[TFT] A partisan media is biting the hand of democracy that feeds it, says Raza Rumi
It was hoped by many that the electronic media following its exponential growth during the last few years would take stock of its roles and responsibilities. However, the years 2007 and 2008 were not the best of times for such an introspection to materialise into a self-regulation process. Authoritarian or transitional environments are not conducive to a culture of informed debate and the evolution of sound regulatory regimes. Nevertheless, there have been scattered noises and appeals by many observers, analysts and concerned citizens even within the media community.
From the brutality of displaying dismembered limbs on television screens to creating a panic-oriented news culture and relegating the status of objective ‘anchors’ to partisan political players, the trends were and continue to be, disturbing. Against the backdrop of the events of March 2009 the role of the electronic media was far from gratifying. The self congratulatory hysteria that now pervades the various channels betrays their utter inability to look back and introspect.
When a band of presenters, zealous media Mujahideen, begin to take sides in partisan politics and shout at, humiliate and mock the guests who are mostly elected representatives, this is a cause for worry. We therefore find ourselves in a sorry situation where public opinion gets mixed up with ideological pretensions, and where ‘information’ is equated with a sponsored version of the worldview that may gain the highest ratings by catering to the lowest common denominator and attracting the most eyeballs. In our case, not unlike India, it is the urban middle classes who are eager consumers of these half-truths and cant.
The coverage of the recent Long March, also being claimed as a media victory, was full of irresponsible opinion-mongering, which ended up undermining elected institutions and glorifying street agitation, as if parliaments were mere appendages of power games. A few channels went beyond the norms of objective or even acceptable reporting by posturing that the proponents of the Long March were spouting the gospel truth, and any divergent view was unpatriotic and merited proceedings under Article 6 of the Constitution.
Instead of educating the public on the role of institutions and how states function, the entire discourse before and after the Long March remains focused on individuals. It has been completely forgotten that the incumbent President was elected by two thirds of the electoral college as prescribed under the Constitution. If anything, the debasement of the President’s role as a usurper is now an image that has been carefully crafted and reinforced by a constant media diatribe, and now made applicable to a president elected by Parliament. The truth of the matter is that in a parliamentary democracy the assemblies and officials are elected for five years. Accountability of the executive is a must, but not in the manner that is being carried out at the expense of the integrity of the democratic system.
More worryingly, the media opinion industry, much like other public domains is Punjab-centric and dare I say Punjab-obsessed. Regional and minority voices and dissenting points of views are either relegated to footnotes of airtime or are invisible altogether.
Across the board, the media recipe is pretty much set in copycat fashion: undermine an elected institution to the extent of being occasionally abusive – you either do it or let set-up callers do it for you, trounce the seriousness and complexity of do-or-die issues like terrorism or nuclear proliferation; and indulge in the favourite pastime of chai-khaana politics – sit and raise hell with ill-informed and mostly irresponsible views. Add to this, what the eminent economist Akbar Zaidi has referred to as the proclivity of everyone to be an economic expert – and we have stock brokers, corporate sector officials and even those who have little to do with economic analysis posing as economists. The result is that neither is the public well informed, opinion and prejudice are routinely paraded as fact and so policy-makers cannot take vested interests seriously.
Last year, some discussion on media [self] regulation came about after the usual deluge of self-congratulation after some pyrrhic victory or the other. A few voices within the media were raised, calling for balance and reason lest the media begin to follow a suicidal path. Had it been led or moderated by the media’s self-regulatory bodies, it would have been reassuring. As it was, those who raised a cautionary hand were rounded upon and “anchors” high on adrenalin and half-baked ideas, let fly the most incendiary invective, accusing the dissenters of every sin in the book. Talk show upon talk show last year thrashed the anchor accountability theme, and castigated columnists and writers who were critiquing their peers: the comments veered from name-calling, betrayal of fellow hacks to blaming the government and even CIA for having started the mess. The union representative interviewed on a TV programme was quick to point out the distastefulness of peer reviews, but he remained silent on why the body was not taking cognizance of the violation of the code of ethics. The truth is that the code is of little value, and for the electronic media there is no code at all. Everything goes.
If that is the case, then why fuss over voices within the media industry for responsibility and ethics? Unfortunately, like other groups such as the doctors and the lawyers – all of whom have a shared concern for dealing with the arbitrary excesses of the state – the media, as a professional group, also finds itself faced with inadequate internal accountability.
Media accountability is as important as that of any organ of the state. The power shift in favour of the media that is now taking place cannot be beneficial in an institutional and regulatory vacuum. It is imperative that for the sake of a democratic system, the media develops its own guidelines, a code of conduct that is all-encompassing, and devise a mechanism whereby such a code can be enforced. By no means am I arguing that the state should have anything to do with this process except where issues of national security are concerned.
By exacerbating the public perception that Pakistan’s economy and society are about to explode while pursuing a pro-West path, the pundits are only reinforcing what the global media and its masters and financiers want to believe: that Pakistan is as “failed or failing” a state as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. This is the tragic irony. By drumming up naive analyses, prescriptions and histrionics, the democratic process is being trashed once again as unfit for delivery.
It is not difficult to imagine who will benefit from this disarray. While the losers might be many, media freedoms are going to be on top of the list. Democratic development and stability are essential to the viability of the print and electronic media. The media cannot bite the hand of democracy that feeds it and expect to prosper – this is a simple lesson of history.
First published in The Friday Times
Raza Rumi blogs at www.razarumi.com and edits Pak Tea House and Lahornama e-zines