If a democratic structure is to succeed and flourish, it is imperative that large-scale public involvement is maintained within the decision making apparatus of the State. In order to ensure individuals are capable of informed decision-making, it is necessary that a strong media institution exist within the state that has the capability of disseminating a multitude of news and information from varying perspectives so as to create a free market from within which an individual can choose the narratives that he sees as closest to himself. The media within the state must also act with responsibility to make citizens aware of the rights and powers they hold as individual members of the state collective.
In order to ensure the objectives of the media to provide citizens with a variety of information are met, the media must be free; both from the hands of the governments influence and also free of the predetermined objectives of those who hold power within media outlets. If a handful of individuals control a vast array of media sources, they hold the power to shape public opinion and as such tamper with what may otherwise be the natural evolution of opinions of citizens, which in the long term impacts the path the state takes.
When a few entities or groups of individuals control multiple media outlets, the vested interests of such groups or people hinder what should ideally be a “free-flow” of information. Cross Media ownership is the title ascribed to individuals and groups who hold and exercise control over multiple media outlets and over the last few decades it has been a huge concern that has regularly been debated, especially in the west. When control rests with a few who have their own vested interests, the public ends up at the mercy of outlets that only provide a pre-determined narrative from which to gain information. However, it is essential to understand that whereas an ideal scenario would provide a variety of information to the public without pre-set bias, it is a dangerous path to tread down in if the government is given complete or unscrutinized authority to decide what a media outlet can or cannot air.
Today, in Pakistan, it appears that media outlets are accountable to no one, internal or external which poses a strong question of where checks and balances lie. No free and democratic civilized society should promote control of the media in order to hamper the freedom of expression, but the media should not only be free from limitations placed by the state or society, but also from its own corporate lapses and biases. This is essential in order to provide the public with an honest and responsible reflection of events. Freedom of expression must not under any circumstance impede upon the media’s duty to live up to and fulfil the basic norms and responsibilities of journalism.
Cross media ownership in Pakistan has risen to an alarming level and very few people are in control of managing and distributing the flow of information nationally. A select few groups own or have a controlling stake over all the media outlets within Pakistan. Due to this they not only control information, but also establish a monopoly within the sector and are able to ensure huge profits. Floating a narrative through multiple channels/papers/magazines/websites that these individuals own affords them the ability to mould public opinion without any concern for journalistic integrity and responsibility.
There are four major media groups within Pakistan that have a huge degree of control over the mainstream media within Pakistan. These four groups have maintained an oligopoly over the institution of media in Pakistan by rigorous expansion and business mechanisms that have made the market unfriendly to newcomers. PEMRA has proven woefully ineffective in its duty to check cross-media ownership and has been unable to exercise its authority to implement an efficient regulatory regime as enshrined in its mandate.
What does the Media Commission Suggest?
In April 2014, the Media Commission; a Commission set up by the Supreme Court of Pakistan officially launched its recommendations for media reform within Pakistan. Under its recommendations for media cross-ownership, the Commission suggests that it is inadvisable today to allow self-regulation of media as they have failed to display a responsive attitude. The report goes on the further suggest that the government provide a framework for guidance with checks and balances upon the media that does not impugn the freedom of Media. Commission goes on to recommend the formation of a Media Laws Review Task Force in order to assist with this aim.
What happens internationally?
In the United Kingdom currently, no single corporation is allowed to control multiple media platforms (television,print, radio) to a degree greater than 20% of each. This prevents a consolidation of corporate influence over the media, and prevents local monopolization of the media.
In the United States, the current rules prevent organizations from control over major newspaper along with a major television station within the same region. However, the Federal Communications Commission, which is the regulating authority in the USA recently proposed to scrap the cross-ownership prohibition in the twenty largest markets within the US. Critics have responded to the proposal by calling it a gift to News Corp., who are reportedly planning to buy major print outlets in regions where they already hold control of television stations.
Citing the current regulatory practices in the US and the UK, along with the climate of the media within Pakistan, there is a need to ensure regulation over the mechanisms of control of media outlets to ensure a fairer, more independent and free media flourishes within the State. As has been highlighted above, if a fledgling democracy such as our is to flourish, the citizens of the State must be empowered sufficiently with information to make decisions in their and the States best interests, and such information must not be diluted by the interest of media conglomerates or other large corporate entities.
As we stand, government interference in the regulatory regime of the media within Pakistan should be of huge concern. The operators and the regulators certainly don’t seem to see eye to eye on a large variety of matters, which hampers the overall environment of growth within the sector. Perhaps at this stage therefore it would be wise to turn towards examples such as the UK, where the independent regulator Ofcom has succeeded to a large extent in preventing both private and government monopoly within the media. Considering the trust deficit already present between the media groups and the government, the Media Commission then, perhaps fails to redress that problem by calling for increased governmental oversight over the media. The answer lies in creating an environment where self regulation is fostered and oversight is independent of any forms of influence; private or on behalf of the government.