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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Javed An­sari

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.

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