Growing up in the Pakistan of 1980s, a time before Cartoon Network and HBO, one of my fondest childhood memories is Ma’a waking me up in the morning for school, just as Mustansar Hussain Tarar did the morning ‘Chacha gi’ show. At the conclusion of his show, PTV aired a much awaited five-minute cartoon segment. And again, in the afternoon, just as the PTV transmission resumed (with tilawat-e-Quran), around 4 p.m. was the airing of an extended thirty-minute cartoon fragment.
These brief moments on PTV were the highlight of each school-going student in those days. My entire routine, and that of my siblings, revolved around these two cartoon segments. If you did not finish breakfast and drink your milk in full, you could not watch the morning cartoons. And if you had not completed the homework, you were banned from watching the afternoon segment.
The dominion of PTV over the daily routine, narrative and discourse of the citizens of Pakistan, back then, was near absolute. Sunday mornings with ‘Sona Chandi’; Wednesday nights with ‘Andhera Ujala’; dinner at nine sharp, while watching the news; And if you stay up late enough, the conclusion of the transmission each day (after ‘Halat-e-Hazra’), at midnight, with recitation of the national anthem!
And so this week, as PTV celebrates its 50th Anniversary, having been reduced to a fraction of its past glory, it is pertinent to pause and review the distance traveled by this great national institution, the losses suffered, and the perils that still await its path.
The story of PTV started with humble beginnings, with a tent on the back lot of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, in 1961, originally as a privately owned television channel, under the stewardship of Syed Wajid Ali, in collaboration with a Japanese enterprise, Nippon Electric Company. Subsequently, on 26 November 1964, the then President Ayub Khan inaugurated the first official television station, which commenced broadcast from Lahore, followed by Dhaka (1965), Rawalpindi (1965), and Karachi (1966), and was incorporated, on 29 May 1967, as the “Pakistan Television Corporation”, under the Company Act, 1913.
In 1971, as part of the nationalization program, PTV was brought completely under the ownership and management of the government. As a result, through successive policies introduced during this period, the news reporting and cultural ambit of PTV got streamlined as a mouthpiece of the government narrative. Gradually, journalistic independence yielded to ‘national interest’. While, on the one hand, Bhuttos speeches and jalsas were covered in all their pomp and glory during the 1970s, on the other, the opposition movement (mainly led by Asghar Khan) barely made it to the news headlines of PTV. Independent opinion on the atrocities committed by ‘Pakistani’ government in Bangladesh were shunned from the discourse; tales of military might and victory against ‘Bharti’ forces were glorified, even deified.
Nonetheless, even amidst this nationally governed agenda, glimmers of independent thinkers, writers and analysts could still be felt in certain parts of the PTV network. However, these too were quickly snuffed out and muted by the military boots of General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. New policies were introduced: women had to wear a head-scarf at all times while narrating the news; drama serials were subjected to strict censorship on account of male-female interaction, and any narrative that displeased the military government. Mujahideen became the heroes on PTV news. Mullahs became the messiahs. Sachal and Bahu were vilified.
As is the case with most journeys into the darkness of conservatism, PTV too found it impossible to climb back into the light of modernity in the post Zia-ul-Haq period of the 1990s. Government continued to dictate the narrative of the time. Dissent and independent analysis soon became a fable of the past. And the public at large, having no other television alternative, became attuned to the idea of State narrative being the only acceptable news and analysis.
This monopoly of PTV ended in the early 2000s, with the ushering in of the age of private television networks. During the Musharraf years, despite all of its military character, independent media found a new voice. Suddenly, dissent, especially against the government and rulers of the time, became the ‘real’ news. Coupled with an influx of international television channels, especially from neighboring India, the censorship policy had to be relaxed. No longer were women mandated to wear a headscarf in order to appear on TV. Advertisements became bolder. And a new generation of ‘anchors’ and ‘experts’ announced their arrival by splitting atoms with the State narrative of PTV.
The public, enamored by the freedom and audacity of the private news channels and entertainment networks, started to turn away from PTV. In stark juxtaposition to the conservative (even biased) State narrative of PTV, people started to pay more heed to the (evil?) sensationalism of ‘breaking news’. And this silent cultural revolution swept across Pakistan, PTV struggled to keep pace, eventually losing its market share and public confidence.
Today, sadly, PTV is perhaps the last channel that one turns to for either entertainment, or news. It is considered the farthest place from the world of independent analysis, dispassionate news or even thrilling drama serials. It is still frozen in a moment that belongs to the yesteryears. A time when listening to forgotten folk songs, or governmental view on the latest political drama, was the only alternative available to people. But the world and Pakistan, it seems, has moved on.
Something has to give, for PTV to get back into the game. As a State-owned channel, of course it must pay heed to its policies of inculcating greater awareness of our own history, heritage and culture. Of course it must continue to have the character and deed of a ‘family channel’, and air programs in regional languages. Of course it must abide by (some of) the stricter censorship policies that reflect the larger sentiment of our populi. And of course it can continue to (somewhat) plead the government’s case on national and international issues.
But even amidst all these constraints, PTV needs to find a way to keep pace with the dynamic modern world. It must find a way to strike that careful balance between being conservative, yet credible, that other State-owned institutions such as the BBC in the United Kingdom, or CBC in Canada were able to do.
It must realize that the censorship standards of the bygone years no longer apply to entertainment of the modern day. That in 2014, people are no longer fooled by the State narrative on political issues. That independence of journalism, even when it is critiquing the very masters of PTV, must be demonstrated as a brand of credibility. That the history of the world is teeming with examples of cultural icons like Edward Murrow, who were able to critique the system from within. That this legacy, despite its perils, holds the promise of salvation for a waning PTV viewership.
And as soon as PTV and its management reclaim this spirit of independence and modernity, we can all start the journey towards saving this great national institution from itself.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter