In defence of official media


Zaheer Bhatti

WITH the introduction of Television in the sixties and subsequent transformation Radio and Television into Corporate Bodies, the official wing of the electronic media in Pakistan which drew its subsistence from the Government to start with, as the Government appreciably subsidized Broadcast Development projects which it considered essential for the State but were otherwise non-viable financially. It was a perfect workable equation as long as that was carried out faithfully by the Government which resulted in exemplary strides and achievements by the professional media core working single-mindedly and throwing up a great bunch of creative talent; its dramatic and entertainment products becoming the most sought after across the borders in the seventies and eighties. PTV then at its best appeared to be making great strides.
But the first signs of retrogression appeared as subsequent Governments strapped of resources gradually withdrew subsidies and required the official arms of the media to be on their own, but continued pressing for non-viable projects. The situation worsened with increasing interference in professional matters and the Government stuffing the institution with political appointments and seeking political manipulation through the official Radio and Television while pretending to encourage freedom of expression which directly affected their credibility, besides sadly inducting compliant bureaucracy at the top replacing professionals to run both Radio and Television, which became its nemesis. The electronic media scene where the official media held monopoly until the late nineties had seen some competition with the induction of Commercialized versions of FM Radio and a semi-Government public-private partnered Shalimar Television Network (STN) which steadily started eating into the revenues of Pakistan Television.
But while heralding a new era of media expansion in the country, the hammer actually fell on the official outlets, as an array of private TV Channels, Cable Networks and FM Radio outlets were launched in the country under the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority established ironically by the military regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf on 1st of March 2002, which this scribe had the opportunity to serve as Media Consultant in its formative years along with its current Chairman who as an Information Man was at that time made in-charge of Public Relations, as we together laid its professional foundations under the able stewardship of Mian Mohammad Javed, the Former Chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority who had been installed as the first PEMRA Chairman.
But unfortunately with the departure of Mian Sahib on completion of his tenure, the private sector media proliferated to become non-compliant monopolies, and an unequal competition and race for revenues between the official media with an expensive countrywide infrastructure, and the cable-fed private Channels which could be set up and run for a fraction of the PTV financial inputs ensued, easily eating into the total national advertising kitty by affording far cheaper ads and flouting most regulations. But the competition became lopsided further for lack of uniform application of the Code of Conduct and Advertising Policy upon public and private sector media and an uneven playing field; allowing over the private sector media, what was not permitted over official outlets.
The official media content also started to get a beating with the private sector luring noted writers, producers, actors and designers of PTV into private Productions. PTV bosses at that time sensing the inevitable talent drain willingly encouraged its professional core to engage in private productions provided that they would complete their official assignments. That somehow did not work which resulted in PTV dramatic productions coming to a grinding halt and the official outlet instead reduced to buying second rate stereotyped run-of-the-mill stuff from the private production houses and rendering its own production facilities redundant with colossal idle time on men and machines. With the ageing of PTV as its hard-core professionals retired or kicked the bucket, the challenge to run a viable organization, was administered a telling blow by political appointments with no experience or clue to running electronic media replacing both professionals and bureaucrats, and a totally disorientated set of individuals forming the official BODs in PB and PTV Corporations. But it was patently unfair to have appointed Naeem Bokhari as Chairman PTV if the Government was not sure it could back him firmly, as did the Supreme Court in upholding appointment of the current Chairman of PEMRA. Naeem Bokhari is a multi-dimensional personality being an outstanding lawyer, a unique politician rendering advice to men at the top without joining any political party, and a celebrated compere of numerous PTV programs, having anchored marathon general election transmissions in the past.
While this scribe has been opposed to outsiders manning professional leadership positions in the official media, Naeem Bokhari was an exception having been associated with PTV for decades since his youthful days due to his eloquence and oratory brilliance, and was part of the PTV family; one, who one knows had been offered various positions in the government hierarchy before and avoided the net, but somehow succumbed to accept a position he never imagined he would have to quit so unceremoniously. The sad part of it is, that soon after taking charge with his fingertips instantly on the pulse of the ailing Institution he had set about correcting course by removing fat-salaried inexperienced individuals in professional positions. One learns that with his exit, most of them are back in their coveted positions, which is tragic.
Arshad Khan was another IT professional who when installed in PTV, fell foul of political intrigue within the ruling party which twice led him out of the loop, which is very unfortunate. PTV in dire financial straits needs major load shedding to become viable and professionally stable once again. Unless that happens post-haste, one fears that the course correction required by the official media, to concentrate on the substance of content to truly reflect our National ethos, may go by default and yield space to uncharted social media with their disinformation networks working for rogue States like India to run down adversaries.
—The writer is a media professional, member of Pioneering team of PTV and a veteran ex Director Programmes.

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