Pakistan’s Media – responsibility must anchor freedom

By Raza Rumi 

IT is a truism that media freedom in Pakistan today has been earned after a long struggle which will perhaps continue in the years to come.

Deepening of democratic traditions and their permeation in society are sine qua non for a free media. Whilst there can be no two opinions on the independence of the media, the need for greater responsibility and professionalism has to be articulated in no uncertain terms. Such is the confusion and chaos triggered by an overgrown executive that the issue of responsibility has been sidelined by the overwhelming noises for media freedom especially since the tinkering with the text and application of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Ordinance.

We are now getting used to a television culture that imitates the life of Pakistani tharras, chai-khanas and drawing-rooms where politics is discussed ad nauseum. Rare exceptions include issue oriented talk-shows but they appear bland unless their all knowing hosts inject some political spice into them. Expertise is taken for granted; new-age generalists judge every subject under the sun and occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously. Yes, the commercial imperative of the media dictates programming patterns. But there has to be a method to this disorderliness.

The most recent occasion of electronic media wizardry was the announcement of the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition candidate for the unenviable job of the prime minister. The moment the announcement was made, a leading channel played a popular Indian film song that lamented broken promises. In this case, the fabled promise of the prime ministerial cookie for Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

Admittedly, the party of the people and its allies were secretive about the process. The principle of transparency, ideally, is germane to elected institutions. However, this is neither an ideal world nor is it going to turn into one overnight. The way a momentous decision was trivialised was not in good taste. The news industry forgot that this was a party still recovering from the brutal murder of its omnipresent leader less than three months ago.

And then the vulnerable Makhdoom was grilled into a line of questioning by many channels anticipating that he would put the fissures within the party into the public domain. Much to their consternation, nothing of the sort came about. In fact, the icy Makhdoom, disappointed as he must be, maintained his dignity and decorum in the face of a media that desperately hoped for catchy breaking news.

Earlier, the guessing game on the PM nomination was played up into teacup hype, was also, to a certain extent, unwarranted. For instance, the delay in requisitioning the session of the National Assembly was far less analysed than why the PPP was unable to settle for Makhdoom. The discourse on the issue focused on ‘loyalty’, ‘honour’ and such other terms that may go well with the patriarchal-authoritarian society but not with the difficult task of inculcating democratic values.

Alas, the level of analysis was such that the ‘potential’ candidates were rarely compared in terms of merit, competence or likelihood of pulling together a difficult coalition. And no one bothered to check how this process was managed in the region especially India where coalitions are now a norm. Sadly, the chequered history of PPP media trials continues even when plural and relatively free voices abound.

Well, this is the beginning of a new journey. We have a mature political class that is willing to jointly challenge the historic ascendancy of non-elected institutions. This is something that is central to the future of all freedoms including that of the media. As the first speech of the prime minister proved, democracy —truncated as it might be — is the only way of ensuring the independence of the judiciary.

The release of deposed judges came about ironically through the parliament. The sweet irony of it all is that this was a scene not envisaged by those who were urging all and sundry to boycott the elections. That a president sans uniform had limits to his powers was a nuance not debated.

The channel gurus were more inclined towards the ‘purity’ of political positions. Considerable airtime was devoted to the Faustian ‘deal’ that was perhaps the last grand sin of Bhutto in the eyes of our puritans. She had of course to pay with her life for redemption.

In a similar vein, television debates on suicide bombings and war on terror reinforce the populism that endangers critical introspection, and reduces the discourse to a level that, simply put, is simplistic. We all know that the demons of extremism have been nurtured for decades. They existed prior to the American invasion of Afghanistan and our frontline status. But discussions about the slow Talibanisation of Pakistan being a reality are taboo; as the overwhelming majority of ‘experts’ consider this a ‘reaction’ thereby according a subtle legitimacy to the gruesome acts perpetrated in the name of religion.

Unwittingly, the agenda of the suicide brigades gets a helping hand when TV channels relay images of human limbs, severed heads and trucks ramming into security guards. I recall the ugly evening when bombs exploded prior to the chief justice’s arrival at a rally in Islamabad last summer. This was the first time that at least I experienced the disturbing visuals betraying lack of scrutiny. As violence is always gripping, it attracted the attention of my five-year-old and eventually we had to turn off the television.

Popular channels ran notifications urging parental guidance as if this would gloss the evident dearth of punctiliousness. However, this continued as a trend — entrenched, sensational — sadly when Pakistan was witnessing the worst spate of suicide bombings in our recent history. Chopped heads metaphorically are embedded in our histories: from the Baghdad tales of minarets out of severed heads, to Mongol invasions of Delhi and Lahore and the famed anecdote of Emperor Aurangzeb sending the head of Dara Shikoh to Shah Jahan.

But a modern, progressive Pakistan has to overcome this legacy of medieval barbarity and a free, mature media needs to assist in this process and condemn what is utterly condemnable.

Thus emerges the urgent need for self-regulation, codes of conduct and internal accountability. Let the media shun all ‘advisories’, this should be done of their own volition. Globally, there are several examples to follow and the capable ones within the media are well aware of them. There would be no point in listing them here. Suffice to say here that we, the engaged TV viewers, want a free media that is equally responsible; and challenges the stereotype and half-truth instead of reinforcing it.

A glorious future lies ahead for the electronic media — for we have a powerful agent of change, when we had almost given up on the hope for a change.

First published in DAWN on March 31, 2008.

11 Comments

Filed under Citizens, Democracy, Media, Pakistan, public policy

11 responses to “Pakistan’s Media – responsibility must anchor freedom

  1. Feisal Naqvi

    Spot on, Raza. I was watching TV last night and Geo was running a banner that crude prices had fallen. Actually, they had fallen by US$3 to 102/barrel. But from the ticker, you would have thought that we had returned to the days of 10/barrel. Point here is that tomorrow, there will be millions of people asking why the price of petrol has not been cut and nobody to answer them.

  2. Feisal, thanks for the comment. Gosh, this is just a horrid though most pertinent an example.
    Hope some internal move is initiated by the media.
    cheers,RR

  3. Shreekant Gupta

    I could not agree
    with you more. Though I must say that the (so-called
    more mature) Indian media is no better–there is utter
    banalisation and vulgarisation of news coverage (or
    what passes for ‘news’). Cameras are thrust into
    faces of people grieving tragic deaths of loved ones
    in accidents or bomb blasts, etc. It is as if we
    revel in making death and misery a tamasha.

    Whatever else one might say about western media I know
    this from personal experience (I arrived at MIT for a
    one year visit 19 days after 9/11) that it exercises
    self-restraint when it comes to depicting death and
    suffering. Of the thousands that persished in the New
    York twin towers and Pentagon NOT ONE body/body part
    was ever shown on television. Only names and photos
    of the deceased.

  4. while this kind of irresponsibility is deplorable, it is also understandable. the whole elctronic media circus is still new for us, and it’s going to take years for the industry to mature.

    for this to happen, as you rightly say, the industry must learn to regulate itself. this process will be quicker if so-called vested interests (whether of the democratic or the dictatorial persuasion) give way and allow truly democratic institutions to flourish. if our democratically elected leaders have the bols to allow their, shall we say, pecadilloes to be exposed (or put their own houses in order so that they are not afraid of exposure) then… [rolls eyes] sorry i think i kind of drifted off into dreamland there…

    as for the unbridled hubris of the presenters, perhaps that’s not all bad. you do need to have a fairly large-sized ego to deal with the pompous asses who purport to represent our social and political hopes and dreams and aspirations.

  5. Imran Habib

    Excellent article Raza…an internal affair of a party’s internal decision was blown out of proportion and when the news was announced, the reflection on the views of Amin Fahim was of greater interest than the copmparitive analysis of the announced candidate, Mr. Gillani. The media needs to act professionally -the debate should not be limited to a few anchors only but rather address issues not just political but also cultural, artistic, linguistic, and others that require interest and the panel/anchor should be of people that understand such issues and can lay aclaim to such expertise to come on air.

  6. Ahmed Razee

    I am happy that some one from media has atempted to discuss the responibility that goes with freedom. You have very correctly pointed out glaring instances where our media especially private tv channels has displayed its utter lack of responsibility. This needs thorough and indepth discussion to highlight the political culture our media especially urdu eletronic media is poised to build up. It boils down to the continuity of the Ziaist mindset with hollow patriotism coupled with religious bigotry amply displayed in case of Lal Masjid episode. Anyway this needs greater attention and more exposition.

  7. Themrise Khan

    Funny how we all madly celebrated the introduction of a free and new media without any caution a few years ago and now suddenly, we have all turned against it when things have gone awry. Not to say that the media is responsible in Pakistan. I wrote a critical piece on Pakistan’s electronic media over a year ago (which the papers here refused to publish), saying exactly this. But we are a fickle nation indeed who blindly accept things without even a hint of moderation (democratic processes included) and then feel cheated when they don’t work out the way we expected them to. Sorry, I’m just venting my own annoyance here.

  8. Nadima

    Wonderful piece of writing very moving, it should be sent to all our TV channels.You have pin pointed some of the very pressing issues like the line “Unwittingly, the agenda of the suicide brigades gets a helping hand when TV channels relay images of human limbs, severed heads and trucks ramming into security guards.
    Congrates for such a powerful piece of writing.

  9. Hamid Sharif

    It is interesting that many doubted the role of the media in forming public opinion in Pakistan. I remember many conversations before the elections with some of the generalists who thought that the traditional patriarchial structures would prevail and that the hype about the electronic media was just that. They thought that the media was just targetting the middle class and that it would not have much impact. In other words, they were confident that PML(Q) would return albeit with some usually acceptable rigging. That the result was so different has left many baffled. The die hards still insist that it has nothing to do with the media actually changing attitudes but rather it’s all down to the atta and power crisis. For me this smacks of the traditional lack of faith that our educated classes put on ordiary citizens.

    Raza, your points on the media are well made but we’ve only just got started! Compared to many other countries our electronic media has achieved much in a relatively short time.

    Self-regulation is a nice concept but there are few examples (perhaps none) of successful regulation in most developing countries and even in developed countries self-regulation has its limits and in a crisis the state has to step in (see the latest financial crisis). We will have to collectively think of a combination of state regulation (in context of stronger democratic values and rule of law) and active civil society efforts to make the media responsible and accountable. The fact that Raza has got us started on this debate is a welcome step. To add to the list of issues raised by Raza we should think about the following: procedures for handling complaints against the media, strenghtening of defamation laws or other restitutory remedies for negligent or grossly negligent acts of the media, ensuring greater transpareny about who owns what in the media and the relationships between the owners, and requiring the media to disclose its sources of finances, especially where it overtly airs programs that are one-sided e.g. Geo should disclose the amount it receives to air VOA programs. The media plays a key role in forming public opinion and as such it should be subject to much greater transparency as regards its ownership, financing sources, and (here’s something that will generate a lot of controversy) after some time and under specified circumstances it should even be required to disclose its sources. If the media is to serve the public interest as opposed to vested interest then regulation and transparency are essential. The free-market can produce restricted information; my favorite taunt to US friends is how has the US market-driven media managed to achieve almost the same results in terms of an ordinary citizen’s access to information as the erstwhile Soviet media!

  10. shahid

    I fully agree with you and hope that sanity prevails in the minds of jubilent mediamen. At times, the reporting/ programme crosses the threshold, which seems to be very destructive.

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