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From effective State monopoly over media to pluralism

When Pakistan came into existence in 1947, radio was the only state-owned medium for the dissemination of news. Over the next two decades, however, the state came to own and run not only newspapers and magazines but also the country’s first television channel. Privately-owned newspapers and magazines, simultaneously, multiplied during this period from a few dozen to a few hundred thanks to a rise in literacy rate that increased readership. In parallel growing urbanization made it easier to distribute newspapers to a large population concentrated in a relatively small area. Both trends, the higher literacy rate and the concentration of population in cities also contributed to a widespread political awareness at a time when Pakistan was in the grip of its first military government (1958-69) headed by General Ayub Khan. To cater to a rapidly politicizing populace, some political parties, both of the Left and the Right, started publishing their own newspapers and magazines in the second half of the 1960s.

Afterwards, during the democratic government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-77) market-driven popular media started taking shape. A large number of newspapers and magazines began publication during this time though, ironically, a few older ones were often penalized by the government through blocked advertising revenues and other punitive measures for exercising independence. One of the most prominent examples of this practice became Dawn, Pakistan’s first English language newspaper that was established by the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Delhi even before the creation of the country. Also, the government itself continued to own and run large chunks of news media.

When the third military government (1977-88) replaced Bhutto, it immediately imposed stringent media censorship. Over-lorded by a self-professed Islamist general, Ziaul Haq, the state intended to control private news media on top of its monopoly over television, radio and state-owned newspapers – in order to effectively depoliticize and Islamize the society. It achieved its objectives very successfully. Zia’s tenure also saw the market for news media expand – due to further increases in literacy rate and urbanization coupled with the decline of politically affiliated newspapers and magazines on the one hand and the loss of credibility of the state-owned media on the other hand. His tight control over media contents, though, ensured that this expansion did not lead to any public mobilization that could threaten his dictatorial rule.

It was with the return of democracy in 1988 that the first wave of media liberalisation started. Pakistanis who could afford to have satellite dish antennas could access many international television channels including BBC and CNN. The state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV)  also started to allow the airing of programs produced by private production houses, though these programs were entirely focused on entertainment. Pakistan’s first privately-owned FM radio station, too, was set up during this era. The second wave of the liberalization of airwaves started in 1999 – under the aegis of Pakistan’s fourth military government led by General Pervez Musharraf – and continues till today, though, of course, with a lot of hiccups. It has led to the setting up of around 30 news-focused TV channels (plus about 50 entertainment-themed channels), all of which are distributed via cable and satellite, and around 150 FM radio stations, all in private sector.

Media caught in Pakistan’s enduring civil-military tussle

Due to an extremely low literacy rate of around 15%, the territory that constitutes Pakistan today did not have any mass circulating newspapers and magazines before statehood in 1947. Those that existed were confined mostly to the city of Lahore though a few were also published from other cities such as Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Karachi. Almost all of them were communally and politically aligned. There were ‘Muslim’ newspapers and magazines and then there were those representing and owned by Hindus and Sikhs.

The Civil and Military Gazette and Tribune were the only newspapers, both in English, which were not openly associated with any religious community or political organization. The former focused mostly on developments related to the government and administration and the latter on the anti-British movement for independence but they had limited circulation in the parts of the Indian subcontinent that constitute today’s Pakistan.

In a few years after 1947, almost all communal and political newspapers ceased publication, in part because they lost their raison d’etre. Those owned by Muslims could no longer survive merely by continuing to mobilize public opinion against the Hindus and the Sikhs who had already migrated to India. They failed to transform themselves in accordance with the public and political needs in the newly created country, while those owned by the non-Muslims packed up and left. The first newspaper to make its mark in Pakistan was an Urdu language daily called Nawa-i-Waqt. It was set up in Lahore in 1940 by a trust funded by many Muslim political activists and social reformers. Post 1947, it became a mass circulating newspaper across the Pakistani part of Punjab due to its championing of a militaristic and exclusionist Islamic nationalism as the foundational basis for Pakistan.

Two major Muslim newspapers, Dawn and Jang, published in English and Urdu respectively, moved their headquarters from Delhi to Pakistan’s first capital city Karachi after 1947 and found a ready audience among the city’s migrant population. Soon afterwards, many other newspapers and magazines sprang up in the city, including The Mirror, Pakistan’s first current affairs magazine edited by a woman, Zaibunnisa Hameedullah. These publications benefited immensely from Karachi’s mostly literate residents consisting mainly of government officials and its rapidly expanding population on the back of its fast-paced industrialization. It was for these reasons that Karachi became the headquarters of Pakistan’s news media – a distinction it still keeps enjoying though some newer news media organizations are now also based in other main cities.

Back in Lahore, a left-leaning member of the legislative assembly, Mian Iftikharuddin, set up Pakistan’s first indigenous media house from the scratch in 1947. Called Progressive Papers Limited, it brought out an English language daily, Pakistan Times, an Urdu language daily Imroze and an Urdu language magazine Lail-o-Nahar. The three publications, edited by some of the most known writers and poets in Pakistan at the time, became the government’s most vocal critics and also enjoyed high level of respect and readership among Punjab’s urban intelligentsia. The government did not like the criticism. In 1951, it arrested and imprisoned internationally renowned poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who was also the editor of Pakistan Times at the time, for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the rule of then Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan.

