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Population diversity not reflected by a pluralism-deficient media

Pakistan is a large and diverse country – with a population of 207 million according to the latest census of 2017. Pakistani news media usually fails to reflect this diversity though. Producers and consumers of the news media contents are mostly middle-class Sunni Muslim men living in urban areas which explains why rural populations, religious and ethnic minorities, laborers and women find only marginal space in news coverage and commentaries.

GEOGRAPHY: Punjab takes the lion’s share in geographic focus of media

Geographically and administratively Pakistan is divided into four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan -- and two semi-autonomous regions -- Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. But Pakistani news media remains largely focused on half a dozen urban centers -- including the southern port city of Karachi, the historic metropolises of Lahore and Peshawar and the federal capital of Islamabad (as well as its geographical twin, Rawalpindi where the military is headquartered). The biggest portion of the news contents in any given hour, or on any given day, is dedicated to Punjab, the largest and the most prosperous province in the country that is home to about 52 per cent Pakistanis. This is not surprising since it is here that most of the readers of newspapers/magazines, the viewers of television channels and the listeners of radio live. That fact that more than half of all Pakistani journalists work in Punjab only reinforces this news focus. 

The second most important segment of the media audience lives in Karachi, the country’s largest urban space inhabited by more than 16 million people, a majority of them being Urdu-speaking descendants of migrants from India. That a large majority of the news media outlets have their headquarters here also means that, by virtue of this proximity, the city and its inhabitants get a bigger representation in the news media than their numbers warrant. Karachi is the capital of Sindh which has a population of 48 million. The province is also home to the speakers of Sindhi language who make up 14.1 per cent of all Pakistanis. Unless there is a road accident, a natural disaster or some other human tragedy in Sindhi-speaking areas, these largely remain missing from the national news coverage. The northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that borders Afghanistan, and the southern province of Balochistan, that borders both Afghanistan and Iran, have a population of 30 million and 12 million respectively. These two regions have experienced a lot of unrest, violence and terrorism since 9/11 so the national news media usually portrays them to be rather dangerous places.

The northernmost and northeastern regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir form another part of Pakistan’s geographic map. Their semi-autonomous status due to their link to the colonial-era state of Jammu and Kashmir -- that remains disputed between India and Pakistan -- has left them in a limbo where their politics and administration have been submerged in Pakistan’s state structures but their constitutional position within the country remains ill-defined. What makes them extremely important is their strategic location – at the long-contested confluence between Pakistan, China and India. And that is what their coverage in the news media is mostly about. The only other subject that brings the two regions into the news is their prospects and problems as tourist destinations since they have some of the most scenic valleys and mountain ranges in the country. Gilgit-Baltistan, in fact, is also home to some of the highest peaks in the world.

LANGUAGE – the hues of the vernacular

Linguistically, newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio stations and news websites publishing and broadcasting in Urdu have the largest share of the audience though Urdu is the mother tongue of only less than 8% Pakistanis. This may sound odd but a vast majority of the audience of these Urdu language media outlets lives in Punjab where Punjabi, and not Urdu, is the mother language of the most local inhabitants. On the whole, Punjabi is spoken by 44.5% Pakistanis though not all of them live in Punjab. The same is the case with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where almost 74% of the population speaks Pashto but not a single Pashto-language newspaper or TV channel has a sizeable audience. The only successful Pashto-language news medium has been radio. It has attracted large audiences since the early 2000s – though its impact has not been always positive.

Extremist mobilizers and militant leaders have deployed bootlegged radio stations in Pashto-speaking areas to great effect to propagate their violent Islamic ideologies. At one stage, in 2007-09, an Islamic militia headed by a militant commander, known by his nom de guerre of ‘Mullah Radio’ for his extensive use of the medium, captured a scenic mountain valley, Swat, only 200 km to the northwest of Islamabad. Between 2007 and 2014, Islamic militants also operated multiple illegal radio stations in many parts of the tribal areas along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In recent years security forces have shut down most of the illegal radio stations but the use of Pashto radio for propaganda still remains quite prevalent. The difference is that now it is being done by the military and the West (with the latter using such outlets as the Voice of America and Radio Mashaal, an affiliate of the Radio Free Europe). The success of Pashto language radio begs an obvious question: why have newspapers and television channels operating in the same language failed to prosper? What makes the question all the more puzzling is the fact that Pashto, after Punjabi, has the second largest number of speakers in Pakistan (at 15.42%). They live not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also in many other parts of the country -- 29.64% of the population in Balochistan, 9.52% of the population of the federal capital territory and 7.96% of the population of urban Sindh, mainly Karachi, also speak Pashto.

