Media in the line of fire
Over the past two centuries the media have contributed to the promotion of democracy and making it stable throughout the world. In early 17th century, when printing machine was invented, the only role of the print media was to inform the people. Symbolically, media are considered as the fourth pillar of the state; nevertheless constitutionally the Parliament, Executive and Judiciary are the pillars of the state, and their powers and responsibilities are outlined in the Constitution.
As to the media’s role in the modern state, there are two schools of thought- one stating that media should transcend the role to inform, and should educate and mould public opinion as well. But the other one subscribes to the view that it should only inform the people; uphold objectivity and shun partisanship. Media in the past had played prodigious role during Pakistan movement in uniting the Muslims of the subcontinent. And it was because of this unity that Muslims of the undivided India were able to carve out a separate homeland for them under the leadership of the Quaid-i-Azam. But there is nothing to write home about what they have been doing during the last six decades.
Since February 2008 elections elected government at the helm, and all pillars of the state are engaged in a sort of turf war, trying to have authority and control transcending the powers and authority defined in the Constitution. Though the media could only derive its ‘powers’ from the Articles of the Constitution regarding freedom of thought and speech, it has no constitutional role in a democracy. However, the media has come in the line of fire since some of the media men, who had all praise for the judiciary and have been vocal because of tacit support from the judiciary, had focused and highlighted the Arsalan Iftikhar case. In fact, there was a glib talk by politicos and media about democracy, but the question remains whether is Pakistan a democracy. The answer is that it is not; it is in fact authoritarianism and plutocracy. It has to be said that democracy cannot blossom in the suffocating ambiance of feudalism. Feudalism is not an economic system; it is stagnant mentality, which has permeated most of the institutions of the state.
Jagirdars, waderas, sardars and so-called pirs want power and prestige by deliberately keeping the public illiterate and backward, so that no one can challenge their writ. Because of their corruption, lawlessness, spiraling inflation and poverty, degeneration has crept into all strata of society; and media is no exception. Last month, two-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in its verdict on Dr. Arsalan Iftikhar’s case remarked: “The ethic and legal framework of the media requires fairness and objectivity; it requires that journalists conduct due diligence before reporting any news so that rumours and insinuations are filtered out, particularly in matters of grave significance such as ones arising in this case”. Rumours also abound that 19 senior journalists of Pakistan allegedly were paid handsome amounts by the Bahria Town owner Malik Riaz. In this regard a video was also shared on website Youtube, showing an off-the-record conversation between television anchors of a local channel.
The footage made public some shocking revelations, including the fact that the entire interview was planted. It has yet to be investigated whether journalists and anchorpersons did receive those amounts from Malik Riaz, however, some of the alleged recipients are said to be living beyond their means. One can view that some anchorpersons in the TV Talk appearances as hosts at their TV channels also invited as analysts and guests in other TV channels. They unleash avalanche of blistering censure against the corrupt individuals and agencies in Pakistan. But today their reputation is on the line. It is a steep downfall that cannot be rescaled through explanations on their part. Today, the media is in the line of fire, and its halo is disappearing. During proceedings of recently held three-day judicial conference organized by Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association, the participants among other things agreed that “there should be no media trial and the media should not be allowed to encroach upon the space of the judiciary”.
It is true that print and electronic media in Pakistan have played an important role in creating awareness among the masses and exposing scandals of corruption and graft. However, they exceeded the limits, and once under scathing criticism, they are trying to evolve the code of conduct for themselves. In September 2011, Supreme Court Bar Association held three-day conference in which one of the topics was ‘Justice and impunity: Its portrayal by media’. All participants agreed that there should be no media trials, and the media should not be allowed to encroach upon the space of the judiciary, and this trend must be discouraged. Participants from India had also raised this concern and said that media should not be allowed to impose their opinions at the pre-trial stage as this undermines the rule of law. If media is to become a credible source, it should provide reliable and accurate information, and has to work with utmost diligence to offer reports and comments objectively. Analysts should present their analysis, which should be unbiased and free of prejudices.
William G. Pollard had said: “Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit.” However, credibility of media as a source of information is of paramount importance.
It has to be mentioned that all dictators were given legitimacy by the then apex court and also supported by the politicians, who were in turn vaulted into power by the establishment. Media persons were not behind in this race, as they eulogized dictator and contributed to making the dictator popular. When during the course of time, the dictator became weak and unpopular because of flawed policies, they started criticizing him. It is because of these aberrations that the country seems adrift on its own momentum, with no direction and with no administrative stewardship. Having that said, media men, be it a reporter or an analyst, should uphold objectivity and shun partisanship.
Unfortunately, one can find some reporters and columnists that do not adhere to this basic norm and ethic not only in Pakistan but also in the US. A poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in July 2009 had revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans think the news stories they read, hear and watch are frequently inaccurate.
That marked the highest level of skepticism recorded since 1985, when this study of public perceptions of the media was first done. The survey had polled 1,506 adults on the phone in late July 2009. In Pakistan, there are indeed patriotic elements in the media, who comprehend the issues in their true perspective and dispel the impression of present state of despondency, conspiracy theories and misperceptions. Today, the nation is confronted with gigantic challenges, both external as well as internal.
Internally the nation is hopelessly entangled in vicious terrorism. To extricate the nation out of this quagmire, Pakistan needs tall leaders with a good set of brains and creative thoughts, which unfortunately we don’t have.