21st Century Media Challenges



For dramatic transformation, no century has been like the 20th. Starting with the radio to inter-active multi-media, the last 100 years have been a revelation, inculcating a mind-boggling information revolution. Only 40 years ago, as we prepared for college-entry examinations, the radio was still considered an amazing contraption in countries like Pakistan, dimensionally making information available from across the globe, today the world has been brought almost physically into our drawing rooms and bedrooms, encapsulated by the TV, Lawrence J Peter pronouncing that, “an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance”. The 20th Century started with the print media only, despite being almost overwhelmed by the rapid technological change, it was still not the force it has become today. The written word remains a common denominator for the media. Centuries ago, the Greek culture and civilization, which was till then a victim of morality, was transformed into literacy because of writing and the willingness of the Greek to accept the written word.

The radio was the medium that first led us into exciting new worlds, worlds one could hardly imagine, still it was television which made the change dramatic. Because of the initial cost it remained a part of the developed world till much later. For us in the third world, the large, unwieldy radio giving way to handy transistors was change, but as television, first black and white, then coloured, came into our lives, becoming more popular and affordable, radios were relegated to a much diminished role. Extensive house-to-house surveys to check TV Licences in the period 1998-99, showed that many of the homes possessed TV but did not have the much cheaper radio, particularly in the urban areas, where its only use seems to be to listen to cricket or hockey commentaries or to some music on the local FM channel. The VCR and the cassette further accentuated this, bringing cinemas into the homes. The CDs and satellite dishes put us into a new ball game. As we got a taste of real international culture, we discovered that alongwith all the advantages, the TV had plenty of downsides also. Obscenity reared its ugly head, threatening the morals of our youth, subverting the character of our population.

While in the US, the newspaper industry is doing very well, a stark contrast to what is happening in Asia. Nielson Hong Kong, one of the world’s leading providers of market research, information and analysis to the consumer products and services industry, says that there is a paradigm shift of audiences to TV viewing and a drift in newspaper readership. The images in one’s home have resulted in greater illiteracy, and for that matter a proportional increase in weight due to greater consumption of food during TV dinner. Into this cauldron of development has come the rapid explosion of computer technology, changing everyday lives unlike anything else so far. Computer has come of age, the internet revolution is not one of choice anymore, it has become a way of life in the more developed countries and even very rapidly in the less developed ones. In the age of the multi-media, of e-commerce, of on-line transaction, the possibilities are endless. Dismantling the barriers of time and distance, the Net has created huge information stores, reshaped social mores, re-structured the whole corporate life and above all transferred the universe into a globe village. E Commerce has accelerated business in a most extraordinary and convenient manner, greatly facilitating the consumer. The buzz words today are the web, data bank, e-mail and digital compression, this is indeed the century of the dot com.

Where does Pakistan stand in all this? Barely coping with the fast changing face of technology, the media in our country has to face many challenges if it is to be looked on as a credible source of information and knowledge. In this digital age, look at our basic handicaps, less than 2% own telephones, less than 0.5% have PCs and only 0.3% are connected to the internet, it is an uphill task. Because of the high cost of bandwidth, data pipes through which data communication is established, the cost of using the internet is considered high. However, with the advent of wordless technology the cost of the internet will decrease significantly. The government must allow the private sector to build local area networks (LAN), to access the internet through satellite, accelerating the growth process. With fast-paced development taking place everywhere else, especially at a phenomenal rate in neighbor India, it has given them the potential to overwhelm us, in the words of Sun Tse Tzu, “to win a war without blooding swords”. The development of our TV has been dismal, its pace retarded by “Babus” and the corrupt, the scum of the earth. In the 16th Century, Muslims were barely 10% of the population of South Asia but were absolute rulers because they were martial and united. The ghazals and dancing girls then took over and we became enslaved by them. Even today we revel in the “high culture” we achieved, in the process we lost the standing of the Muslims in India. Pakistan is the only reason the Muslim identity remains an entity. While there is neither pleasure nor justification for a minority to rule over a majority, at least we could be on equal footing with the majority. Today Pakistan TV is trying to be a bad imitation of Zee TV, Star TV, Sony TV, Asia TV, etc. We pride ourselves in the quality of our plays, in the process we are in danger of losing our culture and the raison d’étre of our existence, the ideological bounds of our religion and culture. TV cannot only be an entertainment medium, primarily it is an instrument of information and education. Entertainment may be popular with the masses and must be disseminated, but a higher duty towards one’s independence must not be lost. Make no mistake, this is war by other means and the enemy has planted a serpent in our midst at ground zero of disseminating electronic information. TV has been used by successive governments as propaganda tool but the quality of the news remains drab and unimaginative. Like anything controlled by any government, TV is not credible. Every government uses the medium to portray themselves as saviours and messiahs to our own population. In this selfish use of the medium by government control, we have lost the credibility battle, a battle we should not have engaged in. The onset of the satellite dish have made the people aware of the quality evident in foreign TV channels, slick, professional and mature, besides being highly informative. PTV thinking was confined to thinking that satellite dishes would confine the threat to the elite to certain urban localities of Pakistan. The sudden mushrooming of cable operators and a multitude of foreign channels at nominal monthly rates has brought the entire world into almost every household. Belatedly the various 90’s governments realized that the threat could not be ignored and set up a second channel via satellite, however, it is to the credit of the present government that they are opening up both terrestrial and satellite television, privatization is the only way to go if we want to improve Pakistan’s image at an international level. We must also allow a bare conservative, if not entirely liberal, projection of our arts and culture abroad. Again to their credit the military regime has not flinched in the face of religious extremism.

Print media remains as important in less developed countries as in the developed ones, may be even more. The information is not disseminated only through images on paper but through the either into the internet and is available on the electronic screens. Analysis shows that such reading is very objective. The circulation of the newspaper may not give an accurate figure of how many read an article every week, but many, many times more do read it on the internet on the web pages of the newspapers. To the credit of this regime, they have done something unusual for military, they tolerate an absolutely free press. Contrast our democracies where journalists have been browbeaten and/or detained, maybe beaten also, closed down publications, used the tax machinery for coercion, choked off newsprint supplies, hounded editors out of office, etc. Unfortunately, the English language newspapers have very little circulation in contrast to those in Urdu (and regional languages) and some of those in Urdu have a field day in gossips, scandals, half-truths, misinformation, disaffirmation, etc, the credibility of the print media overall thus becoming quite suspect. This can be rectified if we continue to allow full freedom of the type obtaining now.

The greatest challenge is to sustain the media’s credibility, unfortunately government-run institutions are notoriously deficient in that. The responsibility comes onto the shoulders of the private sector, it is their expertise and innovation, thus flexibility in coping with situations as well as a freedom of action that cannot only confront but exploit the challenges of the 21st century. Are we up to taking up this challenge for change or will be remain mired in the paralysis of action that is legacy of our bureaucratic past-and to a great extent, the present?

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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