are struggling to adjust to the new normal. Some of them have deep pockets. Others who were smart enough have bought in fat cat investors.

The Washington Post for example was sold by its owners and founders, the Graham family, to Jeff Bozos, owner of one of the most cash rich companies in the world- Amazon. Similarly, the New York Times brought in a Mexican business magnate and investor, Carlos Slim. The Sulzberger family however retains its ownership majority.

ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Senator Shibli Faraz addresses a press conference in Islamabad on Friday

Thankfully in the West, freedom of press is a given. The media jealously guards its freedom without fear or favour. For example, US president Donald Trump might lambast the media and call CNN names like ‘fake media’ but he dare not tinker with their right to be critical by punishing them.

Closer to home the situation is diametrically different. The media is neither free nor financially independent. It is largely dependent on the state in order to survive. It is a fact that the private sector has been unable to grow at a fast-enough pace, which is why the media is still largely dependent on government released advertisements.

Different governments have used this tool in their hands with varying degrees. The Sharif government showered the supportive media with advertisements at the expense of the independent media.

Some media houses had a field day while the less fortunate ones struggled to survive. The message was clear: sing for your supper.

The situation in ‘Naya Pakistan’ under Prime Minister Imran Khan is somewhat different. Khan, who is a product of 24/7 coverage of free media, loathes it.

According to his world view, those journalists or media houses that are critical of his policies were bribed by getting undue favours from the Sharifs and Zardari when they were in power. The PTI stalwarts name and shame those who have the gumption to criticise Khan or his policies on social media as “lifafa khors” (those who receive cash envelopes).

A further complicating factor is the role of the ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) in the past. The military not only is a big advertiser itself in its own right (thanks to its stakes in different defence Housing societies and other businesses), the federal information ministry was made to follow its diktats as well.

A further complicating factor is stoppage or disruption of certain newspapers and news channels distribution that are not in the good books of the government. The HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) in its annual report has lamented that the last year saw a systematic curb on political dissent and toehold on freedom of the press.

The HRCP report further states that, “the erosion of social media spaces and a deliberate financial squeeze on the media has led Pakistan’s position slipping further on the World Press Freedom Index.”

The government has reshuffled its media team for the third time in less than two years. Special assistant Firdous Ashiq Awan, who was an unmitigated disaster even as spokesperson from the word go, has been replaced by Lt Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa. Whereas the scion of the well-known left leaning poet the late Ahmed Faraz, Senator Shibli Faraz, is the new minster for information.

Both gentlemen are non-controversial and widely respected in their respective fields. Lt Gen (retd)Bajwa can be credited for reorganizing the ISPR into the behemoth that it presently is. Despite not being a media professional, he was quite savvy as director general. He enjoyed excellent rapport with the media across a wide spectrum.

Carrying no personal baggage and despite the goodwill they bring in with their appointment, both have to rely upon their boss’s support. Does the fresh induction also symbolise that PM Khan has turned a new leaf? We will soon know.

Will Faraz concentrate on the affairs of the information ministry that have been neglected for too long? Or like his predecessor, be more of a spokesperson, leaving the nitty gritty of the ministry to the General? Only time will tell.

Bajwa has his task cut out for him. He has vowed to “bring the information ministry in the 21st century”. This is an uphill task, but he knows how to go about it.

However, the thorniest task for the new information duo is to repair the badly mauled government – media relations. It is doable, provided there is a will and the traditional tiger is willing to change its stripes and turn a new leaf.

The change has to come from the top. Cherry picking favourite journalists who are more than willing to become yes-men at the expense of independent media will not do. It is time that publisher Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman is released from NAB custody. His continuing incarceration smacks of a vendetta against him.

So far as payment of dues owed to the media by the government, a committee comprising of stakeholders, under the chairmanship of education minister Shafqat Mehmood, has already resolved the matter. Hopefully payments will be made before Eid as promised. Otherwise many newspapers will go under owing to the financial crunch exacerbated by the COVID19 pandemic.

The federal as well as provincial governments must expand their drastically reduced advertising budgets. At a time of a deep financial crunch it might be difficult. The media in such difficult times should be considered an essential service.

But even more importantly the government should outgrow the propensity of using advertisements to punish or reward the media. Perhaps it is easier said than done. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

(The writer is veteran journalist and Editor, Pakistan Today. He can be contacted at arifn51@hotmail.com. Article courtesy Pakistan Today)