Media and the Role of the State

by Dr. Tauseef Ahmed Khan


Development in communication between humans paved the way for a change in society. Since the earliest times, human civilisation used signs and later symbols to communicate and share ideas. Later on, with the development of language, humans began to transfer knowledge.

The archives relating to human evolution reveal that the Aryans used verbal communication to transfer ideas and thoughts; generally, these were lyrical or poetic in nature. The orators used to sing stories of courage of their great warriors on the battlefield.

The early Greeks and Romans had learned the art of depicting a story using pictures and ornamental paintings. They were amongst the first society to learn the art of writing; their influential and their kings knew how to read and write. Handwritten books were only available in the homes of the rich and powerful. Most of the people were illiterate and communicated orally.

For a thousand years, written material was being used in Western Europe and Britain, i.e. during the Dark and Middle Ages, to propagate religion and religious beliefs. The first newspaper of the western world, Actadiurna was published in 59 B.C. In Rome, the orders of the State were written and preserved in manuscripts, and were later disseminated throughout the country. This system continued till the end of the Roman Empire.

In 1450, a German citizen named John Cantin invented a transferable type, thus expediting social change in that society. With the development in means of production, the nature of communication also evolved; it became more complex.

Earlier, communication was limited to matters pertaining to personal needs or exchange of personal views, but with the advent of agriculture, the family expanded into a tribe and later a state. This resulted in change in the nature of the message communicated. Governments began communicating with subjects using state orders. The order of the king was communicated to the people, preceded by the beat of the drum. It was obligatory upon every person to follow the order. Whoever trangreaseed or refused to abide was termed a rebel and persecuted. In ancient times the state used to pass orders orally; later when written words became in vogue the state orders were written on stones and animal hides.

Excavations at the Egyptian pyramids led to the discovery of several stones. Upon inspection it was revealed that the inscription on these stones contained state orders. The state, in various parts of the world, began to control such communication and the means thereof. The evolution of the dictatorial state forced the communicators / presenters of communication to follow state orders.

The intellectuals and poets were required to extol the king only. The Greek political philosophers considered it amongst the characteristics of a healthy state if it were to allow its poets to dwell outside the physical confines of state territory so that their thoughts would not affect the discipline of the “good state”.

The evolution in means of production changed societies, and human civilisation began its journey from a tribal society to feudalism, thus expanding the scope of  linguistics. People began to write on papyrus and animal hide. Later, the Chinese developed paper in its current form. In time, the first newspaper was published in Germany; these newspapers became a challenge for the authoritarian state.

A major flaw in these systems was that the kingship was totalitarian; there was no concept of transfer of power to the people. Thus, it was deemed rebellion to have liberal or unconventional views, or to criticise the status quo. Thus, the state only allowed publication of those newspapers that were non critical or served as the official mouthpiece.

The invention of the steam engine became a harbinger of industrial revolution. Setting up of new industries attracted mass rural migration to urban industrial centres. New cities were established. With the industrial revolution, the literacy rate also saw an upward trend, a new middle class was borne, and the masses learned to organise themselves into groups.

The social and economic revolution created a huge chasm between the king, parliament, and church, making room for the intellectuals to freely express and disseminate their views  on people’s rights using posters pamphlets and newspapers. When the Magna Carta was signed, it caused the clergy to separate from the affairs of the state. The three pillars of the state, i.e the administration, the parliament, and the judiciary began to take shape.

The French revolution occurred in France in 1789. The French intellectuals played a pivotal role in causing the revolution. French philosopher Voltaire’s famous quote, “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” was communicated to the masses through newspapers. And thus the French revolution created history for human rights for all times to come.

The institutions of administration, legislation, and the judiciary came into existence subsequently. Democracy strengthened the peaceful and legitimate devolution of power to the common man, so he may decide his own fate. Common men now had the power to chose their leader and hold him accountable.

To ensure the people’s right to know, the concept of freedom of press was established. Thus, the concept of 4th pillar of the state developed. A new era of the relationship between state and press dawned. The countries where democracy sustained, the press was given complete freedom to transmit information without fear. However, in countries with dictatorial or kingship regimes, the press was restrained to communicate solely the state narrative. The press in Britain, America, and certain European states played an important role in strengthening the institutions of democracy.

In Germany, with the development in industries, the concept of social democracy took root, political parties were formed, and the press gained freedom. Hitler came to power due to the press; however, ironically, right after ascending to power, he made the press a mouthpiece of the Nazi party. The great philosopher Karl Marx earned his livelihood as a journalist. His views on the Indian war of independence in 1857 became common knowledge through newspapers. The founding father of Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, spearheaded a huge tide of socialism by raising awareness amongst the labourers and farmers of their rights, through his newspaper Iskra.

Soviet Union

When in October 1917 the Communist Party came to power, headed by Lenin, the press was obligated to propagate the party’s policies and philosophy to the public. The Communist Party paid special attention to the publication of newspaper and magazines related to all matters of life. Radio and TV stations were established; a network of single medium radio and TV sets was also established in villages and cities. The film industry developed substantially in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Communist Party established a communist party cell in every village and city to convey the complaints of any citizen to the polit bureau. Unfortunately, with the passage of time these became ineffective. The Communist Party had not allowed the press freedom to criticize the state, thus the members of the polit bureau remained unaware of the unrest brewing amongst the people of the state. Thus, the demise of the Soviet Union can also be attributed to the curb on freedom of press.

United Kingdom

Britain is known as the world’s oldest democracy; the world’s oldest newspapers in circulation are published from England. Britain has a unique culture of evening newspapers; the circulation of these newspapers outnumbers the morning newspapers. However, it is generally believed these newspapers do little to influence or change public perception. The state of England is the guardian/ guarantor of freedom of the press. That is why State institutions do not interfere in media policies, however the policy of national security taking precedence over freedom of press is tradionally followed.

In 1467, William Gates invented the printing press transferable type. During that time, in Britain, and other European counties, the Roman Catholic Church ruled supreme and the rule of divine right was in force. The State had no idea of the potential of the printing press then, so the publication of pamphlet of posters and books increased while continuing unhindered.

King Henry the VIII made it compulsory to obtain license for publication of pamphlets or books in 1534. For the next 300 years, the ruling government used license tax and allegations of libel and slander to curb free press. In 1641, the Court of Star Chamber punished many journalists for criticizing the government.

In 1769, famous law giver Sir William Blackstone stated,

“The Liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state, but this consist in laying no previous restraints upon publications and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every free man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public, to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity.”

The Official Secrets Act was promulgated in Britain in 1889, making it illegal for the publication of any material that would directly or indirectly benefit the enemy. Currently, it is not obligatory to obtain a declaration for the publication of newspaper or development of radio or TV channels, but it is incumbent on all print and electronic media to follow the concerned law.

The institution of the Press Council is well established in Britain. The Council acts upon the complaint of the reader; it requires its members to issue regret in case of an erroneous action. The Press Council is a non government organisation that works on a voluntary basis.

The laws of slander and libel are very stringent; the courts decide upon all such matters expeditiously. Interestingly, Britain has the world’s largest population of radio listeners. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was established with a state grant; it is an autonomous body. At first the BBC was merely a radio service; later a television channel was also introduced. The government of England gives grants to BBC, and license fee also ensures that BBC continues to be a profitable entity. BBC services in different foreign languages are quite popular in Pakistan, India, and other Asian and African countries.  Now BBC administration has decentralised the services to different countries, establishing units there.

Presently, in Britain, there are 14 dailies, while there are 15 Sunday newspapers in circulation. The circulation of their dailies is a whopping 14 million copies. Most of these newspapers are tabloids.

According to senior journalist Syeed Hassan Khan, the State narrative holds great importance for the British press and electronic media; he has observed that whenever the British government holds a news briefing on matters relating to national or international affairs, most of the press prefers the State narrative over other narratives printed or broadcasted. However, a few do express dissent; for example the Guardian does not give much importance to the State narrative. Mr. Syeed further states that corporate and commercial entities influence the policy matter of newspapers, but family newspapers do not generally budge under the pressure.

As per Mr. Salman Raja, Research Scholar at Queen Marry University London,

“it is, quite a contrast between the East and the West when it comes to the media. Sufficiently unique, is the fact that in the United Kingdom, media is a devout prophet of freedom of speech and the sitting government ensures that it rightly does so, as prescribed in the Article 10 {of the Human Rights Act, 1998, UK}. There is no sense of evident coercion or compulsion be a state authority or the government regulatory body to subvert of disrupt the freedom of media. Being a student of Media Law at Queen Mary London, I observed, that the history of broadcasting in UK evolved along with the epochs of time from self-regulation, co-regulation and regulation {Broadcasting Acts 1996, Communications Act 2003}. The debate arises as to who regulates the media and how actually it is being regulated it is but true that it is a self-regulated medium the system come with a self-accountability check with mechanisms such as Press Complaints Commission which regulates the press. This is just one mechanism of a media being self-regulated.”

United States of America

America’s media is considered to be the largest in the world and history sheds light. Between the years 1869 and 1928, the State maintained control over the press. Both Democratic and Republican parties owned newspapers to propagate the party’s narrative. The First Amendment to the US constitution was made to ensure freedom of press, at a time when a tussle was going on between the proponents and opponents of the said freedom. The first printing press was established in the Harvard University of Massachusetts City in 1638; the press was intended to publish religious materiel. At that time, the new colonies were regulated by the order of the British king. Thus, the law that governed the printing press was also used in England.

