Media’s role in nation-building

Published: September 4, 2019
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Representational image. PHOTO: REUTERS.

Representational image. PHOTO: REUTERS.

Representational image. PHOTO: REUTERS. The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The electronic and print media are indeed the most powerful tools in shaping the perceptions of individuals and nations about every major national and international issue. They also reflect the quality of national discourse and priorities. A serious appraisal of the contents and form of the media can help in gauging the intellectual, moral and social standards of a nation. Thus a heavy responsibility resides with those who own media houses and newspapers, and the ones who work in the background preparing programmes, analysing and commenting on national and international issues in newspapers and electronic media.

It has to be acknowledged that essentially the media reflects the societal norms and values. While it can play a positive role in correcting national values it is equally vulnerable to societal ills and shortcomings.

The questions that arise here are: Is the race for ratings the primary driver or are there other, more substantive considerations that ought to determine the content and direction of the media? Is it that media houses should play a more robust role in addressing more substantive national issues and shaping moral values and place ratings as secondary? Do those in charge of creating the content of the programmes have the ability to do so? And similarly do those anchors conducting and steering the TV programmes or radio talk shows have the appropriate background, training and aptitude for it?

In Pakistan, a country of multiple ethnicities and languages, it becomes even more critical that the conversation and message that emerge out of these media houses bring clarity and unity of purpose rather than confusion and anarchy. This does not imply that media houses will not represent different schools of thought or be associated with different political parties. This is the very spirit of democracy. The problem arises when media houses and individual anchors distort facts and present a false picture to benefit their person or the company. There are cases when ignorance and lack of depth among anchors or their supporting teams have advanced the wrong causes, or analysing developments superficially have resulted in drawing incorrect conclusions. A warped sense of patriotism could also lead to subjective and unrealistic programme content.

These aspects acquire a greater significance for Pakistan given the multiple challenges it has faced ever since its creation, and more so now to counter the highly antagonistic attitude of PM Modi.

The role of the state in promoting independence of media is crucial. Successive military and civilian governments in Pakistan have tried to control and manage the media. The PTI government’s record has not been up to mark especially considering that when in the opposition Imran Khan championed the media’s independence. Does the current state of affairs reflect a high sense of insecurity on the part of the government? What was rather disconcerting was when a journalist asked PM Imran Khan about restrictions on the press, whether real or imaginary, in Pakistan, during the joint press conference with President Trump, he replied, “Pakistan has the freest press in the world even better than in Britain.” From this, one gathers that he is disconnected from reality. There is a need for reflection and retrospection.

Pakistan is a weak and struggling democratic state. Its democratic institutions are fragile and they need to be strengthened and not trampled further. In this situation the role of the media is paramount, but if the media were placed under restrictions then we would further slide back from the process of democratic evolution.

This is not to overlook the exceptions present among media houses, news channels and anchors that maintain high standards in terms of content and fidelity of views. Despite several hurdles, they hold to account government functionaries and their policies.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), as the major source of information on security and defence matters, has a vital role in formulating and influencing media policy. Consequently, it carries a heavy responsibility in ensuring the fidelity of news and in setting standards for media channels.

The educational background and the training of media personnel should be compatible with their responsibilities. Generally, media houses have ignored this aspect although there now is a better realisation and emphasis on training. The need for more English channels is also extremely important.

The light entertainment programmes need to improve the quality of humorous content, as these are indicative of the educational and cultural level of society.

More important is to project the state of the economy as accurately as possible. Government officials and other interested parties, in the quest to project their own and organisation’s efficiency, have at times been exaggerating the performance of their departments. It should be the responsibility of the departmental heads to project authentic facts and figures.

The media’s influence during the elections is a major factor in determining the outcome as was evident during the last US Presidential elections. Better media strategy gave Donald Trump an edge over his opponent. Lately, the media is under siege in many major countries, including the ones that were once the torchbearers of its freedom.

Media in Pakistan played a major role in countering terrorism. The credit for this largely goes to the ISPR and the media houses. Pakistani leadership should use the media more effectively for nation-building especially at a time when our polity is fractured, the economy is passing through a difficult phase and external threats and pressures are increasing.

The Western media has played a significant role in falsifying India’s claim on Kashmir and has woken the world’s conscience by reporting the reality in India-occupied Kashmir.

At the domestic level, by keeping a close watch on the state of economic and political events and highlighting its weaknesses and strengths, the media will be building pressure on the government to act. It should also expose the weaknesses of the opposition. These efforts should continue with greater vigour and loyalty.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2019.

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