The PTV conundrum by Muhammad Abubakar Umer

The federal government has raised the licence fee of state-run broadcaster, Pakistan Television (PTV), from Rs35 to Rs100 per month, putting an additional burden of a whopping Rs20 billion on the people.

This step was initially proposed during a board meeting of the PTV in October 2019 to meet the financial needs of the corporation, mainly because of its dwindling revenues due to the gradual decline in viewership and advertisements.

Without addressing the deep-seated structural problems of PTV and catering to the cross-cutting technological and informational needs, raising the licence fees is not a solution. It will only be a short-term financial cushion for the organization and will not mean much in the absence of a viable business model informed by the dynamics of today’s highly competitive media market.

Without fixing the root cause, viewership and advertisements will continue to fall. In order to address these issues and predict the future challenges emanating from the widespread sources of information online, it is about time that PTV switched from a state-run broadcaster to an independent public-service media (PSM) – that is free from the influence of the government, political and commercial groups, and serves the interests of all the citizens by providing diverse, impartial and creative content.

Digital media is offering numerous sources of information. Evidence from the Mapping Digital Media (MDM) project – the largest international study of media policy so far – shows that some decline of audience on broadcast platforms is almost universal. A part of viewership may have migrated away from the public broadcaster, given the increased options in this digital era and relatively dull and old-fashioned presentation of the content especially for the younger audiences.

However, the state-broadcasters, beholden as they are to certain particular political interests, have suffered more due to lack of credible content. Certain public service broadcasters – BBC in the UK and RTVE in Spain – have, however, been able to compensate for the loss of audience by launching new mobile and online services, whereas others – PTV or NHK in Japan – due to political and regulatory constraints, have not been able to fully come to terms with the new realities of digital age.

For any democratic society to function effectively, its people must have access to independent information. Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) can serve as a cornerstone of democracy in Pakistan if it fulfils the basic indicators highlighted by Unesco. PSB is financed and controlled by the public, for the public, free from political interference and pressure from commercial forces. It should inform, educate and entertain its people.

With editorial independence, diversity and creativity in its content, and accountability and transparency, PSB in the form of PTV – as a true representative of all kinds of voices instead of the government’s mouthpiece – will not only serve the people and the state but also the political parties that have been victim of its propaganda during different times.

Digital media offers a platform where everyone can freely become a producer as well as consumer of the information. With no editorial checks and filters on information, it is totally up to the user to assess the validity of the information being shared.

According to a study by the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) about digital media, false news travels six times faster than true/correct news. Furthermore, false political news disseminates almost three times faster than it takes all other types of fake news to even reach half as many people. This posits great dangers for any democratic society. In such a scenario, not having a well-established, responsive and credible public service media with well-established online/digital presence – to which people may turn to fact-check the validity of the information being consumed – may prove quite deteriorating for the citizenry.

So, the change from state-run broadcaster to public service media isn’t just about press freedom or credible/diverse content but also to confront the challenges of fake news and potential deep fakes through accurate information instead of censorship.

Losing audience base is just one of the many dangers associated with propaganda-based state-run broadcasters. Literature regarding media and communications strongly suggests that with the increased and easily accessible options of sources of information online, audiences may choose to live in their personalised media ‘bubble’, by choosing information that reflects their own interests and viewpoints.

The digital media architecture can build imaginary walls around its users, based on their interests, location and routine behaviour which can eventually result in the erosion of a common media space where people can talk about the different cultures and alternative viewpoints that form their community, and develop collective identities and emotions.

After slightly improving from 159 in 2013 to 139 in 2018, ranking in the World Press Freedom Index for Pakistan started deteriorating again and the country currently stands at 145 in 2020. Broadly speaking, the political economy of the media landscape both private and state-run, statutory-regulations, weak democratic/legal institutions, and the lack of independence/effectiveness of the regulator (Pemra) itself are some of the main hurdles to realise the goal of free media in its true sense.

PTV’s transition from a state-run broadcaster to public service media may be a good starting point towards realising the dream of a truly democratic society, which is representative of all the voices, cultures, ethnicities, languages, religions and political ideologies; and one that promotes our shared values and appreciates mutual differences.

Let us hope that with a 185 percent increase in the licence fees, PTV will serve the people better, and that there is deep thinking behind this step.

The writer, a Chevening Scholar, is currently studying Media and Communications Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Twitter: @abubakarumer

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