Getting rid of cobwebs

APP seems to have lost its direction

Kamal Siddiqi May 28, 2018
The writer, a former editor of The Express Tribune, is director of the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA, Karachi. He tweets @tribunian

As I was in Islamabad on a training assignment, I had the fortune of bumping into Qaiser Zulfiqar, a former Tribune colleague who now works for Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), the state-owned news agency. Qaiser was kind enough to invite me to an international conference that APP had organised in Islamabad on those same days and I was happy to attend some of the sessions where representatives from a number of news agencies from across the world were attending.

In the audience and amongst the speakers were some of the former stars of APP — people who had covered all sorts of stories from different postings across the world. Also amongst those attending was M Aftab, a former head of APP, who was instrumental in bringing in staffers on merit and ensuring that they went through a series of trainings which helped them in terms of delivering on their work. However, now it’s a different story. A senior member of APP told me confidentially that the staffers were now recruited on political grounds with the result that many did not know how to write basic news stories let alone do any analysis or commentary.

What one could see from the gathering is that APP seems to have lost its direction. This has more to do with technology and how the news industry has transformed and less to do with the people running APP now. Not only APP, but most of the representatives of the agencies represented at the forum looked like a tired lot, possibly the only exception was the Chinese delegation, who seemed to be abreast of prevailing trends.

The news industry has changed. We have not followed through. What is clear to me as a media academic and former practitioner is that over the past decade or so, APP has been in consistent decline. There are reasons for this and one can rightly question as to what direction this news agency should be taking to correct its course.

State media has always been used in Pakistan to promote the government in power. But there have been exceptions. One of the speakers at the APP conference was Senator Javed Jabbar, who was the information minister in the first Benazir government in 1988.

JJ, as he is popularly known, revolutionised the culture of the information ministry and made sure that news was broadcast on the basis of merit. This was the time when PTV was the only channel on air and this change helped sweep away the cobwebs of misinformation that had long been in place during the Zia years. And yet, it was the PPP government that replaced JJ soon after as many were not comfortable with his changes. We want to control news. Of course, in this age and time, such a notion is ridiculous.

At a time when countries are investing heavily in their state-owned news apparatus — whether China, Turkey or sanctions-hit Qatar, we are lagging woefully behind. All three state information entities — PTV, Radio Pakistan and APP — are now in disarray. It is not money that is the issue — the levy on our electricity bills puts millions into the coffers, it is the direction and far-sightedness.

Today we have little or no media representation abroad. Those who do get posted are political appointees not selected on merit. Pakistanis have to rely on Western news agencies for our news. If we do not get first-hand news, how can we act on such information? We make fun of the Americans, but we too are equally misinformed when it comes to what is happening around the world, let alone in our own neighbourhood.

We used to train journalists from other countries at our academies. That has now ended because we have nothing to offer. I think it is time to take a closer look at how to reform the work of state-owned media entities. What do we want from them and how can we expect them to deliver?

Needless to say, political interference kills any efforts to improve. While our private media has progressed by leaps and bounds, state media suffers from bureaucracy and an inherent reluctance to move with the times. One of its most vital pillars of a functioning democracy is a forward-looking state media apparatus that not only informs but sets the standards for others to follow. Possibly this can be something to look forward to in the next government.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2018.

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