Pakistani news media defies conventional wisdom in more ways than one. To understand how, consider these: the government is only one among thousands of media owners in the country yet private news outlets often fail to question and critique the government's policies without fear or favor; there are many newspapers, television channels and radio stations operating in several regional languages but both their impact and audiences remain marginal as media outlets based mostly in big cities such as Karachi and Lahore and operating in Urdu dominate the national news scene; and all news outlets, without exception, give a huge amount of airtime and print space to powerful political and non-political interest groups (which, on their own, form a tiny fraction of the country’s total news audience) rather than giving voice to the voiceless and empowering the powerless which number in many hundred millions and comprise a vast majority of the readers and viewers of news.
What could explain these contradictions is that bringing out newspapers and running broadcast and digital news organizations is a costly affair. That the ownership of Pakistan's largest media houses is concentrated in the hands of a few influential and rich families only further corroborates this fact. The need for a ceaseless supply of money to keep the news operations running, therefore, makes media outlets in Pakistan dependent upon the government advertising and other state subsidies in the form of tax exemptions. Various parts of the government, particularly security and intelligence agencies, use this leverage to make media houses follow an official line especially on issues concerning external security, foreign policy, fight against religious militancy, handling of sub-nationalist movements for regional autonomy and even the running of national economy (particularly those part of it that are linked to the armed forces and their personnel). Being heavily dependent on the government to conduct their business in an atmosphere free of coercion and other physical and financial threats, private advertisers, too, follow the official lead, forcing media outlets to concentrate on the propagation of state-sponsored narratives on the subjects listed above.
Equally importantly, readers and viewers pay only a fraction, if any at all, of the production costs incurred by news outlets. Access to television, radio and internet is free and newspaper prices cover just a small portion of their overall costs. It is, therefore, not surprising that news outlets generally appear as the mouthpieces of the society’s powerful sections which can offer them both the clout and the capital they always need. This financial model – high production costs to be set off with sources generated through means other than sales – also explains why news outlets based in smaller cities and towns – and operating in regional languages -- do not do well. Being far from the financial and commercial centers, they do not have access to big money and their audiences are generally poor and small (given that literacy in regional language remains limited).
So, while transparency about media ownership in Pakistan remains high, the financial and business relations between the government and media houses, on the one hand, and between private businesses and news outlets, on the other hand, remain rather opaque. Most media houses presented in this database do not appear to have made an active effort to hide their ownership – except, of course, in one case in which two newspapers have been found to be owned by a proxy owner who actually works as an accountant in the company that he owns on paper. And yet this rather high level of transparency is not contributing to an increased freedom of expression, plurality of voices in the media and a fair and independent critique of the government's policies.
For more, check out the database below.