Writing about Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) is not easy. Accessing their archives and official records, which might shed light on its collapse as an institution, is nearly impossible. There are only few books available about PTV – mostly personal memoirs – written by the two former Managing Directors (MDs) – Agha Nasir’s This is PTV, Another Day Another World & Gumshuda Log (The Bygone Personalities), and Akhtar Waqar Azeem’s Hum Bhi Wahin Maujood Thay (We Too Were Present There). In addition to these, a few interviews may be found of former senior officials of PTV, both in print and audio-video formats.
So, one has to tread with caution while writing on the wrecking of a national institution like PTV – having lost its credibility as a national broadcaster, and having lost its audience that once revered its programs. The story of how PTV has been botched to the present state of affairs, may be divided into two parts: the incessant interference of successive governments from the time of its inception, which never allowed it to function with full professionalism; and, the political appointments at various levels which compromised its quality of programs.
We begin by scrolling down the pages of history with regard to the editorial policy of PTV.
In This is PTV, Agha Nasir recounts the government control on PTV from the onset by those at the helm of affairs – ‘Except for a brief period, PTV has not enjoyed freedom of genuine expression and the right of access to real information.’ General Ayub Khan considered it ‘his privilege and prerogative to formulate PTV policy’, and his two powerful information ministers, Qudrat-ullah Shahab and Altaf Gohar, made sure that PTV didn’t breathe without their consent. It became customary with every successive ruler. General Zia-ul-Haq used PTV for propagating his Islamic ideology, introduced Islamic programs, and imposed strict dress codes for women appearing on the screen.
General Zia-ul-Haq used PTV for propagating his Islamic ideology, introduced Islamic programs, and imposed strict dress codes for women appearing on the screen.
This kind of control and censorship somewhat changed, when Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister. She allowed certain liberty at various levels, but at the same time, appointed a number of PPP stalwarts in different ranks and positions. It was nothing new though. Her predecessors had done the same, but not to such an extent as her successor Nawaz Sharif would do, in his turn. In Agha Nasir’s words, ‘He [Nawaz Sharif] was quite patronising towards some journalists. At times, he went out of his way to please them, sometimes, with lucrative postings and favors.’
An incident narrated by Agha Nasir in Gumshuda Log, illuminates things even further.
When Musleh Uddin was the news editor in 1972 at Lahore Station, a telephone call came from the celebrated test cricketer, Hafeez Kardar. He was the President of Pakistan Cricket Board, and also a provincial minister in the PPP’s government. Kardar enquired about the possible names of the commentators PTV had shortlisted for the upcoming test series. When Agha Nasir put this enquiry to Musleh Uddin, he retorted, ‘Do we ever ask them which players they’ve selected for the matches…?’ [translated from Urdu]
This incident explains many things for our understanding of PTV. Firstly, the government officials couldn’t ever resist interfering in the affairs of the organisation – never allowing it a free editorial policy. Secondly, Musleh Uddin’s response corroborates that professionalism and integrity prevailed in that institution – in the early years at least. And, it also shows that the appointments of those individuals were made on the basis of merit, not cronyism – it had to wait until the 1990s.
The nose-dive of the institution started in the 1990s, when the two political rivals – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – started using PTV for demonising each other, in their respective terms as the Prime Ministers. Simultaneously, they found a unique method of reducing unemployment in the country. That was to induct their party workers, their friends and relatives in all national institutions and departments, including PTV. Formerly, personal loyalty was the criterion for the choice of the topman in PTV, now it was in all ranks and positions. The restoration of the PTV Union by Benazir Bhutto, maybe done in a democratic spirit, removed accountability from the system. Now it became virtually impossible to fire lazy and incompetent producers and other staff.
“Now here’s a warning: I may not have a dish antenna, but a large number of people have it, and they are not watching PTV anymore. That is what happened to Radio Pakistan, and this is what will, sooner than the Ministry of Information thinks, happen to PTV. As I say: Here’s PTV, there’s the news."
The first private television broadcast in 1990, by Shalimar Television Network (STN)/ Network Television Marketing (NTN), added insult to injury. The government of Benazir Bhutto had envisaged this new TV channel with zero infrastructure – as all the programs were going to be outsourced, and the channel was allowed to subscribe to any news broadcast of their choice. That introduced CNN to the Pakistani audience. As Agha Nasir reports – that is how the nation watched the live coverage of the Iraq war in 1993. Eyeballs shifted from PTV Khabarnama to the new screen. The idea of outsourcing news and other programs did more than that. The STN/NTN rights were owned by the people from an advertising background, which also paved the way for the top management slots in PTV for advertising professionals. They changed the whole outlook and the culture of the national broadcaster. Consequently, PTV too started outsourcing its programs. This move found the PTV producers lucrative avenues outside of their own jobs. Though, the rules did not allow them to work outside PTV, but their political affiliations, and the PTV union, made it possible for them. The programming department started its journey to the graveyard.
Zafar Iqbal Mirza (fondly known as ZIM), a former Resident Editor (Lahore) of DAWN newspaper, used to write his much-awaited weekly column by the name of A Letter by Lahori. The Last Man In is a collection of his Letters, spanning over three decades – from 1980s to 2000. In one of the Letters in that collection – Here’s PTV, There’s the News – published on May 6, 1994, he writes: “Now here’s a warning: I may not have a dish antenna, but a large number of people have it, and they are not watching PTV anymore. That is what happened to Radio Pakistan, and this is what will, sooner than the Ministry of Information thinks, happen to PTV. As I say: Here’s PTV, there’s the news. “There” means BBC-TV, Doordarshan, and CNN. Soon enough, viewers will have access to other networks around the world. Watch out, PTV. Pakistan may be the Mohatarma’s [Benazir Bhutto] personal fief but the rest of the world is not.”
We had to wait until 2002 – when PEMRA came – for ZIM’s prophecy to come true, completely.
This is the first part in a series of articles on PTV. Read Part 2 here.