In 1958, the military staged the first of many coups in Pakistan to follow and within a year took over the ownership and management control of the Progressive Papers Limited. All three of the group’s publications started floundering under the government’s tight grip and, after experiencing declining readerships and increasing expenses over the next three decades, were finally folded in 1989.

The first military government became highly unpopular after a war between India and Pakistan in 1965.To make matters worse for it, many politically aligned newspapers and magazines – both from the left and the right of the political spectrum – started to come out during these years to raise political awareness and mobilization among people.

Almost all of them would cease to exist after the third military dictatorship was imposed in 1977. Wary of politics and politicians, the new government considered news media purely as a business and encouraged its expansion, only limited by maintaining a strict ban on covering the activities of political opposition. Many newspapers started their editions from different parts of the country. Even smaller provincial cities such as Peshawar and Quetta experienced a boom in newspaper publication. The government used a combination of its monopoly over advertising spending, newsprint import and taxation to help those newspapers and magazines prosper that either catered to a rightwing and pro-military audience or to a younger one that was raised on a steady diet of depoliticized news dominated by religion, sports, showbiz and fashion. The only notable exceptions were two English language newspapers, Frontier Post based in Peshawar and The Muslim based in Islamabad. They had limited circulation, confined to a small section of the urban elite, and could have been allowed the freedom they had to show to the outside world that media was free in Pakistan.

When democracy returned in 1988, the government decided to take itself out of the media business – just as it did in every other part of the economy. In 1989, the National Press Trust was disbanded and the government’s ownership of newspapers and magazines came to an end through privatization. State monopoly over newsprint imports was subsequently relaxed and a burgeoning private economy eased the state’s stranglehold over the advertising industry. Concomitant with increase in literacy rates and a renewed interest in politics after the revival of democracy, these developments helped news media flourish in Pakistan in the 1990s like never before. Older dailies such as Jang, Dawn and Nawa-i-Waqt not just expanded their operations to a larger number of cities but they also increased their audiences in all the major urban centers. Both Nawa-i-Waqt and Jang started their English language newspapers in quick succession and Dawn launched its Lahore and Islamabad editions around the same time. Hundreds of new newspapers and magazines also started publication in different parts of the country.

The government simultaneously eased its hold on the broadcast media under what could be called the first wave of liberalization. Even before 1988, satellite dish antennas were allowed to be imported and installed by the thousands without much of a regulation. The real change in broadcast media, however, took place under another military government which, through a second wave of liberalization, set up the first broadcast media regulator in 1999-2000 and allowed private television and radio stations to set up shop in the country. Given a global boom in broadcast media, revolutionary developments in information and communication technologies and the availability of a wide array of foreign channels, including those from neighboring India, to the owners of dish antennas in Pakistan, it was no longer possible for the government to keep the doors closed for private broadcasters.

Before long, many business houses set up television channels and radio stations though print media owners were, initially, not allowed to enter the electronic/broadcast media market because of a ban on cross-media ownership. This ban would be later lifted, allowing every print media owner worth the name to set up their own television channels and, in some cases also FM radio stations. Even though the government keeps owning Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television which still enjoy a monopoly in medium waveband and terrestrial transmission respectively, they are no longer the only, even major, sources of news for Pakistanis.

There has been, thus, a decisive move away from state control over media in the last three decades though it has been neither consistent nor smooth. For instance, while most of the privately-owned news media flourished in the 1990s, the democratic government got engaged in a serious confrontation with the owners of daily Jang and its associated publications, especially the English language daily The News. Its editor, its publisher and one contributor were charged with treason and government advertising in both newspapers was suspended. Jang and The News were also disallowed to import newsprint for several years. Similarly, while the military government of General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) can be credited with opening the airwaves for private broadcasters, it blocked the broadcast of the largest of them, Geo News, after the imposition of an emergency rule and the suspension of fundamental rights in 2007. Some other talk shows were also taken off air and some senior journalists disallowed to go on air during that time.

Pakistan’s media ownership trajectory – from private to state-owned to independent

Pakistan’s news media was born private but gradually came under the state’s control – both through direct ownership and through indirect regulatory and non-regulatory mechanisms such as advertising bans and newsprint import control – before the media sector rapidly expanded in 2002 after Pakistan Electronic Media regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was set up to license TV channels and radio stations in the private sector. The earliest media outlets in Pakistan were all privately owned – all of it print except for state-owned Radio Pakistan. Some early newspapers, such as Nawa-i-Waqt and Dawn, were initially owned by trusts set up years before 1947. Many political and social movements also had their own newspapers and magazines at the time of the independence, particularly in Lahore. Some individuals, too, owned newspapers (though, more often than not, these were also politically and communally aligned).

