Daily Archives: July 19, 2010

Freedom versus responsibility

Raza Rumi

Much has been said about media accountability and the dire need of a regulation framework for Pakistan’s new power centre. Pakistani media has earned its freedom and independence after a long, often bloody, struggle against military dictators and civilian autocrats. Countless journalists were imprisoned, harassed, even killed in this decade’s long fight for free speech, otherwise a much-touted fundamental right in every Pakistani constitution. There is no question that a viable democracy and a culture of accountability cannot exist without a robust and independent media.

Globalisation and the rise of electronic media in Pakistan, ironically under General Musharraf, is a relatively new phenomenon and has changed the contours of power matrix in the country. If anything, electronic media and its older cousin, the print media, with a plethora of columnists, are now an established group with considerable influence and nuisance value. Actualisation of the newly acquired powers was best demonstrated during the anti-Musharraf movement from 2007-2008. This was a startling development and pleased most Pakistanis as they found the echo of their daily trials and tribulations in the direct and frank reporting by the numerous TV channels.
Ambiguous regulatory framework: The sudden liberalisation of private television channels took place in an environment when a regulatory framework had barely been established. The Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) came into existence during an unrepresented regime and, therefore, it lacked the essential process of consultation, ownership, and national consensus. On the one hand, media oligarchies emerged despite the vague announcements that cross ownership would not be permitted. On the other hand, electronic media showed little interest in developing a common code of conduct and finding ways of self-regulation. The results and the initial phase were disasters. Human limbs and heads found ample air time thereby glorifying terrorism and violence, and impacting the collective psychology of the viewers through a gradual process of desensitisation. Furthermore, objectivity was thrown out of the window and partisan, one sided rants became the order of the day.

Lawyers and media alliance: This was a type of intense civil activism and unprecedented representation of the Pakistani middle class in mainstream politics. Seemingly, a momentous development, the foresighted mobilization, came into public domain regurgitating the ‘anti-politics’ biases of Pakistan’s conservative middle class. This automatically resulted in severe distortions of the political expression. The first rule of law was personified by a handful of judges who had been linked to Pakistan’s regressive establishment throughout their careers; and a misconception that rule of law would lead to political, economic, and social transformation became a ‘truth’. Minority voices such as this scribe, alerted to the inherent contradictions of these developments. In short, intra-bourgeoisie struggles could be disruptive but rarely led to transformative social change. The results today are clear. The lawyers are beating up every public official and media representative who attempts to question their activities. After heroic battles the conduct of judges has been called into question. Continue reading

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