The universal growth of electronic media has unquestionably reached the world’s sixth largest nation, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, panelists at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., said at a February 27 discussion titled “Instability in Pakistan: Implications for the Future of Independent Media.”
And the possibility that the new technologies will contribute to a transformation in the entire media landscape is exciting, panelists agreed; especially in a country where media “has never been free,” said Sami Abraham, senior correspondent and producer of GEO-TV in Washington, D.C.
For so long, print newspapers were the sole media channel in Pakistan, Abraham said. And because of the nation’s high number of illiterates and rural residents, the news would just not reach the masses.
But now, nearly “everyone can watch or listen,” he said. And it’s “really mobilizing” people.
In recent years, new media has played a big role in organizing opposition to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf’s regime, even in the face of heavy handed crackdowns on the media, Abraham said.
Increasingly, independent media outlets are broadcasting provocative information online, as are citizen journalists, through the use of blogs and other new media tools.
Much like the Internet, cell phones and “texting” are too becoming increasingly important tools “to inform and disburse,” added Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, and former foreign correspondent at The Washington Post.
According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the Pakistani government agency responsible for regulating the nation’s telecommunications, the total number of mobile subscribers in Pakistan is now around 76 million. Sending text messages is cheap in Pakistan – about 1 cent each.
Panelist Manjuz Ejaz, a writer, an economist, and a journalist for Pakistan’s Lahore Daily Times, projected that, increasingly, “the state will not be able to quiet, contain, or curb the media.” There is reason to be “optimistic” about the media’s future in Pakistan, he said.
Indeed, the Pakistani government is “befuddled” about what to do about the wide-reaching – and growing – capabilities of new media, Coll said. There is just “no way to shut down the discourse entirely anymore,” he said.
Contrary to Coll’s assertion, last weekend the Pakistani government succeeded in blocking the video-sharing Web site YouTube because of a "blasphemous" video clip that portrayed Islam in a negative light. The action caused a virtual YouTube “blackout” for two hours on Sunday, the BBC reported. The ban on the Web site was lifted Tuesday.
Thus, despite the insurgence of new and citizen media, the government continues to successfully launch attacks on the press, preventing discussion of the most important issues currently facing Pakistan.
Out of what Coll calls the “three constitutional functions of the press” – discourse, independent witnessing, and investigation – Pakistan’s media is meeting all but the third, he said.
“No one touches on the ‘real’ issues,” Abraham agreed, such as the judiciary, the army, the war on terror, and accounting for military expenses.
Moreover, journalists continue to face a powerful media monopoly – of what the panelists continually referred to as “four or five families” – which makes setting up smaller media outlets difficult.
While it is yet unclear as to how radically electronic media will alter the state of the media in Pakistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that the “primitive” state “must modernize” if it hopes to keep up with the media, Ejaz concluded.
The state must realize Pakistani society is “now run by machines,” he said.