Monitoring the monitor -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Monitoring the monitor

A recent assessment found Pakistani media sliding down on every count of editorial independence and professional standards, from an already unenviable position three years ago. But members of civil society differ. They feel the scale of decline is much bigger than shown by the report.

Asian Media Barometer first conducted home-grown analysis of the media landscape in Pakistan and India in 2009, in which India scored 2.4 and Pakistan a slightly better 2.5 out of a maximum score of 5. The 2012 Barometer for Pakistan gives the country a score of 2.4 and three of the four sectors rated by panelists, saw a marked decline that does not reflect in the overall score because the ‘freedom of expression’ sector received a generous acknowledgment. Panelists number 11 (or 12, depending on what page of the report you are on) and are drawn from within national media and civil society.

If this was not bad enough news for the media, the civil society in its review of the report, stands unanimous that Pakistani media does not even deserve the halfway mark, give or take a decimal point. And they have good reasons.

One, the selection of panel. There are only two women in the group, one representing civil society and the other media… “And that too English-language media,” Tahira Abdullah notes, “which is followed by only a few. And she is representing half the population of this country”.

Two, the statements put to vote are, in some cases, quite vague or outlandish, like: “Websites and blogs are not required to register with or obtain permission from state authorities” (it received a unanimous maximum score of 5), and: “The advertisement market is large enough to support a diversity of media outlets”.

And three, the tradition of anonymous voting by panelists that created the ‘mystery panelist’. There is definitely one and possibly several panelists who have repeatedly voted like aliens, like extra-terrestrial fellows on a goodwill tour of Earth and who have just been briefed about the state of media in Pakistan. How else would you explain the following responses to some of the statements put to vote:

“Government makes every effort to honour regional and international instruments on freedom of expression and freedom of the media” – only one vote for “country does not meet indicator” while all the rest answered between “only a few” and “most” aspects met. This in a country where a democratically-elected military president bans all electronic media by simply passing an order; a country where a democratically-elected civilian government uses public service broadcasting for propaganda, and threatens public servants with disciplinary action if they are found to provide information to media; and a country which (together with India and Brazil) has recently opposed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, despite being one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

“The state does not seek to block or filter internet content unless laws provide for restrictions that serve a legitimate interest and are necessary in a democratic society” – 10 panelists found the statement true to some extent but one found it perfectly applicable to Pakistan. The current and previous governments have routinely filtered internet access and explicitly blocked social network web sites such as Facebook and Youtube. “Government does not use its power over the placement of advertisements as a means to interfere with editorial content” — again 10 panelists found that the country does not meet indicator while two differed.

And my favourite: “Owners of established mainstream private media do not interfere with editorial independence”. The alien panelist voted a lone five (country meets all aspects of the indicator) while the remaining 10 voted one (country does not meet indicator). This is not difference of opinion, this is difference of 180 degrees. The panelist obviously knows nothing about media owners, or he is one.

In her review of the report, Tahira Abdullah challenged the notion that cosmetic and commercial transactions mean as much as the panelists made them out in their voting. Having more women anchors on television for instance, is not necessarily a good thing. More visibility of pretty young things, with no attention to content, does nothing to promote women’s freedom. If anything, it denigrates and cheapens women even more, she said.

The Barometer may not have informed us of the correct pressure of media atmosphere but it does expose presence of aliens among the eminent professionals invited to judge media. In the next issue, the Barometer will do well to remember that monitoring of monitors also requires monitoring.

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