The Governor of Virginia State, Sir William Berkeley, reportedly said, “Thank God we have no free school or press. I hope that for the next 100 years things remain the same”. On 25 September 1690, the first newspaper of America, Public Occurrence, was published by Benjamin House. Then, in 1704, another newspaper Boston Post Master was published. After the Revolution War, the political parties started publishing their own newspapers. In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Act was promulgated; the purpose of the act was to stop the Republican Party and its newspapers from supporting France during the Anglo-French war. The Democrats and Federalists had sided with England.

The Congress laid the foundations of the Public Broadcasting Corporation in 1962. The Corporation had a 15 member board that was nominated by the President of the United States. The Corporation managed the affairs of 24 public television and 760 radio stations. The business model of these radio and television stations was based on a not for profit model, however a majority of the American people didn’t receive their broadcast.

The Radio Act was enacted in 1927, and later in 1934 the Communication Act was promulgated by virtue of which the Federal Communication Commission was established. The Commission was entrusted with the responsibility of issuing a license for radio and TV channels; the Commission continued to issue licenses till 1952.

Till 1928, there were about a 470 newspapers in publication in the US, but all of these were owned by private parties. Generally, the State and other institutions would give grants to help the newspapers facing financial crisis. In time, due to the industrial revolution and increase in competition, the trend of marketing and advertisement was introduced. Thus, the newspapers became financially sound and the State influence in their affairs reduced to a minimum.

Yet, the political influence on these newspapers remained. American television is today considered to have substantial influence over viewers around the world. NBC, CNN, abd CBS are amongst the most popular TV channels. During the Gulf War, CNN became a popular channel of choice for credible information. There are about ten thousand channels currently operating in the United States. The State does not stifle free speech The laws of libel are stringent, while the Complaint Commission is an effective institution. The right of privacy of a common man is jealously guarded by the courts. The American Broadcasting Service operates on the limited funds that it gets from the State.

America has a user base of 270 million internet users; the internet has changed the traditional power of the print and electronic media . Though, on the face of it, the freedom of press is ensured unhindered under the First Amendment, however, on matters of national security, the State gives its suggestion to the print and electronic media; thus embedded journalism is encouraged.

According to prolific writer and famous intellectual Noam Chomsky, the US media is the proverbial spokesperson for multinational and arms and defence companies. Multinational coporations are said to control the content of the biggest media houses in America on one hand, while on the other hand the State’s narrative on national security is also openly criticized.

Michael Moore, the famous documentary filmmaker, made a documentary to present a counter narrative on the events surrpounding 9/11; the documentary brought to light the conspiracy theory behind the attack; according to the filmmaker, the master minds behind the attack were American secret agencies. The documentary became an overnight success, yet ironically a number of people have remained unaware about the documentary.

According to Dr Jim Debrose of Miami University,

“The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution outlaws government censorship of the media. Over the years, the U.S. courts have interpreted that law so that the media can safely monitor and criticize government in the interest of democracy and the welfare of its citizens. Unfortunately, the U.S. Constitution says nothing about corporate and private censorship of the media or the increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of just a few giant corporations. It is corporate control of the media that now threatens the very foundations of American democracy by placing profit above the furtherance of the public good.”


China has a huge State owned media. This is the reason that Reporters without border has ranked China 157 out of 167 in the Freedom of Press Index. The ruling Communist party wants to retain its total control over media. The State uses stringent censorship over newspapers and the news that they are allowed to publish is quite limited. Journalists are often harassed and jailed for refusing to exercise self censorship while reporting. Many journalists are also bribed to extol and support State actions. The Chinese State also supports liberal media, albeit rarely, but even then self censorship is advised. Access to blogs critical to State polices is also blocked, using modern techniques; radio transmission can also be jammed using the same technology.

Indian Subcontinent

Newspapers were first published in the Indian Subcontinent during the era of the East India Company. The publication of newspapers was in defiance to the Company’s policies; thus the company imposed a number of restrictions on the press; at first newspapers were required to obtain license; later rigorous censorship was imposed to stifle freedom of press. The financial declaration was also made conditional on Company approval. After the East India Company rule gave way to direct control, the British government also imposed restrictions on the press by promulgating certain laws. During the entire 200 years of the British government rule in the subcontinent, numerous journalists were arrested; many newspapers were fined, their offices and printing press sealed; and many were forced to exercise self censorship. Many had their advertisement quota reduced to force them to cede to State demands.

