Democracy and the Electronic Media

 by Imran Khan

One of the main reasons why, despite repeated elections, we have not developed a democratic culture is because the electronic media has always been government controlled. In Western democracies the electronic media has played a major part in consensus building, and consensus is one of the pillars of democracy. In real democracies every issue, whether contentious of banal, is debated on TV talk shows and all shades of opinion are freely expressed. The public becomes the jury and gives its verdict after listening to all arguments. Hence in Britain issues like joining the European Common Market, whether to have a single currency, reducing the powers of the House of Lords, or the future of the monarchy are continuously under debate. Listening to all points of view educates and informs people so they are able to make educated and informed choices. An informed public almost always excludes extreme views and extreme groups realise that they are likely to be marginalised if they deviate too far away from the public consensus.

In the recent US Presidential and Senate elections almost $3 billion were spent, largely on the electronic media. By the time the people cast their votes they were clear about what each candidate stood for. The most interesting were the presidential debates. It showed that the public was not just impressed by glib talk but factors such as ‘likebility’ and who was more ‘human’ changed the opinion polls in favour of Bush, factors that would have been irrelevant in the press. The press plays a complimentary, but different, role to the electronic media. In Western democracies the electronic media hardly ever airs the government stance on an issue without allowing the opposition to give their version. Once the public hears all sides of the argument its verdict is reflected in the opinion polls. All governments take serious note of the opinion polls for they are antennae that act as an early warning system sending signals to government and opposition and to interest groups as well. Hence debates on the electronic media perform two most important tasks in promoting a democratic culture: first, the building of consensus and second forcing government to become sensitive to public opinion. Moreover a free electronic media can protect the public through investigative programmes that keep a check on the government’s abuse of power or those that protect consumers from extortion, adulteration etc.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, even when we had democracy, governments were not willing to free the electronic media. While General Zia was able to control information and benefit by it to some extent, controlling TV and radio in the last 12 years became counter productive. Not only was the print media free but unlike in Zia ul Haq’s period, cable and satellite TV enabled the public to get information from alternate sources. As a result the government controlled electronic media became totally discredited. PTV and radio news became BB Nama or Nawaz Nama, depending on who was in power. The constant flow of propaganda from the electronic media led to widespread disillusionment and cynicism. While the press came up with startling corruption exposes, the electronic media remained silent. No wonder people were willing to believe the worst. Some of the biggest scams like the Mehran Bank, the co-operative scandal, Taj Company, power contracts, yellow cab scheme, the motorway, Chunia Industrial Estate, Raiwind and Surrey palaces etc. etc. were widely reported in the free and vibrant press, but no proper debate projecting the opposition’s views was ever allowed on the electronic media. The awful truth is that crooks cannot afford the scrutiny of a free media and hence real democracy.

Had there been allowed a proper debate on major issues, political parties would have been forced to constitute shadow cabinets. Shadow ministers would have had to prepare properly before going on TV debates and would have pressurised the government to free information, thereby promoting a democratic culture in the process. Above all, TV debates on issues like the Kalabagh Dam (before taking a decision on the subject), provincial rights, Shariah, or the unjust colonial education system would have educated the public and helped in consensus building, bringing the nation together. India is far more diverse than Pakistan and has far more conflicting interests, but in the last 10 years, because of a free electronic media and decentralisation (since the hold of Congress has weakened), it appears to have become more cohesive than Pakistan.

What puzzles me is why the Musharraf government has not opened up the electronic media, especially since unlike the Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto governments it had no skeletons in its cupboard. In fact it could have demolished both the ex-premiers and their cronies through a credible electronic media rather than through issuing ordinances. The government should have invited Kulsoom, Nawabzada Nasrullah and all its critics on TV debates and allowed opinion makers, intellectuals and members of civil society to question them on their performance of the past twelve years. How would Kulsoom Nawaz or any other PML(N) leader have answered questions about the storming of the Supreme Court or the 15th Amendment or beating up of journalists. What answer could the Nawabzada have to the question that first he invited the army by campaigning through the GDA on a one-point agenda to save democracy by removing Nawaz Sharif (there was no constitutional way) and then the very person who was a threat to democracy is embraced in the ARD to save democracy? It would have made interesting TV and would have been excellent political education for the 35 million television viewers of Pakistan (as opposed to 1.5 million newspaper readers). If the government’s stated position was not to allow corrupt politicians to contest elections then why stop all the other politicians from the electronic media till the next elections? How is an alternate leadership supposed to develop if it is not given a chance to reach out to people; just as how can the people decide on a new leadership if all they have seen in the last 12 years have been the faces of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto? Did not the entire American people have a year of press and TV coverage and public rallies of the presidential candidates before they cast their ballots to elect their new leader?

By not allowing any politician to appear on the electronic media or hold mass rallies, the Musharraf government has frozen the status quo and allowed the political vacuum to persist. Resultantly, the discredited politicians have been allowed to regroup by default due to a combination of their press statements and the continuous downward economic slide. Professional politicians understand the print media far better than the military government and have exploited it brilliantly. Their press statements are unchallenged in the print media whereas a debate on the electronic media would have exposed the loot and plunder and mismanagement this country was put through in the last 12 years of democracy.
While poverty increased three times (in 1988 there were 17 million people below the poverty line and today there are almost 50 million) and the total debt went up three times, some of the political class became billionaires. It is these politicians who are the beneficiaries of the current media policy of this government. If the government wants a change and wants clean people to emerge on the political scene, then it should allow debates on issues like the type we see on Indian TV where politicians from across the political spectrum are represented. Only an informed public can be the jury that will give a verdict in favour of those who stand for reform and real democracy in Pakistan.

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