More Responsible Media
The media in Pakistan is free but not responsible enough. It needs to train its personnel on more professional lines and adhere to a code of ethics that reflects all round accountability.
The time has come when media organizations should take a serious look at the way they do things.
It is quite an incongruity that while most of the South Asian region struggles to imbibe the very essence of democratic norms through their media, Pakistan leads the pack with a media sector that surpasses all these countries in its level of media freedom.
Among the many real or perceived mistakes that Gen. Pervez Musharraf committed, perhaps freeing the media was a major one. To start with, the very media that he liberated turned against him and was a major factor in his exit from power. It subsequently played a key role in vilification of the nine years that he ruled Pakistan, in his disqualification as an electoral candidate and in providing support for dragging his cases through the courts.
In all these years, it transpired that the Pakistani media, particularly TV, became too big for its boots and it was soon realized that there was no mechanism in place to restrain it, besides of course the judiciary. After the full-blown freedom given to
the media by the military ruler, the succeeding ‘democratic’ governments found it increasingly difficult to contain it, especially the TV channels. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ( PEMRA) was set up to manage the electronic media but it soon became evident that PEMRA was simply a licence issuing body and had no control over content. Of late, it seems to have drawn up some gumption but its decisions tend to remain lopsided, by and large. It is even alleged that while PEMRA is supposed to be an autonomous regulatory body, it is too much under the influence of the sitting government.
While the print medium in Pakistan enjoys as much freedom as the TV channels, it has hardly ever taken things too far. Perhaps one reason for this is that many newspapers still have editors and senior staffers who know their limits. These people are trained in such a way that they would always have qualms about crossing the line no matter what the temptation – and what the level of freedom.
Despite all this liberty, neither the print media nor the TV channels are governed by any kind of code of ethics so far. While print journalists exercise a sort of self-censorship out of old habit, most journalists and quasijournalists working for TV channels do not exercise such censorship. Some are known to have been restrained by their managements but this is only for economic survival of the channels and does not pertain to ethical or moral requirements.
Some years back, in response to public protest, a set of TV practitioners had devised a sort of code of ethics which primarily called for censorship of footage that showed blood and mutilated bodies on TV screens. The restrictions were observed by the channels for some time but most have again taken to showing the blood and gore. And there is nothing that stops them from free coverage of terrorist attacks as the one on the GHQ, the Sri Lankan cricket team, the Mehran Naval Base, Kamra Air Base or, more recently, the storming of Karachi Airport.
Nowhere in the world are media persons allowed to get as close to the scene of action as in Pakistan where reporters and cameramen file their stories and footage in real time. While authorities on the ground do not stop them because perhaps they do not wish to impede ‘press freedom’, the anchors, duty editors and producers who supervise the coverage, egg their reporting teams to get as close to the action as they can and file ‘scoops’ to ‘build’ the channel’s ratings.
In their enthusiasm, they forget that such ‘live’ coverage is not tactically advisable because it tends to give out a lot of details about an ongoing operation which should have not been made public at that juncture. The information they have access to should not have been shared with anyone besides the personnel dealing with the incident as it could be misused by the ‘handlers’ of the attack (who are also watching the TV images at that moment) to their advantage. They would know what kind and how many more soldiers are being inducted into the retaliatory onslaught and what are their positions, etc., which would allow them to make necessary adjustments and give fresh instructions to the attackers.
Live coverage sometimes also borders on the ludicrous. When there were gunshots fired at the ASF Academy located on the other side of Jinnah international Airport, two days after the Karachi airport attack, one TV reporter went so far as to interview a soldier right when he was firing towards the direction where the shooters had fled!
A part of the problem is also the fact that both print and TV reporting and on-screen personnel, at best, receive rudimentary training or none at all in the way they should go about their job. Any jobless person with the right connections can become a reporter, anchor or photographer/cameraman these days – no questions asked. Where TV is concerned, a fairly good-looking, fast-talking female can easily land an anchor’s job. There is no assessment of journalistic aptitude in the person to start with, nor the requirement of a proper education. True that many mass communications graduates also end up in these jobs but the organization employing them hardly ever puts them through formal training and they are never made conscious of the sensitivity of their work. The situation is further aggravated by the editors and producers they are answerable to as well as the owners of the news organizations, who have their own axe to grind.
The time has come when media organizations should take a serious look at the way they do things. Hardwon press freedom is an important constituent of a working democracy and it is something that must be protected at all costs despite the many hurdles. At the same time, now that the media has matured and is looked upon as a key element of the democratic equation, it must organize itself on more professional lines.
There are various aspects that call for immediate attention. One is proper training for working journalists, whether in the print or TV sector. In fact, a beginning has to be made to first define who really is a ‘journalist’. The reporters, cameramen and anchorpersons should then be given a basic idea about what their job really is. Now the time of ad hocism is over; only those people should be inducted into journalistic jobs who have the requisite education as well as the right aptitude. Since journalism departments in the country’s universities generally do not focus on the profession’s real needs, media organizations could do well to organize their own training workshops, even through foreign help, if required.
The other is the dire need for a code of ethics that equally applies to both print and electronic media. It is a fact that several attempts have been made in the past to draw up such codes and successive governments have also been involved in the process, but not much has been achieved. The current need is for all the concerned players to draw up on their own resources and devise a set of rules that pertains to ethics and moral principles for both print and electronic media. In fact, a separate training course should be run only for TV anchorpersons in this respect.
Pakistani media have enjoyed a level of freedom for the past decade and a half that was unthinkable for them before. Much as successive governments may have aspired to curb this freedom in their own interest, they have dared not disturb the apple cart. It now falls upon the media themselves to infuse a level of responsibility in their working so that the media sector can become an important and credible player in a democratic Pakistan.