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Reforming and Preserving Public Broadcaster – How?

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, March 09,2012

Lack of dispassionate and informed debate obfuscates many issues in Pakistan because Pakistanis at large suffer from a high degree of emotionalism and a tendency to knee-jerk reaction to new ideas. The recent proposal to introduce a tax to ensure a steady stream of funding for a bleeding national asset i.e. Radio Pakistan, for instance, illustrates this attitude. Recently National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting discussed a proposal floated by Radio Pakistan to restore license fee. Generally, the reaction has been one of jeer and pooh in a country where very few of the mighty ones pay taxes due to them, and where hardly two percent people are registered (registered, regardless of how much they cough up) as tax-payers, and a country with one of the worst tax-to-gdp ratio i.e. less than eight percent. (Compare it with India’s 22 , Brazil and Argentina’s 30 and 35 per cent respectively). 

Most of opposition to the radio tax has come from our wise legislators, infatuated with their status i.e. directly elected by the people of Pakistan, who think this status empowers them even to turn the constitution upside down. Most of them also seem to believe peoples’ representation accords on them the privilege even to bend and twist the law when it comes to their political and material interests. Little do they realize that taxing a public enterprise is indeed a perfectly legitimate proposal, with dozens of parallels across the globe. Almost all public broadcasters are funded by the public. UK, most European countries, China, Japan, India, no exception at all. 

Collecting tax for a public service entity such as a public radio is nothing new. Germany and Japan, for example, collect taxes for ARD (Radio and TV channel ONE), and NHK, respectively through banks, in order to preserve the public broadcasting part of the entire broadcast. NHK, Japan therefore does not accept any advertisement. ARD is a conglomerate of various stations and in their name subscription fee is collected via banks. 

Collecting of a fee or a tax for these broadcasters through the banking system in fact constitutes a substantial part of earnings for ARD and a massive part for NHK and that is why they ensure public interest broadcasting, without compromising the fundamentals of information gathering and broadcasting. 

Obviously, these public entities are governed by strict legal regulations and professional management; In return for public money, public broadcasters are run in a thoroughly professional manner, governed by boards comprising people of immaculate reputation from cross-sections of the society, with no government interference. The Boards decide the recruitment, programming mix and not the government. Neither is the government allowed to use these media as mouth-pieces and dumping ground for favorite people the way it has happened with the PTV. That is why the viewership of PTV is minimal despite massive injections of public money.

This means that while the government/state is committed to bipartisan, truthful, professional/ above-board public interest broadcasting, it must not interfere with the management of that programming i.e. administration, content, production and broadcasting. No interference at all.

It is primarily because of a bipartisan governing board and professional management that organisations such as ARD and ZDF (Channel 2) in Germany and NHK in Japan remain the most trusted and respected sources of information. Even the Deutsche Welle (previously known as the Voice of Germany), which gets money from the foreign ministry, is headed by a parliamentarian, and a board comprising respected, non-controversial public personalities and professionals. Despite its avowed mission of projecting Germany's image, DW still produces thoroughly professional programmes like the BBC, with far less "Germany specific."

It merits mention here that during my career with the Deutsche Welle between 1985- 2009, I never experienced a moment when the top management would desire to bend a story this or that way; even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German Reunification in 1990, the programmes were thoroughly professional – except the western anti-Soviet propaganda. After the reunification, the programming mix became even more professional. Even the German government would at times come under the knife. Not once any advice or pressure from any where, and this despite the fact that the Deutsche Welle was financially dependent on state institutions.

What lies at the heart of this discourse is that the state needs to protect a public broadcaster. Taxing the listeners is the only way of generating that money. That however must be accompanied by restructuring along professional lines i.e. manage it the way private professional organizations are run in this age, and ensuring a steady stream of funding is also . That also means getting rid of the excess staff, retaining and hiring those with energy and the zeal in order to run the entity as a quality, facts-oriented organization. In this age of rat-race, credible public broadcaster remains the only source of non-commercial but professional information. Public interest demands a dispassionate and rational debate on the issue and not cheap, populist sloganeering.

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk