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Abstract

Since 2002, privatized Urdu-language news channels have effectively transformed the nature of the national news culture in Pakistan. In addition to sensational news packaging, leading current affairs talk show hosts routinely capitalize on aggressive interrogative tactics to antagonize politicians and analysts on-air, producing a dramatized performance that feeds a politics of publicity. Within this context, the emancipatory potential of television once celebrated through media deregulation in the early 2000s has since been replaced with a disdainful liberal discourse on the lack of critical-rational debate. Drawing local and international attention for their alarming acquiescence in stoking religious and sectarian conflicts, Urdu news channels and their prime time anchors have been regularly accused of pandering to populist religious sentiments in a range of infamous episodes: from condoning assassinations in blasphemy cases, providing airtime to anti-state militant organizations, to popularizing anti-government protests. The implicit, and sometimes explicit, acknowledgement within the broadcasting fraternity of the inability of the government’s regulating bodies to reign in sensationalist news television has routinely triggered industry-wide calls for internal self-regulation. How do media professionals negotiate the tension between a principled commitment to protecting the independence of mass media and a cynical disavowal of its existing forms? By rejecting a disparaging discourse of sensationalist television programming as failing a critical public sphere, this project will examine the implications of taking current Pakistani news media practices seriously. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Karachi and Islamabad between 2014 and 2016, this dissertation draws on in-depth interviews with a range of news media professionals. On the one hand, we find elite television producers rationalizing the compromises they make on greenlighting sensationalist news content, and on the other, entry-level journalists describe both the constant pressure to produce news appealing to mass audiences, and more importantly, deliver ratings. As the authority of television news journalism becomes increasingly destabilized, I argue that the prevailing discourse on journalistic ethics in Pakistan becomes a site where the tensions between privileged and vulnerable media labor emerge as most apparent. Despite their insistence on the independent nature of the electronic media, news media professionals are highly attentive to the ways in which their work remains bounded in general by the state and in particular, the deep state. In analyzing practices of self-censorship, this dissertation contextualizes the dangers journalists face when straying past the limits of investigative inquiry in Pakistan.

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