Post-independence freedom of press was guaranteed vide constitutional Article 19 and press was deemed as the forth pillar of the State. When emergency was imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, censorship was imposed on the press; many journalists were arrested and jailed. Later, after emergency was lifted, direct State censorship ceased. India has a comprehensive law on right to know, and under the law, a press council has also been established.

According to Senior Professor at media research centre at Jamia Islamia Obaid Siddiqui, India has a huge circulation of vernacular press, which is more influential than the national newspapers, in effecting mass perception. Many Indian business tycoons own major media houses and exercise complete control over the entire editorial department and the content of the newspaper. Resultantly, the institution of editorship is fast losing its significance.

A number of local channels and rural radio stations are owned by the State. However, a similar number is owned by the private sector; many of these radio stations are in local as well as the national language. Earlier, India had no code of conduct for press or electronic media, however, following the Bombay Attack of 2008, the electronic media devised its own code of conduct to report on terrorist attacks. The media completely abided by the code of conduct while reporting on the Delhi gang rape case in 2015.

The Indian film industry is considered to be amongst the biggest film industries of the world; films are made in many Indian languages. Critics are sceptical of the increasing commercialisation of media in India; capitalists are increasingly using the media to advance their commercial  interests. As per Professor Siddiqui, the corporate sector is controlling the content of media; he cites the example of the sit in against corruption by political activist Anna Hazare in Delhi, which was reported round the clock by Indian media. Mr. Siddiqui states that the corporate sector was actually behind the mass projection.

Similarly, during the election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was given undue projection, which is also attributable to the ulterior motive of big corporations. In Indian held Kashmir, atrocities against journalist are often reported by several non government organisations. Many journalists have also testified that they are being harassed and attacked by the Military on one side, while on the other side they are persecuted by militants. Similarly, journalists who report on the activities of notorious gangster “D company” of Bombay are followed and killed.


Pakistan came into being as a result of the August Plan. The country inherited all the pre-partition laws, including the policy of state censorship. The censorship on free speech became a State policy after the founder of the State Quaid e Azam’s policy speech at the Constitutional Assembly was censored. The Editor of Amroz and Pakistan Times Faiz Ahmed Faiz was arrested for reporting a news item. After his arrest, a wave of arrests of journalists and editors began that lasted till the end of General Zia’s Marshal Law regime.

Since 1947, the association of journalists has initiated an organised protest against State censorship. The ruling government enacted the British era restraint order into the Press and Publication Ordinance of 1960, thus gaining control over the anti-imperialistic and pro-human rights newspapers of Progressive Papers Limited (PPL), such as Pakistan Times and Amroz and weekly Lailo Nahar, and thus giving a strong message to all the press that whoever dares to  transcend the boundaries set out by the State shall face a dire future.

After the end of Cold War and as result of the 25 year long movement for the freedom of press, the Press and Publication Ordinance, 1960, was repealed and in its place the Registration of Press and Publication Ordinance was enacted, thereby making the process of submission of declaration easier for the publication of the newspaper.

Today, Pakistan has 50 dailies. The English as well as Sindhi press plays a pivotal role in changing public opinion, as these propagate liberalism and progressive thinking. The Urdu press,  generally, on the other hand, is more conservative and often prefers the State narrative. A researcher on press trends, Mr. Irfan Aziz, has stated that the Urdu press is forced by the intelligence agencies to stick to conservatism; if any Urdu daily dares to tend towards left wing or liberal ideas, the religious fundamentalists would threaten it to submission.

Since independence, radio and TV channels have remained under the State control; however during Benazir Bhuto’s government, FM radio stations and private owned TV channels were launched. General Pervez Musharraf established the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to issue licences to TV channels related to sports, news, cooking shows, religion, entertainment, and so on.  The members of PEMRA include the bureaucrats, intelligence agency officers, army technicians, and citizens nominated by the provincial government.

The channels that do not follow the policy of self censorship are penalized and disciplinary action is taken against them. A senior anchorperson of Geo TV channel, Mr Hamid Mir, did a series of programmes on missing persons and those who have been disappeared, which attracted the ire of the intelligence agencies. He was attacked by gunmen and sustained injuries.

When his brother, another journalist, Amir Mir, alleged that Hamid was attacked on the orders of the intelligence agency, the ISI, the channel which telecast his interview was banned and taken off the air for 6 months. The channel Geo was forced to telecast apologies on all its radio and TV channels, as well as publish the same on all of  its Urdu and English dailies.

Still, the Jang group’s channel and its newspapers remain banned from being broadcast in all cantonment areas. The religious organisation demanded a permanent ban on the channel from the government. Even upon clear instruction from the Supreme Court and clarification from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Information Pervez Rasheed, the ban was not completely lifted. This is a clear example of how State and the intelligence agencies control media in Pakistan.

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