Media treads the wrong path
By: Bina Shah
AN excellent Asian Media Barometer tool has been developed by the Friedrich Ebert Siftung Foundation, a German political organisation that seeks to educate ordinary citizens about democracy and pluralism.
The 2012 AMB was launched recently with a roundtable discussion about media and ethics, which made it clear that Pakistan’s media, especially our television channels, has been going down the wrong path for such a long time that getting back to the right one is going to take a lot of hard work, vision, and commitment from all players.
The AMB, originally developed for use in Africa, was first used by FES-Pakistan in 2009 to analyse the state of Pakistan’s media.
Last year, a panel of five media experts and five members of civil society rated the national media environment on a scale of one to five in 45 predetermined indicators, which make up four main sectors where goals need to be met: freedom of expression in the media should be protected; the media landscape, including new media, should be diverse, independent and sustainable; broadcasting regulation should be transparent and independent; and the media should operate under high levels of professionalism and ethics.
The results of the analysis were depressing: Sector 1 received a score of 2.8, down from 3.1 in 2009. Sector 2 received a score of 1.8, down from 2.2 while Sector 3 received a 1.6, down from 2.1 in 2009. Only Sector 4 climbed up to 2.8 from a score of 2.0 three years ago. The country’s overall score came to 2.4, whereas in 2009 it was 2.5. These scores fall far short of the professional, ethical media the country so badly needs right now.
The FES report cited many factors for these scores, including lack of proper regulations and laws, an inability to deal with the increasing complexity of new media, poverty and lack of literacy, and the tilting of news channels towards sensationalism, yellow journalism and political bias. State and non-state attacks on the media and on journalists have increased, while media houses refuse to provide any sort of protection to their journalists.
There are some positive movements to report on, too: Pakistan’s citizenry has become much more aware of the role of media in shaping society. There are efforts under way to develop a code of ethics, and the Press Council of Pakistan has started to function again. Several organisations are trying to build capacity and end sexual harassment. The media has become more pluralistic, with news and issues important to ordinary people being given more airtime, not just the activities of the elite and the politically powerful. Online media and citizen journalism have contributed to a more diverse media landscape in today’s Pakistan.
However, the media industry suffers from a huge lack of accountability, with Pemra and other state regulatory bodies doing little to enforce any conditions for licence holders, and the media houses themselves wilfully mistaking “self-regulation” for “no regulation”. In Pakistan today, many media houses appear to hold the view that there should be no limits on what can and can’t be said or aired, in the name of media freedom — which translates to a higher degree of sensationalism as channels compete against each other for viewership.
The Pakistani media actually requires two types of regulation — self and state — in order to satisfy professional standards of ethics. Without both kinds, television channels will never seek to refrain from the types of media excesses that we have been witnessing over the last five years — the identifying of rape victims, the intrusive questions asked of the relatives of airline crash victims, the nighttime talk shows where guests get into screaming matches and slander each other, the promotion and propagation of anti-state elements and their ideologies, to name just a few.
The quality of Pakistan’s television channels has taken a nosedive as the country’s news channels offer less of the hallowed news bulletin and more of the tabloid journalism that media expert Javed Jabbar rightly brands “infotainment”. A trashy mix of a little bit of news slanted by entertainment and editorial comment is the quickest way to high ratings and advertising revenue. And Pakistan’s viewers are buying into this heady cocktail, becoming more and more desensitised to it and unable to tell the difference between truth and fiction.
But the most worrying condition in Pakistan’s media today is that it has become excessively commercialised in the last five years, and it’s the advertisers who are calling the shots. The huge amounts of money changing hands influences what’s being portrayed on our television screens as the truth, when in reality business interests and political gain are setting the agendas at these channels. Furthermore, the owners of many media houses are running television channels in a completely non-transparent manner in order to protect their own cross-sectional business interests.
The FES AMB tool can be invaluable in helping us diagnose the problems that beset Pakistan’s media today, but it’s up to media practitioners to come up with more immediate solutions to reverse the onslaught of commercialism in the media. They must also address the lack of professionalism, structure, and policies that plague this industry, and restate their commitment to ethics. Only then will the nation possess a vibrant, functioning media, made up of public and private broadcasters who keep the Pakistani public educated and informed with creativity, character, and excellence.
The writer is an author.