Pakistan’s Tumultuous Media May Play Surprising Role

Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Viola Gienger

Pakistan’s media are changing as rapidly – and with as much volatility – as the rest of the country, and the debate over whether its role has been helpful or destructive to the nation’s emerging democracy can be equally vociferous. Two recent research projects examined elements of that question and largely found that the media may be more constructive than most observers think.

A USIP study in the final stages uses a combination of audience research, media interviews, and extensive content analysis to test common allegations that sensationalism in Pakistani media fans intolerance. BBC Media Action, the UK broadcaster’s international development organization, separately studied private regional broadcasters and social media in Pakistan. That project concluded that, while the proliferation of outlets carries the risk of polarizing public opinion and fueling conflict, it also provides valuable platforms for public discussion to once-marginalized groups such as the urban and rural poor.

The BBC Media Action report “should prompt new thinking about the media’s potential for fostering inclusive dialogue and participation of diverse voices in Pakistan’s political debates,” said Sheldon Himelfarb, director of USIP’s PeaceTech Initiative. He spoke at a Jan. 23 event at USIP held to discuss the research.

PeaceTech connects media, technology and data for conflict management and peacebuilding, and the intent of the Pakistan research is to help organizations that assist the development of media in the country to make smart decisions about the most effective approaches.

Development of media in the South Asian nation has tracked and sometimes raced ahead of Pakistan’s emerging democracy. Pakistan’s parliamentary elections last year marked the first transition by ballot box from one democratically-elected civilian government that had served a full term to a successor administration.

Looking at the dynamics of conflict in Pakistan, media “fits in crucially,” said Moeed Yusuf, director of USIP’s South Asia programs. Emerging regional and even more local level print, radio and television influence Pakistanis even more than the national-level media that tend to get the most attention in Washington, he said.

Pakistanis are using Twitter in the most remote regions, village elders communicate by cell phone, and mass media are “both fledgling and deeply flawed,” said Pamela Constable, staff writer for The Washington Post and author of Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself.  “It’s really become a Tower of Babel in some ways.”

With media liberalization in 2002, Pakistan now has some 90 privately owned television channels and 115 FM radio stations, said Huma Yusuf, a consultant for BBC Media Action and co-author of the group’s September 2013 report, “The Media of Pakistan: Fostering Inclusion in a Fragile Democracy.” About 70 percent of the population has mobile phones, and Internet access is available to between 20 million and 30 million people.

Focus groups conducted for the research showed that Pakistanis felt local media understood their issues better than national outlets. But the decentralization of media, especially social platforms, also has amplified campaigns such as separatists in Balochistan, a region in the country’s southwest.

Public officials at all levels have been particularly irresponsible in making inflammatory statements via mass media or, conversely, failing to show leadership by condemning actions such as murder, Constable said. She cited the January 2011 assassination of the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, in retaliation for his criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws after he defended a Christian woman who was sentenced to death.

“No leader in the country stood up and said, `This is murder, this is wrong, the blasphemy law needs reform,’” Constable said. Instead, media effectively championed the murder of a government official in the name of religion, she said, and thousands poured into the streets of Karachi in support of that view.

Among the recommendations in BBC Media Action’s report is to include content analysis in designing assistance programs for Pakistani media. The USIP study, conducted on news about political violence aired on broadcast channels or published in print over two months in 2012, is a rare example of a detailed content analysis of Pakistan news media done on a significant scale, said Michael Dwyer, a senior program officer at USIP.

The research provides insight into native-language reporting of political violence in Pakistan, including how often aggressors and victims are identified; how the slant (positive or negative emphasis) of stories varies depending on the identity of the aggressor and victim; how often sources are cited; and what kind of background or contextual information is provided in the story. The analysis is intended to help Pakistan media and assistance organizations to design projects better attuned to real strengths and weaknesses.

Already some unexpected findings are emerging. Observers often say that Pakistan’s media consciously or subconsciously support militant groups in their coverage. But the study found that the only parties to receive any implicit endorsement of violence in the media were the police, military, or paramilitary forces, he said. In 204 cases where security forces attacked one or more individuals, 26 percent of the stories demonstrated a positive slant toward the security forces. “The vast majority were neutral and only 1 percent negative,” Dwyer said.

In 39 cases where banned organizations attacked individuals, they received no positive news reports in the analysis. About half were neutral and the other half were negative, he said.

Nor did analysis reveal other “signatures” of militant sympathies, such as the “framing” of stories to position extremist groups in a positive way or the inclusion of the tropes from commonly used militant narratives, such as anti-Americanism.

The study looked for common frames -- subconscious ways of portraying certain incidents subtly, rather than directly, such as suggesting terrorism, criminality, righteousness, cruelty, excessive violence, bravery, cowardice, weakness or innocence.

Researchers were surprised to find “very little framing in Pakistan media at all,” Dwyer said. “The reporting itself was just incredibly bland.”

One incident that occurred during the time of the study period was the now-well known shooting of the schoolgirl and education activist Malala Yousafzai. Media’s treatment of the group that claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt, the Pakistani Taliban, was overwhelmingly negative, but much more so in outlets based outside the region where the incident occurred, Dwyer said.

Generally in the study, most of the reporting cited only one source or none, and contained very little contextual information to help the public understand the incidents being recounted. Some of the results indicate that media outlets and the journalists who work for them may be more aware than some observers think of standards such as the need to draw on multiple sources for information or the desirability of providing accurate context.

“It’s more a situation where we need to get a much better understanding about what is the calculus that’s going on” in decisions that result in stories that don’t meet standards, and then to prompt them to rethink that calculus, Dwyer said.

The USIP research will soon be presented to Pakistani media for comment and input, Himelfarb said. A final report likely will be completed in the coming months.

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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