The speakers of Seraiki language (who mostly live in southern parts of Punjab and comprise 10.53% of the population of Pakistan), the speakers of Hindko (roughly 20% of the population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and the Balochi speakers (who account for 3.57% of all the Pakistanis) also do not have any major news media outlet in their own languages. A few million Pakistanis who speak such smaller languages as Brahvi, Gujrati and Shina, etc., too, have next to no representation in the news media. Sindh (excluding Karachi) is the only region in Pakistan where the audience of a non-Urdu language news media is perhaps as large as that of the one operating in Urdu. Sindhi language newspapers and magazines have a long tradition going back many decades. Television channels and radio stations operating in this language have also held on to their audiences even when they increasingly fail to match the production qualities and financial resources of their Urdu language competitors.

What may explain an almost universal presence of Urdu language newspapers, TV channels and radio stations across different parts of Pakistan is a legacy of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent. Urdu, just like the idea of Pakistan -- as a separate country for the Indian Muslims -- originated in those parts of the British-ruled India where Muslims were in a minority. When Pakistan came into being in 1947, it did so in the northwestern and eastern parts of the Subcontinent where Muslims have been in a majority. These areas have always had their distinct indigenous languages as well as native cultures and local politics. In order to change these disparate regions into a whole, the ruling elite at the time of the independence, which was dominated by migrants from India, used Islam and Urdu as unifying forces. That this did not work became apparent by the separation of East Pakistan as the independent state of Bangladesh after a bloody civil war in 1971. The inhabitants of that region were angry that their language was not given its due recognition and that their culture was suppressed in the name of a uniform Islamic identity for all Pakistanis.

Their secession, though, did not deter the state of Pakistan from promoting and enforcing Urdu as the national language through public sector education system and state-owned broadcasters. These efforts have worked to the extent that, over the last seven decades, Urdu has become the country’s lingua franca – generally read, spoken and understood in almost all its different parts. The news media‘s procilivity to use Urdu as the most preferable language is also strongly linked to the medium of instruction at the school level. All of the 131,376 primary, 16,928 middle and 13,129 high schools in public sector use Urdu as their basic medium of instruction. Similarly, most, if not all, of the 18,753 primary, 32,162 middle and 18,422 high schools in private sector use both English and Urdu as their basic mediums of instruction. Since no other local language, except Sindhi, is taught at the school level, comprehension of Urdu is much higher than that of any other language, including English.

RELIGION: Media’s indifference to pluralism in coverage

Just like Urdu is predominant as the language of the news in Pakistan, Muslims are the most covered religious group in media content. On the face of it, this focus on Islam syncs well with the country’s demographics since, according to the latest national census carried out in 2017, slightly more than 96% of Pakistanis are Muslims. What this percentage, however, hides is that Muslims in Pakistan are far from being uniform in terms of their religious beliefs. Though the census does not record sectarian identities, the diversity below the surface unity of Muslims is bewildering. Even the followers of Sunni Islam, estimated to make up anywhere between 75% and 85% of the total population of the country, are internally divided along many lines. The most obvious of these divisions is defined by the different schools of religious laws Pakistani Sunnis follow – such as Hanafi and Salafi (the latter is locally known as Ahl-e-Hadith). Hanafis, the largest subgroup of Pakistani Muslims, are further divided into Deobandis and Barelvis -- both named after the founders of two 19th century madrasas set up in what is now India.

