Do unethical journalists deserve to die?
By: M Bilal Lakhani
Have Pakistani journalists overthrown politicians and lawyers to become the most unethical and vilified public figures in the country today? When private news channels began mushrooming in the country 12 years ago, they were welcomed (ironically) like a military coup in Pakistan. At the time, the public wasn’t happy with the status quo i.e., getting all its news from one dominant state-owned broadcaster and welcomed the ability to choose and control their sources of news. Over a decade later, as the electronic media industry enters the cusp of adolescence, Pakistani public opinion has turned from a warm welcome to a cold and sometimes bloody reception.
This change in public attitudes comes at a particularly bad time for Pakistani journalists as they find themselves increasingly under fire from militants and extremists. Remember the horrific Sialkot mob-lynching of two young men in broad daylight a few years back? The Pakistani public is behaving like the bystanders in that mob-lynching today — standing silently and observing journalists die without rising to the occasion and stopping the mob from killing journalists in broad daylight. The worst part is that this isn’t classic Pakistani indifference at play. When you ask people to condemn violence and threats against journalists, they respond by raising the issue of unethical journalists and ‘money fueled’ journalism. Pakistani journalists should take a hint: you’re doing no one a favour by trying to report the truth. If you get shot in the process, most people are going to assume that you were an unethical reporter and deserved to die (or at least that your death wasn’t worthy of their active condemnation).
How did things go so wrong so quickly for the Pakistani media? There are many compelling critiques of Pakistani journalism: drunk on their newfound influence in society, journalists and media houses engaged in a race to the bottom to churn out sensational content for higher ratings and engaged in unethical reporting (let’s ignore for a second the Pakistani public’s role in rewarding sensational content with ratings and consumer eyeballs). Pakistani journalists blow things out of proportion; they take bribes from real estate magnates and shove cameras in front of mothers who have just lost their sons in a bomb blast. The Pakistani media only highlights bad news whereas the Indian media highlights good news about their country (India shining anyone?). If there’s violence in the country, the Pakistani people may or may not condemn the perpetrators of that violence, but they will always condemn the media coverage because it broadcasts gruesome images (read: reality) into their homes.
Pakistani journalists do need to raise their game and their ethical standards, but this shouldn’t be used to muddle the condemnation of violence against journalists in Pakistan. The problem with mixing these two issues i.e., unethical journalism and violence against journalists is that it creates a false cause and effect relationship between the two. If it was just the Pakistani public that couldn’t unconditionally condemn violence against journalists, one could explain this by understanding that they’re suffering from condemnation fatigue with so many things going so violently wrong in the country. But this phenomenon becomes more remarkable because even Pakistani journalists can’t bring themselves to unconditionally condemn violence against journalists. Pakistani journalists are scathing in their criticism of any journalist trying to bring attention to the issue of media freedom in the country: stop ‘romanticising’ the issue of press freedoms, we’re told, you’re working for a media conglomerate that cares more about money than journalism and (horror of horrors!) self-censors strategically when under physical threat.
Can you imagine what would happen if people started condemning polio workers in the aftermath of attacks on them, instead of condemning the people attacking them? This isn’t about romanticising a cause. This is about calling a spade a spade. No one should have to self-censor — that’s the point of raising awareness about media freedoms — but when your team is under live fire, what choice do you have but to live to tell your story another day? Yes, media conglomerates are in business to make money, but there are plenty of ways to make money without putting your life at risk. It takes courage from all — owners, editors and journalists — to put out a newspaper every day in the face of constant threats and real violence, without protection from the government and an increasingly hostile reception from the Pakistani people. The Pakistani people need to get a grip: when a mirror (in this case, the media) broadcasts a reflection of your image back to you and you don’t like what you see, punching the mirror in response won’t make you feel any better.