Until the dawn of the 21st century, the Pakistani media landscape comprised almost entirely of print media publications. The only exceptions were two state-owned electronic media entities – a national television broadcaster (Pakistan Television) and a public radio (Radio Pakistan).
The government’s monopoly over radio and television ended in 2002 when the electronic media liberalisation led to scores of private electronic media platforms to begin operations. Since then TV news channels and, to a lesser extent, radio appear to have become key sources of news and information for a considerable proportion of the population in Pakistan.
A number of print media organisations operating prior to 2002 expanded to include TV and radio platforms, but many new entrants also benefited from the ending of the state monopoly on the airwaves.
Many of Pakistan’s established newspapers were founded by journalists with a political or nationalist agenda. However, after the liberalisation of broadcasting in 2002, there has been common criticism towards commercial interests gaining prominence in the media and professional journalism giving way to sensationalism. A large proportion of those working in the news media do not generally get formal training or education to work as journalists. Media schools curricula also do not sufficiently focus on the requisite training needs. Lack of basic training for media practitioners, including those in the field, has been linked not only to biased, unethical or unprofessional journalism but also to safety issues and vulnerabilities for journalists.
Pakistan’s is a multi-linguistic media landscape with clear urban-rural disparities. Urdu-language publications have greater reach than those in any other language. The English print media readership is far smaller in comparison but its publications have considerable leverage among opinion makers. The English print media is urban-centric and generally tends to be more progressive. There are currently no Pakistani English-language TV channels or radio stations. Regional-language media boast varying level of influence confined largely to their specific regions.
The footprint of the mass circulation press has been small in Pakistan, and it seems to be shrinking further amid the growth of the electronic media.
Political reporting forms the bulk of the coverage of many print and TV news outlets. This has been most pronounced around elections and important judicial decisions with implications for political entities. Live and prolonged TV coverage of rallies benefits political parties.
Pakistan has long had some tradition of political parallelism. Some political parties have published their own newspapers; the better known examples include daily Jisarat and daily Masawat, owned by Jamaat-e-Islami and Pakistan People’s Party, respectively.
Even in absence of direct ownership of or connections to political entities, an inclination in the news media content to support one political party or another can sometimes be discerned, be it for ideological reasons, economic interests or other considerations.
At times, some TV talk show hosts have been well-known leaders of political parties and have used their programmes to defend and promote the policies of their parties and censure those of other parties.
Proliferation of Internet connectivity has facilitated users’ access to conventional media and social media. However, growing Internet penetration has not necessarily led to Internet freedom. In 2016, Washington DC-based research firm Freedom House ranked Pakistan among the worst 10 countries for Internet freedom. Fundamental freedoms for citizens and the media in Pakistan have generally been far from assured. In the country’s uneven history in terms of media freedoms, General Zia’s martial law (1978-1988) is generally considered to be the period of the most stringent curbs and excesses against the media and media practitioners at the hands of the state.
The state’s role as an owner of media platforms is today limited to the Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan channels, but the government has a considerable role as a regulator and its advertisements are an important source of revenue for many news outlets.
The print and electronic media require official permission or licences in order to start operating. State regulators can fine and otherwise penalise media organisations for printing or airing ‘objectionable’ content. The regulator can also suspend or block access to social media websites.
Government advertisements represent an important revenue source for many media outlets. News media organisations have often decried the use of government advertisement as a leverage and the withdrawal of ads as a tool to punish unfavourable coverage.
Pakistan’s media landscape will be incomplete without a mention of the work-related violence and threats of violence for the media practitioners. In fact, international media safety watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has counted Pakistan among the top 10 most dangerous countries for journalists in the world in all but five years since 2000.
Between 2000 and 2016, as many as 105 journalists were killed in Pakistan on account of their work. This represented one of the highest fatality rates for journalists in any country for this period. Out of these cases, the killers have been identified and successfully prosecuted in only two cases. As things stand, Pakistan is among the countries considered least likely to punish media murders. In 12 of the last 15 years, CPJ ranked Pakistan among 10 countries with the highest levels of impunity for perpetrators of crimes against journalists.
It has been argued that attacks on media organisation offices and violence against and intimidation of journalists and the attending impunity have contributed to an environment of self-censorship. The news media appears to have grown increasingly cautious of covering news of sensitive issues such as blasphemy and violation of rights of religious minorities.