While going about my business as a so-called news reporter in Pakistan, I often get confronted by people on the street who want to say something in front of the camera and tell the world about their problems.
Most of the time, I have to kindly explain that it’s not possible for us to take the opinion of everyone on the street because we have a limited amount of time. They respond angrily by complaining about how the media only shows the opinions of rich and powerful people, while the views of common people are ignored. They accuse us of being “bika hua” (“sell outs”), for rather than upholding justice and standing up for what is right, we only propagate issues that are of concern to the ruling elites. At this point I usually accept my guilt and concede to everything they have said.
It is true. More or less all news organizations in Pakistan are sell-outs and represent the interests of the ruling elite. But I wonder why it takes so long for people to realize that the media is anything but that. There appears to be an expectation that media organizations should be free and independent bodies that uphold justice and protect democracy.
Yes, that is what they should be. But it should not surprise anyone if a group of organizations, owned by a small group of extremely wealthy people, who want to make more money for themselves, and who are close friends and business partners with many other rich and powerful people do not care for the general public.
Reality TV on crack
So for those who are still confused, let me explain how it works:
Save for PTV, and APP, all media organisations in Pakistan are privately owned. Private. That means not public. That means ordinary citizens have no say in how the company is run, or which news stories it covers.
In Pakistan, any given media house is usually owned by an individual or by a “family”. That means the salaries of all the employees come out of the pocket of just a few individuals, and the organisations are run according to their whims. Sometimes it is run by someone who has no qualification other than being the offspring of the owner. The only employees then who would be willing to challenge the whims of the owners are those willing to risk their salaries.
The main goal of the owners is to make as much money as they possibly can. Their money comes from advertising. For the TV channels, they get more advertising if they have better ratings. The strategy to get higher ratings, it seems, is to make the news as entertaining as possible. So the criteria for “newsworthiness” is “entertainability”. So thats why we have live coverage of violence and betrayal, controversy, and conspiracies, with footage of blood and police and charged protesters and heated arguments, further hyped by anchors who have been drinking too much Milo and apocalyptic graphics. News television in Pakistan is essentially reality TV on crack.
The hand that feeds
It’s important to remember that it is the advertisers and not the viewers who are the customers of the media organisations. So anything that might upset the advertisers is unlikely to get much coverage in the media, no matter how entertaining or relevant it may be.
Take for example labour struggles in companies that have major brands. You never hear about those struggles because the story is killed by the editors before they ever see the light of day. The workers of Dalda ghee, Blue Band margarine, Coca Cola and Lipton Tea in Pakistan have all been involved in protracted labour disputes with their employers in the recent past. They have gone on strike, held protests and demonstrations, and in some cases the employers and/or the state have used violence against them.
These are issues that genuinely affect the general public, yet these stories are never told by the mainstream media. Try googling any of the issues and you won’t find any stories about them published by any of the private Pakistani media outlets. Of course the reason is that the owners of these brands pay huge sums of money to the owners of the TV channels for advertising. Airing a story about labour rights abuses at one of these companies could put that income at risk.
Needless to say, the same applies to labour issues that take place within the workplace of the media organisations. For example, unless you work in the press, you probably have never heard of the Wage Board for Journalists. This is basically a committee formed by the government (usually led by a Supreme Court judge) that is supposed to meet every five years to determine the minimum wage for journalists in the country, that is legally binding. For years, the owners of the newspapers have blatantly and shamelessly flouted the decisions of the board. Yet all the while, they claim to be the defenders of the judiciary.
The media company owners are also among the pioneers of the practice of hiring employees as “temporary workers” in Pakistan. And they have also worked quite hard to limit the power of the workers unions within their companies. So while the media organisations champion themselves as the defenders of democracy, they are in fact very much anti-democratic, as they refuse to allow any form of democracy within their own workplaces.
I could go on and talk about how most of the owners have other commercial interests of their own (ranging from music labels, to toothpaste, to gold) or about their political interests that they have to simultaneously take care of. Or about self-censorship of news relating to the army. Or about the utter lack of fact-checking.
But it should be clear by now that the interests of the general public are not something that the media in Pakistan cares for. So please lower your expectations.