Democracy attaches a huge weight to people’s desires and hence their ability to choose. As their choices are molded by information they possess, it is imperative that information in a democratic society be ‘social’. Such an arrangement requires that the information be a product of the whole of society and hence necessitates access to information for all. This egalitarian view of information, for the information to be accurate, calls for an equality of ‘reach of message’ according to which each person in a democratic society should, theoretically, have an opportunity to broadcast his or her message equally. It can reasonably be concluded that such an arrangement is impractical and this principle has to be negotiated with the restrictions of the modern world. Democratic principles dictate that if there has to be such an inequality regarding the reach of message, it better be such that benefits the worst-off in the society. Treating information as ‘social’ implies that we also treat inequality in the reach of message as a social inequality. This idea serves as the basis for the principle of freedom of the press that modern democracies subscribe to.
To be able to see the grotesque manifestation of the violation of these principles of journalism in Pakistan, we need to understand the nature of the domestic news media conglomerates that dominate electronic and press journalism in the country as well as certain characteristics of the Pakistani public. These two variables intertwine to result in a situation that is different from what the corporate ownership of media provides for in other countries.
Firstly, giant media conglomerates in Pakistan are mostly inorganic in the sense that they have not emerged through an actual business in journalism but from a transfer of wealth from other industries. It is not to say that organic media houses are non-existent but they also have to adapt to popular business practices to remain popular as they have a commercial interest to look after. After all, it takes a press of a button for the consumer to switch to other channels broadcasting ‘friendly’ facts. To attract viewership, responsible news media has to sometimes tone down their voices on certain issues. Furthermore, as influential media houses are large corporations, there will always be only a few such businesses and hence an oligopoly results. Hence, it is not hard to assume that a collusion of sorts between these news media giants is inevitable. They will soon find out that their profits can increase manifold if they don’t contend with each other on issues that are important but controversial in the public’s eye and compete on rather trivial matters. It is not to stay that they collude on every issue but they are very likely to disagree on their agenda only on matters unimportant to the majority; this results in an under-representation of minority opinions in mainstream media. One manifestation of corporate control of media in Pakistan is the ubiquitous sensationalism. This clearly shows the consumerism prevalent in the media. As it is easier to produce sensationalist media reports than to conduct actual research on issues, they have successfully attuned the Pakistani public to viewing and even craving such air time.
Secondly, the majority of Pakistani public is simply unaware of their rights and liberties under democracy and they view the news media, especially the electronic news media, as a device that has educated them. This perception also emerges from the repeated assertions of the news media as the sole flag-bearer of education of people about their rights. Yes, they do educate people but only about some of their rights! They have successfully used their capital of information to convince people that the news media is sympathetic to the public’s cause but in fact, they only use their immense influence on the public to desensitize them over violations of their certain rights and overcharge them on others. It is a natural flow from the intertwining of these circumstances to the complete subjugation of the public to the ideas of few such news media groups. It is not a relation much disconnected from what Marx explained in terms of means of production but only in the sense that instead of means of production, the media elite have the means to distribute information and these means are far more than what any other entity has in the country.
One can argue that such a situation can be averted given the level ground of social media but in fact, the same inequality manifests itself on the domestic social media. Firstly, as social media is now similarly monetized with featured content, the financially sound media groups still exert a massive influence on what a layperson sees on his or her Facebook newsfeed. Secondly, social media is itself structured so that it only views content that a user is likely to agree and feel comfortable with. It is not to say that alternative media is absent from the country’s journalism scene but it still fails to resonate the real issues that need to be discussed. This can, again, be linked to the agenda-setting the mainstream media has exercised due to its immense influence on the public; the alternative media also reflects those prejudices although in a watered-down manner.
The status-quo allows the Pakistani news media to use their capital of information to evoke emotions, influence behaviors, and even build debates that they want to engage the public with. This has obviously resulted from a glaringly unjust distribution of the ‘reach of message’ in the Pakistani society owing to the inorganic nature of media groups and the illiteracy of the Pakistani public regarding their own rights.