Zamindar, a radical rightwing Muslim newspaper with its origin in the independence movement, continued publication well into the first decade after independence. Chattaan, another rightwing newspaper, shifted to Lahore immediately after the independence and continued being in circulation with varying degrees of success till the 1980s. It was owned by Shorish Kashmiri, a pioneer of an often-violent agitation movement against a millenarian religious sect called Ahmadis. One individually-owned newspaper that has not just survived all this while but has expanded into becoming Pakistan’s largest media house is Jang. It was set up by Mir Khalilur Rehman in 1939 in Delhi during his studies. After the independence, Jang moved its headquarters to Karachi where it quickly created a loyal readership among those who had migrated to the city from Delhi and its neighboring regions.

The state came to own its first newspapers and magazines after taking over the privately-owned Progressive Papers Limited in 1959. Later, in the 1970s, the government set up the National Press Trust that ran a number of newspapers and magazines, including those once owned by the Progressive Papers Limited. The first private radio stations were set up by small entrepreneurs in the early 2000s and the first private television channels, also established around the same time, were owned by people who had money but no experience of owning and running a news media organization as the government prohibited cross-media ownership at the time.

Media and politics – wavering between support for democracy and dictatorship

News media played a major role in mobilizing public opinion along communal and political lines before independence in the central region of current-day Pakistan – the city of Lahore in particular and the populous province of Punjab in general. Immediately after independence, the Progressive Papers Limited became a major voice for democratic and religious pluralism until it was taken over by the government in1959. Politically aligned newspapers and magazines also played a major role in mass mobilization in 1967-69 against the first military dictatorship and in 1970 during the first general elections as well as for the subsequent transfer of power from the second military government (1969-71) to a civilian administration. Almost all rightwing newspapers and magazines, similarly, actively encouraged violent protests over alleged election rigging in 1977 – an agitation that led to the imposition of the third military dictatorship (1977-88) by General Ziaul Haq.

Many mainstream news media outlets, such as Nawa-i-Waqt, Dawn and Jang, on the other hand, also helped the military rally the masses over wars against India. None of them, for instance, reported Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war as well as the consequent creation of Bangladesh out of the ashes of erstwhile East Pakistan. The three newspapers were also complicit to varying degrees with the Islamist agenda of the third military government. With the exception of Frontier Post, no news media outlet openly challenged Ziaul Haq’s regime though many individual journalists were forced out of their jobs, some were imprisoned and a few were even flogged for supporting democratic politics. Most of the news media also supported Pervez Musharraf’s military government (1999-2008) – at least for its first seven years -- though, eventually, its ouster in 2008 was helped by a collective media support for an anti-government lawyers’ movement that started in 2007.

Large parts of news media in Pakistan have, thus, espoused both political and religious causes to varying degrees. This trend, however, is on the wane as almost every media outlet is now driven by the strong motive to make money. Survival is the key word as news media in 2019 faces a tough political and economic situation characterized by dwindling revenues and increased censorship. Yet, individual journalists and editors have kept the flame of the freedom of expression burning.

Today: the end of history and the media industry in crisis

Developments taking place since early 2015 suggest that the second wave of media liberalization might have reached its limits. In this period, media’s independence and freedom have been tested multiple times. First, the security and intelligence agencies declared some conflict-ridden areas in the northwest and southwest of the country off limits for journalists. Then certain news topics, such as enforced disappearances and human rights violations in areas under military operations, went missing from news headlines and talk shows. Finally, news media was expressly told to stay away from criticizing vast swathes of state policies on national security, foreign relations and even financial and economic issues concerning the military and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – a multi-billion loan and investment initiative being carried out by China and Pakistan. This censorship has been made possible through the government’s own advertising spending (which has been drastically squeezed) and the leverage that security and intelligence agencies can exercise over private advertisers.

Since 2018 the judiciary has also hauled reporters, editors and publishers to courts over various charges, leading to a virtual disappearance of a critique of the judiciary from the news media. On top of all that, the new federal government emerging from the July 2018 general elections has been threatening to bring in a single regulator for all types of news media, besides already employing the existing regulatory regimes to routinely take talk shows off air, ban anchorpersons, castigate newspaper editors and browbeat media owners under one pretext or the other. These developments have coincided with massive media-led campaigns for building the personal images of military commanders, judges and even political leaders. While many news media outlets initially benefited from the money spent on these exercises, most of them are now under increasing pressure to treat these individuals as larger than life personalities and keep them above any criticism – or risk further censorship and financial strangulation.

What has complicated the situation for the news media around the advent of 2019 is the global trend of  collapsing financial and distribution models – a failure that has been long in the making but never got the attention it deserved. Squeezed financially by depleting advertising revenues, which are shifting to social media and digital platforms, and decreased viewership/readership, many newspapers have already died. Many others are struggling massively to stay afloat. Some TV channels are also lurching on the brink of closure due to their failure to balance their books. All other television channels, meanwhile, have started cutting costs to avoid a similar fate. But the overwhelming impact of these cuts has been borne by journalists. In 2018 alone, more than 2,000 of them lost their jobs. Many more risk the same in 2019.

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