Shia Muslims in Pakistan are estimated to be between 15% and 20% of the population. They also have many internal divisions. Most of them are Athna Ash’aris (or Twelvers) but more than a million of them are Ismailis (who are concentrated in Gilgit-Baltistan region) and hundreds of thousands of others are Daudi Bohras (mostly living in Karachi). If all this sounds confusing, that is what it is though Pakistan’s religious profile is hardly complete yet. The country is also home to roughly five million Hindus and Christians each as well as a few thousand Sikhs. Very small numbers of Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Jews are also among its inhabitants – not to mention a few hundred thousand Ahmadis who consider themselves Muslims but have been declared non-Muslims by the state. The coverage of this last group underscores how non-Muslim minorities are generally shown in the news media of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – as unwelcome ‘others’. They find space in the news either as victims or as ‘outsiders’ who are tolerated as Pakistanis only begrudgingly.

LITERACY: Disparities between media audiences

Over the decades, Pakistan has travelled a long way from being a low literacy rate country to a middle literacy rate one. Its current adult literacy rate stands at 57.2% though there are massive regional and gender-related disparities within this number. Sindh, for instance, has the highest male adult literacy rate (at 72%) but its female adult literacy rate (at 46.2%) is lower than that of Punjab (at 49.8%). The female adult literacy in the remaining two provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, is even lower (at 31.3% and 23.8% respectively).

Though the male adult literacy rates across the four provinces lie in a narrow range of 65% to 72%, the combined literacy rate for both genders widely vary – from as high as 59.8% in Sindh to as low as 46% in Balochistan. These disparities explain why the news media audience has more men than women and more residents of Punjab and Sindh than those of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

The media’s crisis of credibility

Pakistanis do not follow the news media as much as the number of news TV channels (around 30) and newspapers/magazine (about 475) in the country may suggest. A recent survey states that only 19% of all TV viewers watch news channels. Even the overall TV viewership has gone down recently -- from 2.11 hours a day on average in 2016 to 1.92 hours a day on average in 2018. The number of newspapers/magazines, too, decreased massively – by almost half from 1,199 to 646 -- in just four years between 2008 and 2012. It has declined even more since then.

The news media also does not enjoy a high public approval. A January 2019 survey shows that most people either have a neutral view of the performance of the news media or a negative one. According to its findings, 34% Pakistanis say the news media is doing its job either well or very well while another 36% say that it is either doing a bad job or a very bad one. A sizeable portion of the survey respondents (24%) says that its performance is neither good nor bad. The same survey also shows that the positive public perception of the news media has, indeed, declined over the last seven years. The number of respondents believing in 2019 that the news media is doing its job either well or very had dropped eight percent since 2012.

Dangerous environment for journalism, impunity of crimes against journalists

In 2017, the World Economic Forum in its annual Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked Pakistan as the fourth most dangerous country in the world – after Colombia, Yemen and El Salvador. Vast parts of the country – especially in the northwest and south -- have remained out of the writ of the state between 2007 and 2015 though the security forces have taken back control of almost all of them over since then. Just the war against religiously masked or motivated terrorism, going on since 2002, has resulted in the loss of 65,000 Pakistani lives. A few thousand more have died in Karachi between 2007 and 2015 in political violence and gang warfare. Balochistan has experienced a similarly violent Baloch separatist insurgency over the last decade or so. Even today, many hundred people remain missing from various parts of the country, particularly Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi. A vast majority of the missing is believed to be held in the custody of security and intelligence agencies. Others may have either died or could have joined various terrorist organizations.

Even when terrorism and religious and political violence are not taken into account, the incidence of violent crime remains rather high in Pakistan. In 2012 alone, as many as 13,846 incidents of murder were reported to the law enforcement authorities from across the country. Another 15,338 attempted murders were also registered during the same year. There has been some improvement in law and order in recent times though the overall incidence of crime still remains quite high. The official data for 2017, for example, shows that there were 8,235 murders (slightly more than 39 per every million people) and 9,499 attempts at murder that year.

This state of affairs has had a highly negative impact on the safety and security of Pakistani journalists – at least 110 have been killed since 2000, including 48 since 2007. At least 23 of them were on a dangerous assignment when they were killed. What makes this situation even worse is a culture of impunity. No one has been punished for the killing of any Pakistani journalist over the last decade. In 21 cases of murders of journalists, not even a proper inquiry has been carried out.

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