Freedom to misinform?
Under the banner of media freedom, much is being said and written against PEMRA’s decision to slap Geo Entertainment and ARY News with fines and temporary suspension. Riding high horses of journalistic ideals, the media crusaders don’t want to bother too much with the grave crimes of their kin. Since when has it become okay for journalists to ignore facts?
The first fact is that in both cases, and in the earlier case of Geo News, the gross abuse of media freedom was glaring and indefensible. Such flippant abuse of journalistic ethics and practice should be a cause of concern for all of us. Whether the penalties are too harsh or mild is a separate matter. Can we even begin that discussion without taking into account the crimes that brought about the punishments? After all, religion, the military and the judiciary are no joke and should be approached with some editorial responsibility. The first thing to do is to admit that the conduct of these channels in all three cases was not only unprofessional but also constituted serious violations of PEMRA’s code of conduct and the law of the land.
Facts about the campaign against the ISI chief on Geo News and the Veena Malik qawwali episode on Geo Entertainment have received some attention and Geo subsequently apologized for the two blunders. However, facts about the campaign on ARY News against the judiciary in general and particularly the honorable Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja, are being obfuscated by spins attributing the PEMRA decision to government hostility and larger conspiracies. Those raiding the PEMRA offices to protest the suspension under the banner of media freedom should check out some basic facts. One look at just one episode of this long campaign would make any journalist hang his head in shame.
Among the complaints received by PEMRA against Mubasher Lucman and his program Kharra Sach on ARY News, the reason the channel was punished, this one is hair-raising. The anchor-person, who has been caught before with his pants down, waved documents and accused the honorable Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja of using his official position to sell his wife’s land to the Punjab government at an astronomical price. The documents, however, tell a completely different story. They have been filed by Khawaja Asif Mahmood with his complaint to PEMRA.
As the record stands, the land was forcibly acquired by the Punjab government for the Lahore Ring Road under the Land Acquisition Act, and Mrs Robina Jawwad was compensated at exactly the same rate as her neighbors whose lands had been similarly appropriated for the said project. There’s one other fact that Mubasher Lucman missed; while all of this was happening, Justice Jawwad Khawaja was not even serving as a judge. He was heading the law faculty at LUMS after resigning from the Lahore High Court, the only judge of the higher judiciary to have resigned during the Rule of Law movement.
If a journalist gets one fact wrong or two, one could attribute it to negligence. But this is clearly willful defamation based on sheer fabrication. As PEMRA and the courts decide the appropriate punishment and the appropriate way to go about it, those crusading for media freedom must take a pause and consider what media freedom means. Does it include the freedom to misinform? Does it include the freedom to cook up facts in order to spread hatred against an individual or institution? Does it include defending the criminal conduct of black sheep among us who have turned the honorable profession of journalism into a swear word?
So, should we object to the fact of PEMRA coming to life? Or, given the tremendous influence of the media on the public mind, and given the haywire way in which this power is being exercised by the army of private television channels without any sense of responsibility, should we be thankful? It might be convenient for the media crusaders to wish away solid issues regarding their profession by accusing PEMRA of acting on the behest of the military in one case and the government in another but, clearly, it is not as simple as that. It is time for the media to pull its head out of the sand and shake it.
Riding high horses of journalistic ideals while trampling upon the foundations of those ideals won’t do. The print media has shown itself to be generally responsible but, unfortunately, one can’t say the same about the dime-a-dozen television channels. They have created a free-for-all environment conducive to serious breaches of media responsibility and abuse of the freedom they enjoy. On any given day, you can see media ethics and responsibility being smashed to smithereens on television screens. It is obvious that the bulk of media bosses are not upset with this state of affairs and, as long as the profits keep adding up, they would like the party to go on uninterrupted. PEMRA is the party-pooper.
Before we board the bandwagon of media freedom targeting PEMRA, it would be advisable to remember that it is an important public institution constituted for the very task of regulating the media. Until recently, it was accused of being toothless and ineffective in checking the rampant violations of its code of conduct for the media. And now when it has bared its teeth with the obvious intent of asserting its authority, it is being demonized. To be fair, it is not only the military that PEMRA’s heart bleeds for and it is not only Geo that the authority is after. By acting against the maligning of judiciary by ARY News, the regulatory authority has cleared itself of those accusations.
Rather than dismissing PEMRA’s decisions as an attack on the freedom of expression, the media leaders should treat them as repeated reminders of their responsibility and work with the regulatory authority towards that goal. Instead of beating hollow drums of media freedom, they’d do well to reflect on what it means and begin the process of putting their messy house in order.
The writer is a freelance columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org