To understand the media in Pakistan, it is necessary to consider the way in which it is structured and the imperatives that guide it. In the past two decades, dozens of privately owned channels and networks have burst on to the scene, each of which exists primarily as a business venture rather than a purveyor entertainment or information for their own sake. Profit, often expressed in terms of ratings (themselves measured very poorly in this country), is what drives the media in Pakistan today, informing the programming that we see and the news that we receive.

Ideology and politics are grafted on to this underlying capitalist structure. The actors behind these networks have partisan allegiances and alliances of their own, and can use the pulpit provided by their channels to pursue their interests by propagating their views and targeting their opponents. This process is facilitated by the absence of any real constraints on what can or cannot be said. While PEMRA’s powers are broadly defined, it often lacks the capacity and will to keep the media in check; when it does take action, more often that not it is aimed at safeguarding the ideological narratives of the state. Furthermore, unlike many other parts of the world, advertisers in Pakistan have thus far shown little interest in severing ties with channels disseminating problematic content.

The ideological dimension of the media is also shaped by its close connections to state power. In a context where journalists and anchors are poorly trained and, at any rate, lack access to mechanisms through which to gather accurate and verifiable information (from law enforcement, for example, or other state agencies), the only sources of news become official press releases and statements made by those involved with events as they unfold. The reliance on these two sources has important ideological implications; in the case of the former, news outlets essentially parrot the line fed to them by the government and with the latter, they end up propagating views that may be completely wrong or disconnected from reality. In either case, it is the truth that remains obscured from public view.

When there was an explosion in Lahore’s DHA earlier this week, much was made of the media’s irresponsible coverage of the event. As is always the case when these things happen, breathless reporters and frantic anchors took to the airwaves to report on what was happening. Cue footage of wrecked buildings, injured people, corpses, and general chaos, all broadcast without any consideration of the ethical questions involved in displaying such images. The media also took to whipping up mass hysteria by ‘confirming’ that additional explosions had happened in Gulberg and on Davis Road. As it turned out, this was not the case but the damage had already been done; the streets of Lahore were in a state of pandemonium as people rushed across the city to collect and be with their loved ones.

None of this should be surprising. As indicated above, the profit motive encourages news channels to prioritise speed over accuracy, with the ability to ‘break’ news being a sure way to attract additional viewers and generate more revenue. In the absence of effective regulation and more formal channels through which to collect accurate information, the tendency to rush to report rumour as fact is only exacerbated.

What is more insidious, perhaps, is the way in which the factors listed above conspire to create an atmosphere in which the media can be relied upon to do two things, namely purveying bigotry and unquestioningly endorsing state power. Indeed, the two things are inter-connected. In the case of bigotry, it is well-known that nothing sells like confirmation bias; people love to be told that they are correct, and like it even more when the views being confirmed map on to existing prejudices and predilections. The likes of Amir Liaqat and Orya Maqbool Jan, for example, would never be accused of possessing first-rate minds or sharp intellects; nonetheless, their pronouncements are often treated as gospel by supporters who find affirmation in the support anchors such as these express for the persecution of minorities, women, and other marginalised groups. Again, the fact that the purveyors of hate on television command large audiences only reinforces the calculating logic driving the capitalist enterprises that provide them with a platform.

Consider also the way in which the media is quick to swallow any claims made by the government, at least in specific domains. When it comes to reporting on ongoing operations against terror, for example, the media uncritically swallows claims about X numbers of terrorists being killed or Y number of hideouts being destroyed. Questions about due process, the rule of law, and the past complicity of the state in tolerating militant actors are simply swept aside or ignored as the media enthusiastically embraces nationalist narratives generated in the name of national security. The consequences of this become even more dangerous when seeing how the security rationale progressively extends to wider spheres of activity; from militants, the ambit expands to dissidents, bloggers, ‘liberals’, minorities, alleged ‘foreign agents’ and so on and so forth. All come to be tarred by the same brush by a media utterly in thrall to the establishment that feeds it.

The media has an important role to play in any democracy, providing citizens with information and using its position in society to hold those in power accountable. At the heart of this project is a capacity to think critically and with integrity, always asking questions and maintaining a healthy skepticism about those who wield power. The Pakistani media repeatedly fails to do this and for all the criticism that is directed towards it, it is important to remember that its shortcomings are built into its very structure. This is unlikely to change any time soon.